To the Library, and Step on It!

Encomiums sprang up all over the Web today following the news of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who wrote Infinite Jest, a book which I love deeply and which had a profound influence on my first (incomplete and unpublished (except for Scribd)) novel, Sparkwood and 21. At that time, I wanted to be a combination of Wallace, James Joyce, and Neal Stephenson. Today, I don't have time to be so ambitious. Even more than Thomas Pynchon, Wallace opened up my latent creativity and I felt the freedom to let it flow. It is an experience I'll always cherish, even though the book remains largely a partial-birth abortion. Without Infinite Jest, it wouldn't have happened.

Words on his passing can be found in Slate, Omnivoracious, Wired, Cosmic Variance, the New Yorker, and Time.

The secret of Infinite Jest for me, its core conceit, is that it is the object that is described in the title. James Incandenza's movie literally entertains its audience to death. Anyone who watches it is mesmerized into a stupor and dies in corporeal neglect. A well-executed comment on the state of the world, in which sacrifice many other perfectly fine and logical pursuits in order to be entertained. Boredom, its most basic minimalist form, having nothing to watch, nothing to play with, to text, to touch, to listen to, more than ever, is the worse possible state of being (I am as guilty of this problem as anyone). So, we will turn to anything, even the most putrid and vile entertainments for the sake of the distraction. This is the message of the book, told in tennis academy where apocalyptic games are played and dictionaries memorized and in halfway houses.

But, and this the major but... The novel itself is an attempt to outentertain anything it describes or the culture it characterizes. It pummels you with its wit. There are laugh-out-loud moments on every page and an endless reservoir of inventiveness. Its barrage of jokes is exhausting. Its exceeds everything it is critiquing. It becomes Infinite Jest, at the end it feels as if it just keeps going that thousands more pages in waiting, but it is being merciful to the reader, releasing them even as Don Gately is subdued to a last entertainment.

I have one quick other observation about the novel. It is the child of technology and it probably wouldn't have been possible with the computer. It is the most expansive work of fiction not done on pen and paper or typewriter (this is my theory). The computer is endless, infinite page. It feels like Wallace took this as a challenge and tried to fill it.

Of course, one of the seminal moments of Infinite Jest is a suicide, by microwave. It is one of the most hilarious, poignant, disturbing scenes in the book, when Wallace describes how the genius patriarch of the novel, James Incandenza, managed to seal his head in the microwave and turn it on. James was the tortured, inventive ghost haunting the book. It is sad to see Wallace follow his own invention so literally.

David Foster Wallace, thank you. Without you, so many thoughts would still be locked in my head.

Obesity: Is nutritional confusion part of the problem?

While waiting at the doctor's waiting room yesterday, I browsed a few old issues of TIME. I read the issue with a cover section on childhood obesity in-depth (the lead story is here). The article listed a number of factors as contributors to the problem, all of which I find compelling. An additional factor I would list (and have mentioned before) is the deflating value of nutritional information. People are deluged with contradictory information about proper nutrition and many older people have never recovered "food panics" which later turned out to be false alarms. Obviously, the media have greatly exasperated this problem by trumpeting any new food study that arrives and under-reporting when updated studies undercut sensational findings.

For instance, the Instapundit provided these links to studies about coffee and eggs. Eggs especially have been derided so thoroughly that the fears originally raised about them in the 1980's linger still. I have made them a cornerstone in my improved daily food menu. Two-a-day. I believe they have played a key-role in helping me to lose 4o pounds. Plus, I believe they are improving my health and energy.

Of course, their aid in my weight-loss is boosted by a highly-publicized study comparing three diet approaches, low-carb, low-fat, and Mediterranean. The low-fat fared the poorest, while the other two were similar in their improvements in cholesterol and weight loss. The conventional wisdom for a long time has been low-fat is critical to preventing heart disease. However, there has been burgeoning discussion that fat and cholesterol are not necessarily connected.

Where does leave a parent trying to feed their children? I wouldn't recommended a pure Atkins diet. But, I wouldn't worry about a lots of protein and a healthy dose fat in their normal diet if you increase fruits and vegetables and decrease sugars and calories. The trouble is that I think many parents have heard so much different information that they simply give-up trying to create a balanced or sensible diet. As TIME pointed out though, poverty and location are the major factors, but nutrition misinformation should not be ignored as an issue.

Where have you been?

Well, needless to say, I've been ignoring my blogging duties. Why? I've been busy trying to "fitter, happier, more productive" as you can see from this post over at my scale. Brief update: Still on course and still enjoying the WiiFit (241.8). Also, really glad to have Mad Men back, enjoyed Step-Brothers immensely, great Brian Greene video here, and a really thought-provoking David Brooks talk here. I have also been working on my book, meanwhile an old book of mine is now on a "hotlist." As the Sports Guy might say, good times. I will try to post more diligently in the coming weeks.

Down the Rabbit Hole

My wife's seizures follow a mysterious internal clock, one governed by its own rhythms that on of their face don't seem to follow any we are familiar with. It has been obvious to us for years now that her seizures are brought by hormonal changes. However, they do not occur on a monthly cycle. Instead, the clock strikes about every six weeks.

We know in general now when they are about the happen. Still, when the alarm sounds, that first moment when the switch clicks somewhere deep in her brain, its always the same. Its always a surprise and its always terrifying. I am much more calm and able to handle the moments that follow. We have a pretty good system and a miracle medicine (Diastat) that clamps down on the seizures and has saved us for many harrowing emergency room visits. Still, I never get used to the start of it.

Tonight, we were watching the Red Wings game and she fell asleep. A few moments later, I sensed something change. I turned to her and eyes were wide open, her pupils blazing. Everytime, it slowly dawns on me. "What?" at first and then "Oh, s***". Down the rabbit hole and more missing time between us. She will be gone for a few days and not quite herself.

One of my favorite sayings is "Wherever you go, there you are." Right now, she's not there. Her body is here, but she is somewhere else. I can't wait for her to come back, to have her with me until the alarm sounds again.

Hand Drying: The New Frontier

According to the Center for Disease Control, if you do not practice proper hand drying, you might as well not wash your hands:
Wet hands have been know to transfer pathogens much more readily than dry hands or hands not washed at all. The residual moisture determines the level of
bacterial and viral transfer following hand washing. Careful hand drying
is a critical factor for bacterial transfer to skin, food and environmental

However, while hand drying seems like a simple task, drying with a towel or paper wipes never seems to do the trick. In addition, paper wipes are extremely wasteful and easily add up to mess in public bathrooms. Drying is the Achilles Heel of hand hygiene and I don't think people realize the importance of it. To improve hygiene, the key will be to take the work and time out of it. But, I think we're winning the war on hand drying.

That's why I flipping out about the revolution in drying technology. The first major leap forward that I came in contact with is the Xlerator, which packs air speeds which make your skin ripple and is a vast improvement over the slow and tedious hand dryer. I've encountered these in a few places, but you may find one at a Target store.

The Xlerator has been eclipsed though. During a weekend trip to the movies, I came in contact with the perfect hand dryer: The Dyson Airblade. The unique, simple, and fascinating design features the high air speeds, but also dries both sides of you hand at once. It is simply an amazing and so utterly simple a concept. But, if these catch on, the Airblade could save lives.

Wired goes Nuclear

Wired highlights the upside of Nuclear Power. Check out the link to the map showing carbon emissions. I wish Michigan was brighter. Also, this book by Gwyneth Cravens appears to a very intriguing survey of the subject. Cravens is a former nuclear opponent who was convinced that it is a better option than global warming. Cravens tells her story at this Long Now seminar.

Free Speech Alert: Don't Throw "Cult" Around Loosely

Great Britain has taken an aggressive approach to limiting speech critical of religion. The Instapundit provides a fresh example. Freedom of religion is fine, but not at the expense of freedom of speech. Let's pray that this sort of thing does not happen here.

An Amazing Album

In Rainbows: I've listened to it probably ten times in the last few days. A very different vibe for them, but a very rewarding listen. From Nude until the end of the album every song is amazing. Currently, my favorite song is House of Cards, a sparse but spacious song that has a ghostly keyboard refrain near the end of the song that makes it feel likes an 80's song. Also, check out this All Songs Considered episode with Thom Yorke, who was very humble and had an intriguing playlist.

Crisis in China and Myanmar

I think the prayers of the junta in Myanmar were answered when the earthquake in China occurred. It has taken an immense amount of pressure off the foul leadership in Burma, especially from the Western media. Today, I think Myanmar fell off the news cycle. On NBC Nightly News, the lead story was China, but the second story was... West Virginia? Also, China got five minutes. Five minutes, while seconds were wasted on Clinton and Obama running into each other on the Senate floor This is pathetic. Hurricane Katrina was an undeniable and unfortunate tragedy. However, it was covered as if it were a catastrophe which exceeded the scale of either China and Myanmar. Much of the coverage involved negative attacks on the government response and over-reports of deaths and unrest.

In Myanmar, one of the major impediments to better coverage may be the refusal of the government to allow reporters. It seems that major television news is unable to figure a way to attack the story from the outside.

The reporting in China would also probably be significantly less impactful without the serendipity of National Public Radio's Robert Siegal and Melissa Block already being in China for a planned series of stories on the country next week. They have filed harrowing reports of the destruction and provided perspective for many other news agencies. Tuesday afternoon's All Things Considered included far and away the most comprehensive coverage of the story.

One thing I have been wondering about is how serious China has been about building codes. This article from NPR claims that China has building codes in place to protect against such a disaster. A structural engineer anticipates that most of the buildings that suffered catastrophic damage were older buildings. More coverage on NPR's Chengdu Diary.

Creme de la Commentary

I'm a podcasting fiend. Good ones are hard to find and easy to exhaust. I love a good conference podcast, a speakers series, or the Sports Guy's seminal BS Report. Lately, I've received immense enjoyment for Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica Podcasts. For him, recording the podcasts seems to be a labor of love rather than a chore. I especially enjoy the podcasts accompanied by his wife as well as the inside the business tangents they sometimes veer off into.

The ultimate podcast from the series is a three-hour with his wife and some of the cast members recorded during season three. The back-and-forth is engrossing. Its a conversation I could have listened to for another three hours and I think they could gone for much longer also (although the Scotch may have eventually caught up with them.)

Another Space Item

Rand Simberg provides a lengthy and frisky post about government space policy. Glenn Reynolds and Simberg have altered my view on the role of NASA in space affairs. Simberg sees the government's role as providing an infrastructure for reaching space rather flying a few astronauts to space. This is a sound concept, but not really floated in the mainstream. Alas, serious discussion of space is not really mainstream.

Space Property Rights

Wired takes a look at a SMU Journal of Air Law and Commerce (also linked to by Instapundit) article by Dave Wasser and Douglas Jobes about property rights in space and draws parallels to the (not-always-succesful) colonization of America. The Wired piece is a little bit skeptical about the matter, but its well past time to rely on the current model of relying on NASA to get there. According to Wired, Wasser and Jobes propose selling off the property rights. As I've said previously, I think we should go a step further. If you get there first, the land is yours and you don't pay taxes on the land or for any business done at that location.

Real Estate Top Ten

I live in a new development near Grand Haven. It is ultimately designed for around 500 homes, but so far has only filled less than 10 percent of the lots. Obviously, things have been slow here, but the good news is that they have not ground to a complete halt. We continue to welcome new neighbors at a regular pace and the activity in the neighborhood has picked up. The developer, Eastbrook Homes, is committed to the neighborhood and has begun construction on a clubhouse and pool.

While the nation is mired in a real estate slump, Grand Rapids is apparently on the better end of things. It is listed as one of the 10 fastest growing real estate markets in the country on Maybe that's why Eastbrook Homes is bullish about our neighborhood.

Wii News: Boom Blox Debuts

Wired provides full-press coverage of Boom Blox, the new Wii game which Steven Spielberg helped design. The review is very positive. We may have to move this ahead of Mario Kart on our list of Wii games to get. My only question is why these blockbuster titles come out in the summer (Grand Theft Auto, Mario Kart, Boom Blox, Wii Fit). I guess its when kids have free time, but these things would be much more useful in the dead of winter.

Depopulation Alert

While food and energy crunches have many concerned about overpopulation, the specter of depopulation looms in the background for the developed world. The Instapundit points to more evidence here.

Theory comes Alive

In college, I participated in a Ulysses book-club. Some of the participants were frustrated with the obtuseness of the book and we had a debate whether popular, accessible classics had mroe value and were more worthwhile than more esoteric works because they have a greater audience and more of an impact. Beyond the intrinsic artistic of a novel like Uylsses, I think its social value is easy to determine. It only has to influence one person to be worthwhile, especially if that person is inspired to go on create a popular classic.

I'm a sucker for these types of books. I am also a sucker for esoteric types of science and theory that seem to have no real value while their being developed or are first enunciated but prove to be extremely valuable as they led to great breakthroughs. On Wired, theory comes to life again with the creation of the "memristor," a new type of circuit that could significantly improve and enhance the computer of the future. While we may be approaching the limits of Moore's Law, researchers seem to be finding new ways to hack the concept of the computer of possibly provide other directions to keep the innovation moving forward. As Peter Thiel puts it, we have to hit the accelerator really hard (more on Thiel later, link via Instapundit).

Bring on the Night

A great article from NASA on capturing images of cities at night around the world. The article provides striking pictures of major cities and discusses how these pictures reveal unique characteristics that are not obvious in day-time photos. The article also covers the tech behind the photos. I placed my favorite above. (via Kevin Kelly)

Greatest Comedy Sketches

The Sports Guys provided this link to and IFC's list of the 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches. The list did not include two of my all-time favorites: the Ringing Phone ("What kind of freak is sitting there by that phone?!!) and Mr. Short-Term Memory from SNL (Hey, it's Tony Randall!).

World Food Crisis Link

The Instapundit highlights this link from Fabius Maximus, a sober, sobering, and erudite breakdown of world food prices and the connection to inflation of all foundational commodities (energy, industrial materials, precious metals, and agriculture). Having lived in a period of seemingly unending over-capacity all my life, the coming years are starting to seem a little galling.

Of course, I've been anticipating the rise in oil for most of my life. Possibly just not so soon. While I think supply is definitely part of trouble with energy, I think here in America there has been a lack of maturity regarding investment in the infrastructure. Every one wants more gas, but no one is willing to have a refinery in their backyard. Nuclear power is a similar problem. If only this applied to refineries and nuclear power, but it also applies more benign energy source like wind. Wind! Too noisy, too unsightly. If I had the choice, I'll volunteer for the wind farm and the others can have the refinery.

The under-capacity, under-investment problem could be thorny for years to come. The only bright spot is that it should generate investment in energy infrastructure, alternative energies, nuclear power, and agriculture while also softening opposition to genetically modified food and hopefully ending support of misguided subsidies for corn-based biofuel. For now, hold on to your seats. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

The Low Spark of the Higher Ed Degree

A former boss of mine used to rail about how underwhelming many college graduates were as employees. He once told me that he would consider hiring people with a degree if he could. At first, I doubted him. Over time, as I've seen the cost of college increase, I've been wondering students are getting value. Marty Nemko clearly states the trouble with higher ed today in this opinion piece (via Instapundit). Students are paying dearly while often not seeing a return on investment. College is becoming more expensive and its taking longer. While I agree with a lot of his points, I would add that students are to blame partially for their lack of interest and that universities are investing a lot of time and resources in bringing incoming students up to a university level.

Nemko offers some intriguing suggestions. Hopefully, others will join him and we can on higher ed reform instead of providing funds for everyone to go college, seemingly with no strings attached.

Cold Snap

On Friday afternoon, we hit the low 80's, the peak of two weeks of sublime and warm weather. Every day, we were able to open the windows and let the cats sniff and sunbathe. But, being only April in West Michigan, it couldn't last. Cold hit. It was a miserably cold morning and we had an 8 a.m. soccer game. Above is a pic of Lake Michigan at early morning full roar.

An Atheist in a Foxhole

CNN puts an atheist soldier as its top story on the web side. The soldier has filed suit alleging that he has been subject to discrimination because he is an atheist. I appreciate the attention the soldier is getting for standing up for his beliefs (or lack thereof), but its typical of CNN to focus on a negative military story when a lot of positive things are happening right now.

Anyway, the soldier sounds like a sharp kid and is modest about his situation without sounding bitter. I assume there is much more to the story and its does not include quotes from those who served with him. However, I did enjoy this quote:

It eventually came out in Iraq in 2007, when he was in a firefight. Hall
was a gunner on a Humvee, which took several bullets in its protective shield.
Afterward, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said.

"I said, 'No, but I believe in Plexiglas,"' Hall said. "I've never
believed I was going to a happy place. You get one life. When I die, I'm worm

One issue the story raises is that there seems to a belief in the American military that sound religious beliefs are necessary for effective leadership and that belief is necessary in general. It is not difficult to imagine how this type of thinking was ingrained in the military, but I think it is unfortunate. It is obvious that an atheist can serve or lead as well as anyone else. For a good example of bravery by a soldier who was not the typical blue-blooded Christian soldier, read this moving Christopher Hitchens piece.

On another Iraq note, despite media reports to the contrary, things are going well in Basra. For an in-depth analysis of how the surge was developed and implements, check here.

Lost Recap at the Brane

Recap here.

Lost meets LHC?

Popular Mechanics has some cool Lost coverage (here and here), including the revelation that Lost will somehow tie in with the yet to be complete Large Hadron Collider. I'm not sure how literal this connection will be, but personally, I think any kind of Lost/Particle Collider connection can only be a good thing. When I was in college, I became enamored of the concept of the particle collider and realized that I lived only a few hours away to one of the most advanced science labs in the world (Fermilab). I made a pilgrimage there with my parents. It turned out to be quite an experience, it was a cool place, with some nice public exhibits. There is something really odd about an esoteric super-experiment being located on a sprawling complex with buffalo and native prairie grasses. If you're in the area, it's a can't miss.

Promising Mirror World/Real World Interface

Bruce Sterling highlights an intriguing app being developed for the Google Android Developer Challenge. The video (follow link) provides a nice demonstration of the app, as well as a description of future plans for the technology including integration of a gyroscope and the use of 3d buildings models. I think this is just of the type of iceberg. I also imagine that we will be seeing a similar concept integrating GPS and Street View. A timely idea, moving one step closer to an Augmented Reality invention that Popular Mechanics is waiting for. As the Instapundit would say: Bring it on!

Happy B-Day Hubble

Some cool galactic collision photos here (via Wired).

Earth Day Disclosure

On the environment issue, I'm in the Glenn Reynolds camp. Our best hope for improving the environment is through technological advancement, not by telling the world not to develop or to reduce consumption.

I definitely do my share of consumption, but I've always attempted to use the most efficient technology I could afford to lessen my impact. I am a long time Energy Star buyer (I even have an Energy Star certified house, which you can get through local Grand Rapids area builder Eastbrook Homes).

I am a fan of small cars. I've been a major supporter of hybrids and went to great lengths to publicize the Prius when I was a reporter at the Grand Haven Tribune when the car debuted. However, despite this, I have a Corolla. Even with gas prices at $3.69 a gallon, it is still a better buy over the Prius. Just today, I was wondering how high gas would have to go before the Prius would be a better buy than the Corolla. I did some quick calculations for 100,000 miles. Even at $5.00 per gallon, the Corolla was cheaper.

Coincidentally, AutoGreenBlog tackled the same issue, examining cost of hybrids versus conventional engines. They directly compare the Prius and Corolla. The Corolla wins. At $3.50 per gallon, you need to drive the Prius a total of 310,000 miles before you make up for the upfront investment (a difference of $6,000). Of course, gas will continue to rise. Still, my Corolla is over three years old, when gas was between $2.00 and $3.00 per gallon. This scenario only applies if I buy the Prius at today's gas prices.

One day the Prius may make more economic sense due to gas costs, or hybrids may come down in price. At this rate, that day may arrive very quickly. Right now, you may still be better off with a Corolla.

Food in the News

Suddenly, food news is all the rage.

Instapundit has a round-up of food shortage scares and possibly food shortage scare hoaxes. At the same time, a strange turn of events has occurred as biofuel under attack, while food shortage concerns may be lessening resistance to genetically modified foods (via Instapundit).

In a related item, PETA is pushing for the development of lab-grown meat, which, if pulled off right, could take pressure off the environment and also eliminate the need for factory animal husbandry.

Also, in its Earth issue, Discover Magazine pushed bugs as a protein alternative to meat.

No Hope for Science?

Though I've written somewhat positively about Barack Obama in the past, I can't say that I've been too pleased with the direction of his campaign lately. The "bitter" comment will resound until November, though I found some of Kaus' analysis compelling on this issue (more on this later). I am not impressed that he has pitted space exploration against education (background here, via Transterrestrial Musings), a totally unnecessary and misguided opposition. Although I am skeptical of NASA's Constellation Program, I don't see why Obama believes that we need to sacrifice NASA's budget to pay for early education. Why not farm subsidies? Why space?

Now, Obama has followed McCain's lead in wondering whether vaccines cause Autism (link here, via Instapundit). This is the new way? While Bush has been a disaster the culture of science in this country, the left could bring about an equal disasters, just on different issues.

I know that Cosmic Variance has been high on Obama in general and has trumpeted his take on NASA, but, as some of the commentors have noted, his views on science raise concerns. I have become increasingly skeptical about the governments ability to affect change through social programs. I do know that the government can make a difference in science and technology, which may have far more implications for improving quality of life. My fear now is that Obama will not make sacrifice science funding in favor of an attempt to transform society.

One Small Step for New Mexico

A key local vote in New Mexico, with implications for private space ventures. Info here (via Transterrestrial Musings)

Minor Geographic Immortality (An attempt)

It has been four years since ortho-photograhy has been taken on behalf of Ottawa County. Last time, it was black and white 6-inch pixel (a maximum resolution of 1'=50" on a paper map) taken with a traditional film camera. This time, we are purchasing color photos obtained through a digital camera. While the film camera required thousands of individual snapshots to cover a County our size (about 600 square miles), the digital camera uses a "push-broom" method. The equivalent of one giant exposure is taken with each sweep of the plane over land. Our County should be covered in about 25 sweeps. The technical specs of the equipment utilized by the company taking the photos is listed here. The photos were planned to be taken today.

For our part here on the homefront, we have made a minor attempt to immortalize ourselves through the air with sidewalk chalk (sample photo above). So, hopefully, our sketches will show up in the photos. I'm not sure if it will be successful. We'll see in a few weeks possibly. Then, I'll update.

Cat Day!!

As far as I can tell from a brief Google search, there is no day designated International Cat Day. Of course, nature abhors a vacuum. So, my sons have stepped in and deemed April 16th Cat Day. What does that entail? Well, the boys promise not to pick up the cats. My younger son also said that cat Santa Claus was out last night to bring toys. So, Happy Cat Day!!! Meow!!

A Must for Blogging Cat Owners

The desktop cat bed.

Michael Chabon is GR next week

Ominvoracious posts about Michael Chabon's new book of essays, Maps and Legends. They also link to his proposed script for Spiderman 2 over at McSweeny's.

Chabon will be in the Grand Rapids area on Thursday for the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. He will be speaking at Sunshine Community Church (map below). I've heard Chabon on Fresh Air and I anticipate that he will be an engaging speaker. Chabon is one of the most talented and entertaining author's out there right now. If you're in my area, don't miss this speech.

View Larger Map

VE Update: Striking 3D Models in Grand Rapids

Microsoft pushed out an update of Virtual Earth today (details here, plus blog items here and here). There are many useful new features, but perhaps the most jaw-dropping feature is the upgraded 3D models. Virtual Earth has had high quality models for a long time, but the quality has evolved and the scope is immense. In a previous post, I pointed out the new bird's eye photos in my immediate area. Well, we now have 3D models in Grand Rapids (shown above). Grand Rapids!

It's a city of less than 200,000 people, but there are now extremely accurate and detailed 3D models of the city. The models cover not just the downtown, but as far as out as Meijer Gardens. I never thought we'd have this type of application in this area this soon.

The scale of what Microsoft and Google have undertaken is staggering. I mentioned that Mircosoft has collected oblique and street view imagery for the top 150 Metropolitan Statistical Areas. I think that they must be using all the oblique imagery to aid generation of the 3D models (here is an overview of the technology and methodology utilized to create these models. I have not watched the whole thing, but I scanned through it and it seems to cover many of the cutting edge processes being used, including the integration of ortho imagery, oblique imagery, and LiDAR scans). But, even with automated generation of models, the time and cost for this project must still be astronomical. And the platform is free! In Microsoft's in-home blog, their goal is described:

Cities now have thousands more buildings than before especially noticeable
as you move from a city core out to its suburbs. It all adds up to make Virtual
Earth much less virtual and takes us a large step closer to delivering a truly
impressive mirror world experience.

The development of these on-line globes are a watershed moment. As I've written before, I don't think anyone has caught up with the potential of the technology and few realize just how important and useful this will be. In a few years time, we may be able to can to nearly anyplace, anywhere and scroll through as if we are walking down the street. That's just the start of it, because I know they are working on moving from outside to inside. The mirror world is coming.

45.966 85.674

Art and Astronomy

Nice post on installation which is meant to evoke formation of early universe.

Astromony Updates

Who knew that a sub-moon object could look so cool? These photos of Phobos are stunning.

Plus, the march of the exoplanets continues: here (via Slashdot).

Geocode the Money

The state of California is reviewing legislation to allow local governments to charge for GIS data. Slashgeo links to citizens opposing the bill (actually, the bill is already dead). More here.

Apparently, this bill was the culmination of a long battle to force governments to make their GIS data available for the cost of copying, not the cost of generating it. Here is some background from the Open Data Consortium Project. It appears that courts have ruled against local governments who still are trying to recover costs by charging for GIS data. According to blogger Adina Levin, Orange County was pushing the bill.

Here in Michigan, there is already a law which allows government to charge for digital data (not just GIS). The law, with a classic Orwellian title of the Enhanced Access to Public Records Act, can be found here. This bill specifically mentions GIS, but I know that other public officials were fighting for this. As a reporter, I sat in on meetings were the County Clerk complained about people requesting voting records. In the digital age, the records can be easily provided at no cost while the cost of maintaining the records is high.

The same applies for GIS. Obviously, the labor involved in GIS is costly. The products and infrastructure required to maintain a relevant GIS are also expensive. Without selling GIS data, the investment by government is worth the money just for internal applications. There are numerous applications. In Ottawa County, we have accomplished much and, in some ways, are only scratching the surface. At the same time, much of our data is already free to view for the public through our interactive mapping site.

The cost to the public comes in when they want access to copies of the data, the most valuable of which include the parcels, roads, photos, and elevation data. The parcel data is inputed by a few full time staff, while the photos and elevation data cost multiple thousands of dollars to obtain. Yes, I agree that data wants to be free, but there is a small disconnect for many local governments currently under a fee system when they are asked to go free.

The average resident does not want a copy of the parcel data. It is a specialized file that is pretty much useless to them (though with the new free applications out there it is a lot easier for amateurs to use the data), same with the photos and elevation data. When our department receive requests for large sets of data, it is mostly from private companies, typically ones located outside the state. They typically do not buy it (as this report (10 Ways to Support GIS) points out, no matter how low the price, companies don't bite). For one, they are used to getting data for free in other states. It would be hard to explain to tax-payers and government decision-makers that their money is being used to help develop businesses outside the state.

In addition, I don't think the average tax-payer who uses Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual does not realize how much free public imagery has been used to support those maps. Many of our customers believe that the imagery on these apps is all satellite. In fact, much of it is aerial photography made freely available at some level of government.

Of course, Google and Microsoft are both investing greatly in efforts to obtain their own imagery (see this post here). Both products are great and I am thrilled they are free (as is Ottawa County's GIS web site). However, if you asked Google and Microsoft to give you their photos for free, I don't think they would. Why should they expect that copies of government be free?

In its "10 Ways to Support GIS" report, the Open Data Consortium lays out some alternatives to charging for data. One of them is to use the data to identify under-taxed parcels, another includes a $5 property transfer fee. This increases taxes to the average person, while lessening the burden on non-citizens. Other strategies are more realistic, such as justifying GIS through productivity savings for other governmental departments.

The report points out that GIS data value is from use, not the data. However, right now, in Michigan, we are trying to having both ways. We are selling the data and putting it out there for free to view via the Web. The usage numbers are good and they are growing. As the reports points out, GIS sales are not exactly a cash-cow, but they do provide some revenue. In addition, despite what the report states, the staff cost of distributing data being sold is very minimal. The major labor drag is in printed maps.

The problem with the State of California saying that the data should be free is that the state did not invest funds in the local systems. If local systems want to charge, they should have that right. If the citizens want the data free, push their local board or council, not the legislature. If the local government loses out on economic development, then it is their concern.

The ODC report ends with this anecdote:

One ODC participant, a stalwart advocate of selling his county's data to users who were not taxpayers or citizens of his county, asked during our deliberations, "why should a national map company have free access to our data when they sell digital tourist maps for profit?" "And when those tourists use our maps to guide their vacation," the data reseller answered,"where do they go to spend their money?"
There is truth to this story, but couldn't we find a happy medium? Wouldn't it be nice to have the tourists spend money in the County and also have private companies supplement the taxpayers investment in GIS?

I'm am torn on this issue. It is similar to the intellectual property problems with books, music, and movies. However, the trouble for governments is that they are not able to turn to advertisers to pay for free services. You could argue that the return would be in economic development dollars, tourism dollars, or savings to residents who utilize engineering companies to improve their property. I would prefer to have a free model, but Michigan has allowed local government to decide. Our County has decided to charge for copies, but have free web data. I don't think you can fault us for that.

I like Stephen Hawking, but...

In this TED talk, Stephen Hawking states with great certainty that their is no intelligent alien life within one hundred light years of us. He states that it is either not there or that intelligent life had been there but destroyed themselves. I disagree. While television signals or radio waves are a logical step on the development chart for an intelligent species, I think we would be extremely lucky to receive such a signal in the short time-frame that we have been listening.

For one, it is possible that these signals are sent out only for a short time-frame for an intelligent civilization. Possibly less than one hundred years. They may discover a superior form of communication and may anticipate that others may be watching out there and therefore not want to be found. An advanced civilization may find a way to mask its signature.

Of course, that's also assuming that life evolved in a way that is similar to ours. The questions is not whether there is intelligent alien life within a hundred light years, but whether there is intelligent life at a similar evolutionary stage as ours with a similar overall evolution. (These items are discussed in more depth on the comments section for the talk).

As a side note, I agree that it is high time that colonize space and yes, I understand that the thrust of Hawking's talk.

Another Step Closer

Via Slashdot: Another step closer to finding extra-terrestial life: the planet search yields intriguing fruit.

Just for the fun of it: Some cool video of the sun (also via Slashdot).

Could the Fuel Cell Future Finally Be Here?

Fuel cells in digital cameras? Next year? Wired says maybe.

The Price was High

I graduated from Grand Valley State University, a Division II school, which, at the time, was a modest cost. I commuted to school and lived at home and ended up with no student debt. Since that time, I seen some people with higher-end educations get lesser or equal jobs to mine. At the same time, as my sons grow up, I have wondered what is the best option for college. A big school with a big time cost? Or a decent school with a mid-level cost?

I've become more concerned with the cost of college in general. In Michigan, tuition has undergone massive increases in response to state funding. While threats to state funding typically have led to talk of cuts to local schools, I have never heard colleges and university discuss cuts as a way to offset loss of state funding.

At the same time, there has been the on-going controversy over the endowments of schools, which has resulted in increased scrutiny.

I think that colleges may be in for far more scrutiny down the road and this (via Instapundit) may signal the start of a turning point.

I've enjoyed my college experience and my professors were often wonderful. The price was right then, but I think the price may be too high right now. The answer is not more loans or more federal programs, but a hard look at cutting costs.

History, the GIS Way

The Blog of Long Now links to an interactive map from UCLA designed to elucidate Berlin's history using old maps. This type of application of GIS demonstrates just how powerful and dynamic a tool it can be. The difficult problem is digitizing historical maps and information into a GIS format.

As I've mentioned, in Ottawa County, we recently scanned thousands of historical aerial photos at a high resolution. Each mylar sheet is equal to a section or quarter-section and they have been scanned into TIFFs (about 40 mb in size each). While each TIFF will have use as an individual file viewed using a standard photo program, it is unlikely that we will be able to dedicate time to "georeferencing" the photos (assigning a geographic location to each TIFF) or "mosiacing" them (stitching the TIFFs together into a seamless single photo) so that they could be used for viewing and analysis in a true GIS program. We only have so much time.

Fortunately, institutions such as UCLA do have the time (as well as organizations such as Dave Rumsey's). Through their efforts, we now have new and fascinating ways of interpretating the past.

Trouble for Street View?

With the preponderance of sites for viewing ortho photos (straight down view), oblique photos (angled or "bird's eye" view), and "street view" photos of homes and communities, I've been long awaiting outrage from the general public. I think there hasn't been enough public awareness of just how much information about their property is accessible, both in image and database forms.

For some reason, Google Street View seems to be a turning point. I've noted an early reaction to the application in this post. Further evidence of blowback can be found in this link from Wired, in which a couple is suing Google for posting photos of their house. It is not entirely clear whether the company that obtained the photos actually took the pictures from a private road or from a public road.

I've been told by a representative from one of these companies that take these photos that they had run-ins with residents while out in the field. These run-ins have included being threatened with guns (this type of reaction is somewhat understandable since the vans and SUVs used to obtain the photos seem like a spy-vehicle).

This type of lawsuit could have wide-ranging implications for the GIS and imagery industries. Our County has a Web site with high resolution aerial photos and extensive parcel information and it receives brisk traffic. Thousands of counties have sites like ours. More of this type of information will be out there in the future. Much more.

As I've said before, I think this is a positive development overall. The government and corporations will gather this type of imagery whether or not they post it on the Web. Is your privacy protected if the government or corporations already have the information and keep it in-house? Or are we better off knowing the type of information and imagery that is available to the government and corporations? I think we are better off when we can watch the watchers watching us (convoluted I know, but you get the idea).

Waiting for WiiFit

Over at Wired, Chris Kolher continues his WiiFit diary. I must say that I am jealous and that I can't wait for May 19. (Check out the preview video on Amazon).

World Autism Awareness Day

In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, CNN will be focusing on the condition during the day tomorrow, with a worldwide focus. They have had a number of features online and on the network leading up to the extended day of coverage.

A good place to start is this Fortune article on the good work being done regarding the genetics of autism. It is a nice rebuff to the fervor that accompanied the Hannah Poling case.

On the anti-vaccination front, Respectful Insolence has continued its focus on the issue, and the Instapundit has been hounding McCain on his stance, high-lighting the danger of large segments of the population opting-out of vaccinations. In a rare extended Instapundit discussion, Reynolds offers some in-depth back and forth from doctors and other bloggers. I found the discussion of the "free rider" problem especially compelling, And this post (via Instapundit) from Megan McCardle is very well reasoned and well done.

It's a strange turn we have taken on the road against vaccines. I remember growing up and hearing from parents about the miracle of the polio vaccine. The story of science and medicine saving lives. As a bookend, I also recall sitting in on a Rotary Club meeting as a reporter a few years ago and hearing about their efforts toward total eradication of polio worldwide, a worthy effort but also a sign of all the progress that has been made. Now, a generation removed from the ravages of polio suspicion of vaccines has festered and I encounter people who are suspicious of vaccinations and ask me whether I believe it had anything to do with my son's Autism.

I have written previously that this trend toward a complete dissociation with mainstream medicine has it roots within the way medicine is practiced today (here) and past scientific failures (here). The strange thing about this trend is that many of the people who abandon conventional medicine opt for an alternative therapy, diet, or theory that has little or no basis in fact or any science behind at all.

In regards to Autism, I think it is even more curious (or tragic) because thanks to advances in genetics and neuroscience in combination with an influx of funding, we are in the middle of absolute revolution in the our understanding of the condition (for some previous discussion of this science check here). In a few years, I think the causes of autism will be extremely clear and well-understood. I think we may have a genetic test for Autism.

In the future, I am much more concerned with the implications of possibly selecting out embryos that do not have Autism markers. I am not sure that this is as good a thing as it may seem at first glance and I would like to discuss it more here in the future.

Long Noise

Probably the oldest recording I own are from Louis Armstrong Hot Five (from this highly recommended box set). While some of these recording are nearly a hundred years old, how do we guarantee that they will be here a hundred year from now, or a thousand years? Some people are working on this, including Kevin Kelly. Check out this link for the rundown.

Bird's Eye View of the OC!

For the geography geek in my immediate area, Microsoft has uploaded bird's eye view photos of Ottawa County, Michigan (the screen capture above is a view of downtown Grand Haven).

These photos were taken by a company called Pictometry, which specializes in "Oblique" aerial photography. Microsoft has contracted them to obtain imagery for the top 150 Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. In urban areas, there photos of every locations from all four directions and with high resolution (6-inch pixel or a maximum scale of 1" = 50' before the photo begins to pixelate). In rural areas, every locations has photos in two directions, north and south, and the resolution is still decent (1-foot pixel or 1"=100')
Microsoft is also obtaining street view photos for these areas through another company (I discuss street view here). For more geography geekery, check another post here. Here is a link to download Virtual Earth. Here is a blog focused on VE, and another focused just on Google Earth.

The Safeticons and the Struggle to Bring Back Risk

Over at Wired (article here), more than a few people are calling Ray Kurzweil a kook for his attempt to increase his lifespan in order to survive in time for the so-called "singularity," the imagined point at which machines will become self-improving and increasingly more intelligent. In fact, Kurzweil believes that machines will become so intelligent that humans will be left in the dust (Listen to Kurzweil at this Long Now seminar here and for a more skeptical take from Bruce Sterling listen here. I would also recommend the Singularity Summit which is available to download from iTunes). A number of great Sci-fi books tackle the Singularity concept. I would recommend Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross.

There are many intriguing items in the articles and many debatable points in the comments. Which side do I come on? I'm not sure that we will see singularity or the rise of AI, but I do anticipate that we are the verge of extreme life extension through a constellation of cuurently infant technologies. These include nanotechnology and biotechnology. Our ability to manipulate the body at its most fundamental levels will increase. We will be able to alter our genetics and possible arrest cell death. Is this a good thing? I don't know, but we should be anticipating this and preparing for the consequences.

I will tackle the concept of whether we are near a singularity in future posts. Right now, I want to focus on another issue, jumping off from this comment in the Wired article:

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they'll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body's tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. This kind of thing may seem like quackery, especially when promoted by various New Age outfits touting the "pH miracle of living." Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer's shrug. "Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study," Grossman explains. "We don't have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves."

Some of the commenters for the article have ridiculed Kurzweil for his experimentation and his proselytizing of the Singularity concept. Many view him as a con artist. I have not purchased any of his books and do not subscribe to his methods, but I appreciate his efforts at "tinkering."
If he wants to his body as an experiment, I do not have a problem with it. In fact, I encourage it.

Kurzweil's tinkering reminds me of the Newton experiment in which he poked a stick in his eye to determine the mechanism through which it sees light. This experiment and many other strange and odd experiments by early scientists are wonderfully described in Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson's trilogy The Baroque Cycle. The genius of the book is the way in which it evokes the early culture of science, which involves a lot of quackery, sketchy ethics, and personal risk.

The key among these traits highlighted in Quicksilver for me is personal risk in the service of knowledge and progress. I think that this is an ill in American society today. There are too many protections against allowing people to put themselves at risk, whether as a astronaut or a cancer patient volunteering for a new treatment. While the Columbia disaster was a terrible tragedy, it only further slowed manned missions to space and reinforced the current culture of over-caution at NASA. I don't know for sure, but I imagine this has helped to delay the efforts to send astronauts back to Moon and on to Mars (though they are many factors). I think this attitude has contributed to our fear of utilizing nuclear power despite its positives, especially in freeing us from greenhouse gas emitting power sources.

There are many instances in which our society has become too cautious. Over the long term, I think this could help cost America its position in the world as a science and technology giant (China seems more willing to take risks, though often in immoral ways) or could cost humanity its long-term survival.

The good news is that we are that there is a new sense of urgency regarding progress and a new willingness to take risks. Tellingly, I think this being primarily led by the private sector. The private sector is leading the charge toward easier access to space (news here). This may be our greatest hope for the future: corporations, maverick businesses, and kooky scientists. So, while many may dismiss Ray Kurweil, I take comfort in knowing that someone out there is willing to use their body as a lab. One day, it may help prolong my life.

Science Funding

This is somewhat old news, but I was listening to a Aspen Ideas Festival discussion of Science and Politics today and it really crystallized an issue for me. Namely, America is falling behind in its support of science on many fronts, including science education, Do-It-Yourself home tinkering (see my earilier post and this Popular Mechanics podcast), corporate funding, and government funding.

Although this is a distressing trend, there are some positive developments. Including the sudden rush to create X-Prizes, the cultural pushback in books (link) and on the Web (Make Magazine).

Perhaps the place in which I have the least optimism in the area of government funding. Cuts were made in the current budget. In this op-ed Intel Chairman Craig Barrett decries this situation (via Cosmic Variance). He specifically mentions that Congress manages to pass a $250 billion while cutting science funding.

I think part of the problem is the disconnected nature of the some of the advanced science being conducted (post here), some of it is related to ideology. Whatever the problem, it will cost us in the long-run.

Lifting the World's Poor: Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Until I saw this Wired post, I had not heard anything about Dean Kamen's new "Slingshot" technology, which purifies bad water. It seems promising. According to Wired, Kamen's goal is to bring down the cost down to $1,000-$2,000 per unit.

It appears to me part of a growing trend to get cheap, portable, and powerful technology into the hands of the world's poor. Examples include the $100 laptop and this low cost wind power generator. Instapundit posts on the topic here and Popular Mechanics focuses on it in this podcast.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the trend.

Aphex Twin Alert

Over at Alex Ross's blog, guest-blogger Justin Davidson posts about an intriguing projects by the group Alarm Will Sound, including orchestrations of Aphex Twin music. This project especially is exciting to hear about and worth checking out. While Aphex Twin does have a harsher edge to much of his music, I prefer his contemplative side. In fact, I listen to his music while I write. In the typical ambient mode, they succeed through deceptive simplicity. Much of his work is haunting and beautiful and its great to see it given an interesting orchestral treatment.

The Moral High Ground (with bonus Sci-Fi parable)

I often enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens. His posts are often witty, cutting, and intelligent. However, though I respect his thinking, I found myself dismayed by his usual Monday column from Slate. While I agree with his specific points regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I was dismayed when he turned the problem of Wright into further evidence of the evil of religion. As I have explained, I am not in lock-step with Dawkins nor Hitchens on these issues.

In fact, I find their insistence on the moral superiority of atheism to be mildly odious and more than a little disconcerting. Edge links to this article by John Gray which outlines some of the troubles with this line of thinking, mainly that movements with a strong atheist component in the 20th Century were responsible for an immense amount of death, violence, and oppression. While I disagree with some of Gray's points, he convincingly describe this major failing of the current resurgence in atheism.

For me, there is no moral superiority for either religion or atheism, neither is one more inherently good or evil. In either case, they can be perverted and used to justify horrific acts. This is not because subscribing to either of them inherently leads to horrific acts. It is because horrific people will utilize whatever philosophy they have available to them to justify their aims.

Yes, religion has many moral failings and some religions posits unforgivable beliefs, but many people take the core of the religion without following the letter of it. While I abhor many of the moral prescriptions of organized religion, this is not my primary criticism of religion.

To describe this critique, I have a brief parable. Imagine a genial being who visits Earth but has no exposure to religion, neither on Earth nor on its home planet. This being hears that their is such a thing on Earth as belief in a supernatural being. This concept appeals to the being, but the being is looking for something more specific. The leaders of all religions come to meet the being and explain to the being their religion. In addition, numerous scholars present to the being religions of the past.

How does the being decide which religion to practice?

First of all, this being would obviously be mentally exhausted. He would have heard for many, many people about the many, many religions currently in existence on Earth and which have existed in the past. He would also have trouble with some of the religions, because being an in interstellar traveler he would have a very deep knowledge of science. He would know about the age and development of the universe. He would have trouble with any religion which insisted on a "young Earth". However, being positive, he would ignore this and attempt to understand the core teachings of each religion.

With no prejudices, save a scientific viewpoint, it would be impossible for such a being to choose. There are no reasoned criteria to choose Buddhism over Christianity, or Islam over Scientology. You may find one less moral or moral, but its does not make one the correct religion. It just means the religion has identified correct morals.

In addition, let say that I give you intelligent design. I say, "sure an intelligent being has designed our universe." Why does it mean that it is your intelligent being and not one I came up with yesterday. In fact, I could make a religion today and it would be no more or less valid as any other. L. Ron Hubbard actually accomplished this. People laugh at Scientologist or deride them, but why should my imaginary being take Scientology any less seriously than the "legacy" religions. There is not a valid logical reason.

Its only a matter of faith, not reason. Even if you grant a creator, there is no way to determine which religion has the correct creator. You could say it is not logical, but it is a matter of faith. Well, there is a surplus of faith. Which faith? Again, one faith is the same as the other. This problem greatly troubles our genial being.

After deliberating on Earth for a long period, our being finds that his journey is not over, because there are billions of other worlds out there with life and most of those have some type of religion. In fact, they each have thousands of religions. In order to make a judicious decision, our imaginary being (who for the sake of argument lives much longer than humans) will spend the rest of his life collecting these religions and myths.

Nearing death, he returns to Earth two thousand years after he first visited, only to find there are hundreds of religions which have been created in the interim period and many which have been previously presented to him which have been abandoned.

Where does he find solace? Does he nihilistically succumb to death in despair? Does he decide there is no God? To the contrary, he looks back at his journey and is overcome by the sense that religion is beside the point. That if there was a creator, no finite being has a mind to conceive of that creator or to describe the creator with one single religion among the teeming millions of religions. If there were a creator, there is only one neutral and unmediated place to interpret its message. In the stars and atoms. In cells and molecules. He realizes that the mechanics of stars and of atoms are constant everywhere. There is no moral lesson there except that the universe is far greater and more amazing than any religious text from a pre-scientific culture could possible imagine and that life persists despite many obstacles. Our genial being dies comforted, finally having made a connection to its creator, whatever that is.

Hugo Nominations

I've always been a big sci-fi fan, but my interest has had a strong resurgence since I really got serious about writing another book. The Instapundit has provided many useful recommendations. Now, I hope to crib my reading list from the Hugo Award winners and nominees.

I have yet to read any of the nominees from this year or last year, but I read three from 2006, including the winner, Spin, and found them not only to be enjoyable but exhilarating. This year's nominees are out. One of the nominees, John Scalzi, has a nice and in-depth post about the nominees and overlooked books.

Militant Democratization Part II

In an earlier post, I discussed the phenomenon of democratization of music via technology. Of course, this is not limited to music as this paragraph from Kevin Kelly states:

We see a similar phenomenon happening in cartography and typography. Both of
these were formerly esoteric practices. The number of folks who knew about fonts
and kerning, or rubbersheeting and lat-long, numbered in the tens of
thousands. But now that fonts are loaded into every PC, and kerning a matter of
dragging your mouse, when Google maps are a click away, the rote work of type
design and map making are done by machines empowering hundreds of millions of
new enthusiasts in these fields.

In this post, Kelly is referencing the possible democratization of taxonomy (I'll discuss his post on this more in-depth later). However, I wanted to focus on what he was saying about cartography, since my current occupation is as a professional digital cartographer. As I have mentioned previously, the field of geography has undergone drastic changes during the past few years. Beyond of the accelerating technological improvements, Google Earth and its ilk has brought a flood of amateurs into the field, just as Kelly says.

Due to the innovations of ESRI (the private company responsible for ArcMap, a pioneering digital mapping software used by thousands of companies and governmental organizations worldwide), geography was already experiencing a dramatic shift from the past. In the past, only a few could produce geography, then once ArcMap caught on every county in the nation suddenly was establishing a GIS department and producing in-house maps, investing in state-of-the-art aerial photography and LiDAR, and developing immense digital mapping datasets. This greatly expanded geography. As in the case of music, you no longer needed a physical talent to make maps, just a somewhat spatial and computer-based mindset.

Still, the expense of the software limited its utilization (about $1,200 for a single use license). ArcMap was not like Microsoft Office, where everyone had a copy. In addition, even if you got a copy, there was not much you would do with it since you did not have data. However, all this changed with Google Earth. As Kelly said, suddenly the field of geography expanded from thousands to millions.

ESRI is still dealing with the implication of this. I'm still dealing with the implications of this. As Glenn Reynolds has written, the Internet and new technology has created an army of Davids. One lesson of this is never to get too comfortable with what you are doing, because someone may come along willing to do it for free, distribute it for free, or find a robot who will do it for little cost (Kevin Kelly calls this being Turing'd).

When I graduated from college, Ottawa County did not have a GIS Department. In many ways, the department is still in its infancy, but the field of professional GIS could be heading into old age already. That's why I working a back-up: speculative fiction. Not much to hang your hat on, but I do enjoy it.


On the day Arthur C. Clarke is remembered (via Instapundit), this tantalizing announcement is made. Every day, we move closer to uncovering the truth: we are only one node in the vast system of life.

The End of the Beginning?

I consider myself to generally be an optimist, but there are times where optimism can't be blind to the facts. I fear that the Bear-Stearns collapse may only be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

One commonly-mentioned facet of the US economy is that it is driven primarily by consumer-spending. One commonly-mentioned aspect of modern consumers is that they are drowning in debt. Now, it appears that era of ignoring the debt and confidently continuing spending is over. As a result, the economy could be in for a seriously long-term struggle.

When you read a statistics like the one below, you begin to understand the predicament we are in:

Over the last seven years, every new job that has been created has resulted in
$1.8 million of new public- and private-sector debt. That's obviously not
sustainable. That's way too inefficient. It used to be about 50 cents of new
debt was required to generate $1 in gross-domestic-product growth. Now it's
$9 for $1 of GDP growth.

This is from an interview in Wired with investor Eric Janszen, who recently wrote in Harper's about the decline of the financial, real estate, and insurance markets as the bedrock of the American economy. Janszen offers a plan: invest in clean energy (even nuclear). I would agree, if I were an investor. I would also bet on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

But, at the Singularity Summit last fall, PayPal founder Peter Thiel presented an interesting theory about the volatile boom & bust cycles of the past thirty years. He explains (his presentation is available on iTunes) that the due to our technological innovations markets we should expect that the markets would be less volatile and more predictable. Instead, we have had the exact opposite.

He said that this is a reasonable outcome of the markets trying to anticipate the ultimate singularity, when ever-increasing value will be possible and investors will not want to miss on that. Thiel states that one of these booms will eventually pan out as the singularity or it will signal the end of the world. He suggests that we should anticipate many more cycles of boom & bust leading up to the singularity and the next cycle will not be easy to predict.

Technology is changing the rules and the technological change continues. Nobody knows anything.

Militant Democratization

No, this is not an Iraq post (However, I will point out a concise defense of the effort by Christopher Hitchens here). It is a post about a extremely intriguing new music software which will, as Alex Ross describes it, "allows you to enter into a recorded track, separate out notes within chords, and change them at will." An impressive demonstration is provided here.

I view this as yet another development toward the militant democratization of music and the obliteration of the notions of talent and authorship as we had previously understood them. At one time, in order to create music, you had to have an ability, a physical ability to play or sing. In addition, you had to be able to read music and understand music theory to compose complex pieces. This is patently no longer the case. Now, the only thing that is required is a mental inclination toward music, the right technology, and the capability to use it.

This is not to say that the classic sense of talent is inconsequential. It is just that suddenly that the pool of potentially worth-while music-makers will continue to expand and that their amount of raw material has suddenly increased significantly.

It is very unlikely that you could sit just anyone before a piano and have them play Liszt or compose a Liszt-like piece. It is also doubtful that they could come up with something interesting. However, it far more likely that you could sit someone in front of a computer and that they might come up with something intriguing and also take a Lizst piece and remix it. Now, they will not be able to remix it, but adjust it, revise it. Note-for-note. As Glenn Reynolds might say, bring it on.

As Constant as the Wind

Here in West Michigan, there has been a lot of rumblings lately about the potential of wind power.

I'm not sure the public has entirely caught on to how soon we could be seeing companies making serious proposals for relatively large wind projects. I am also uncertain how prepared local governments are to tackle the issue from an ordinance standpoint. I do know from experience that many local officials do not like cell towers. Any proposals that are made at the local level may encounter resistance or delays as local governments try to play regulatory catch-up or deny the concept altogether based on aesthetic concerns.

I am proponent of alternative energy solutions (I am bullish on the future of solar) as well as expanded use of nuclear energy, but I am also a proponent of making informed decisions. On Wired , Bruce Sterling highlights some of the risks of wind power that I have not seen addressed often regarding wind power, especially the danger of overloading the grid. My advice to local officials reviewing these proposals is to start asking questions about power overloads during high wind events. I'd be interested to hear if these companies have something in place.


An intriguing post from the National Weather Service regarding icebergs in Lake Michigan (some great graphics too.) (Via Instapundit).

A Practical Crisis

Ham Radio. Computing. Woodcraft. Homemade Electronics. Photography. Model Trains. Model Ship Building. This is a list of the many hobbies in which my grandfather immersed himself. Not only did he have many hobbies, but he was accomplished at quite of few. He knew how to work with his hands and how to build things. When my dad was young, he built his own speakers. My uncle is serious model plane maker.

I've always admired my grandfather's enthusiasm for these hobbies. However, I never picked up on his ability to work with his hands. I am a poor craftsman and have less of a knowledge of the tech I use than I'd like. I am also concerned that my children may find themselves even farther removed from the hands-on. This is a serious problem.

In Wired, Clive Thompson crystallizes this issue in this article about the loss of hands-on skills. According to Thompson, this skill gap is resulting in a paucity of innovation. Instead of creating a technical work-around to improve gas mileage, we use a theoretical approach. He also relates this problem to the lack of concern about our crumbling infrastructure. If we had a better understanding of how the world works - how bridges and roads can decay - we might be more worried about it (Related post here).

However, he also writes about a nascent movement to return to our technical roots. He points to Make magazine as an example. I would also point to the popularity of the Lego Mindstorms as another example. The Mindstorms is an awesome toy, helping to teach both mechanical and programming skills (which we also lack link).

As I posted before, I've started to try to do my part to address this. However, I am somewhat hampered in my ability to teach my sons how to get hands-on because my skills are so underdeveloped. We are learning together.