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.