March 30, 2012

Visualizing the ocean and the wind

Last week while I was in Germany at the DPG 2012, I noticed some buzz about a cool visualization of wind flows over the United States. The web animation, put together by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg (who lead Google's "Big Picture" visualization research group) pulls surface wind speed and direction forecast data directly from the big NOAA's National Digital Forecast Database. While it's not direct measurements, I expect that the National Weather Service forecasts are pretty close to what actually happens. These wind patterns are a mesmerizing example of fluid turbulence.

Another beautiful example of global turbulence comes from a recent global visualization of the world's ocean's surface currents (here's a popular description), put together by NASA using three years of satellite and other data. These empirical measurements were used to parameterize a detailed ocean dynamics simulation called MIT General Circulation Model. The output of the model is a visualization that looks a lot like van Gogh's Starry Night, with whorls and vortices abounding.

One cool thing is the scale of the coherent flows. We've all seen pictures of vortices in fluids, but typically these are somewhere between a few millimeters to a few meters in size. But, like a truly turbulent system, ocean currents exhibit structure at all scales, and that means vortices up to hundreds of miles across, in addition to all the small scale structure we normally think about. These are so big that you wouldn't know you were in a whirlpool because the curvature of the flow is so gentle that it would just feel like a regular current. Other cool things include the vortex shedding around South Africa, which persist well out into the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.

The wind visualization uses almost real-time model-based forecasts, but the ocean visualization is reconstructed from historical data. It would be especially cool if the latter could also be done in near real time. I can't think of a practical benefit for it (well, maybe container ships or pirates would like to know), but it would be cool.

posted March 30, 2012 05:47 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (2)

September 01, 2010

The Power Law Shop

Mason Porter, after a little nudging from some of us before the morning sessions of the SAMSI Complex Networks Program Opening Workshop and to satisfy what I'm sure will be a strong market demand, has set up The Power Law Shop at CafePress for all your power-law swag-related needs. Mugs, t-shirts, wall clocks, etc. Alas, no power-law plush toys, yet. Look for me soon in Boulder drinking my coffee from a mug that advertises "I went to a physics conference and all I got was a lousy power law."

See Cosma for some additional commentary on the new shop.

posted September 1, 2010 09:54 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (3)

August 31, 2010

Lost in Transcription, welcome to the blogosphere!

Jon Wilkins, a former colleague at the Santa Fe Institute, has joined that illustrious, notorious and sometimes obnoxious group (well, perhaps that's just me) of scientists who blog. Welcome Jon!

Jon is blogging at a place he calls "Lost in Transcription" which will cover, in his words "Science, Poetry, and Current Events, where 'Current' and 'Events are broadly construed." This choice of topics reminds me of a quotation by P.A.M. Dirac that I like "In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." Either way, Lost in Transcription should be an interesting read, and I'll be adding it to my RSS reader.

As a taste, here's an excerpt from Jon's musings over the weekend:

On aging, conservatism, and experimental economics

So, it is standard conventional wisdom that people are liberal when they're young, and conservative when they're old. To the extent that we interpret "liberal" as "eager for change" and "conservative" as "against change," this trajectory is only natural. Especially in the modern world, where things are changing all the time, it may simply come down to a difference in experience: you're less likely to pine for the way the world was thirty years ago if you weren't alive thirty years ago.

But what I am really interested in here is the apparent trend where people become more conservative with respect to economic policies. In this context, the argument about familiarity does not seem to hold. In the United States, the government's economic policies have been trending more conservative for decades, and the familiarity argument would predict that older people should be, on average, more liberal. However, there is a different aspect of familiarity that may be relevant, as it pertains to our beliefs about human nature...

posted August 31, 2010 03:07 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

May 11, 2010

Frigate bird

A couple of weeks ago, Dan Dennett (yes, that one) [1] and I were chatting about cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, and the questions of what the world might look like in 10, 20 or 30 years if countries push forward with developing methods for attacking each other and defending themselves via the Internet. A stimulating discussion, for sure, but not what this blog post is about.

After the conversation, Dan introduced me to a great game he called Frigate Bird, which is played with Scrabble tiles. The game takes it's name from the species of bird, after their habit of stealing food from other birds, because players can (and almost must) "steal" words from each other as part of the game [2]. In fact, it would be very impressive for someone to win without ever stealing a single word! The game is easy to learn, but hard to master. The key skill is being fast with anagrams as that's the way you steal a word from another player. (You can also "steal" from yourself, as a protective measure.) Below are the rules, written down by Dan himself. (And apparently written down for the first time ever, since the birth of the game several years ago.) If you try the game and like it, I'm sure Dan would like to know!

Frigate Bird

The Official Rules (written down for the first time, May 11, 2010)

The game is played with the tiles of a Scrabble board, but without the board itself. This makes it more portable than regular Scrabble—just bring the bag of tiles with you. You start by turning all the tiles face down (if you see the two blanks remove them now, or set them aside when they show up in the first game, since they are not part of the game). Any number can play. One player is designated as the "dealer." The dealer turns the tiles over, one at a time, making sure that all players get to see the new tile at the same time (speed is of the essence in this game). The new tile is immediately part of the pool of face-up tiles to which everyone has access at all times. The goal of the game is to make words from this pool as soon as you see them.


1. The usual Scrabble rules apply: no proper nouns, hyphenated words, contractions, .... (Having a dictionary handy to settle disputes is a good idea.)

2. Every word must be at least 4 letters (or 5 letters) long. (We have recently been playing the 5-letter minimum game, and it seems to be more interesting, since second-rate 4-letter words don’t get pulled out of the pool prematurely, diminishing the usable variety. You might want to warm up by playing the 4-letter version and then switch to the 5-letter version once players are familiar with the possibilities.)

3. To claim a word you must CALL IT OUT. (If you start reaching for the letters without saying anything and somebody else calls out the word, or a different word, they get the word.)

4. After a word is called out (and there is no challenge), the calling player assembles the word (facing the other players, upside-down for the player) in his area. This word belongs TEMPORARILY to the player who called it, but it (and every other word already assembled on the table) is ALWAYS vulnerable to theft by another player (or pre-emptive self-theft by the same player). A word may be thus stolen—or protected from being stolen—by calling out a new word that uses ALL the letters in the stolen word plus one or more letters from the pool. This is the eponymous "frigate bird" move. *[*The game was originally just called "lightning anagrams" but on a trip through the Galapagos with us, the science journalist Sherrie Lyons exclaimed "You . . . . FRIGATE BIRD!" when I stole one of her words. Frigate birds, which were wheeling overhead throughout our trip, typically wait for another bird to catch a fish and then dive-bomb it, stealing the fish from the original catcher. The epithet "FRIGate bird" trips so satisfyingly off the tongue at these moments of f-f-f-f-f-frustration and f-f-f-f-fury that we rebaptized the game on the spot.]

5. There are constraints on frigate-bird captures. You may not just add a prefix or suffix or plural to a word; the ‘stem’ of the word must be changed. Thus "march" may not go to "marched" but can go to "charmed". There are borderline cases that may be decided to suit the players. Definitely "chief" can go to "kerchief" and "pealing" to "appealing" since the meanings are so disparate; we have recently approved "afoot" to "barefoot" but others might be more purist. Alternations are OK. Thus "equip" can go to "piquet" which can THEN go (back) to "equipment."

6. Frigate-bird steals may be done at any time. The game ends when nobody can find any moves to make with the remaining tiles in the pool.

7. Scoring: in the 4-letter version, 4-letter words count 4, no matter what letters they use. All longer words count the Scrabble value of their tiles. Thus turning your own 4-point word ‘quip" to "equip," or "pique," adds 12 points to your score!) If somebody then steals pique" by going to "equipped" (legal, since not going from "equip") you lose your 16 point word and they get a 21-point word. A large lead can evaporate with a few end-game coups like this. In a recent game the back and forth sequence "grind," "grinned," "enduring," "laundering," "underlaying" was played.

8. The pace of "dealing" may be highly variable, with long pauses while everybody tries to find a use for a particularly juicy addition to the pool, but fairly rapid turnovers when the pool is particularly barren (e.g, when a third "u" arrives in the pool it is close to a certainty that no new combinations are possible, so turning over another letter speeds up the game). In general, if the dealer let’s his own survey of the prospects guide the speed, slowing down whenever a wealth of opportunities seem to be available, the other players will typically appreciate the extra time as much as the dealer does. Players may ask the dealer to slow down or speed up, and their requests should be honored.

9. We have officially granted that a legal frigate-bird might be accomplished by combining all the letters of TWO words on the table (using no additional letters from the pool) that this has yet to happen in our experience. An example would be if player A has "slots" and player B has "utopian," any player might call out "postulations" and win a place in Frigate Bird history. A player might put together two of his own words, for no additional score, but to keep some other player from doing this and taking the result.

10. Penalties: We have never felt the need to penalize people for calling out impermissible words, aside from disallowing the word and returning the tiles to their pre-call positions. Nor have we felt the need to punish challenges that were not upheld by a dictionary. Others might wish to experiment with more retributive policies, of course, which could introduce an element of strategic bluffing, but the game has enough rough-and-tumble action as it is, in our opinion.

11. A word on the phylogeny of the game: We, Dan and Susan Dennett, were introduced to the game in 2001, at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, by the composer Nicholas Brooke and the English Professor Julie Barmazel. The game got its present name, as noted above, in 2005, at the World Summit of Evolution, in the Galapagos Islands.

Dan Dennett


[1] Dan Dennett is just finishing up a semester-long visit at SFI as the inaugural Miller Scholar. He's been a wonderfully active community member while he's been here, giving a public lecture on the origin of religion, inviting a speaker (his collaborator Matt Hurley) to discuss theories of humor, along with the usual fun and impromptu discussions over lunch and tea.

[2] Frigate birds are sometimes called "kleptoparasites" since they routinely steal food from other birds. In the spirit of this post, "kleptoparasite" would be a great frigate bird play perhaps by building onto "aspirate" (an anagram of parasite) or by combining "parakeet" and "pistol".

posted May 11, 2010 10:02 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (2)

November 06, 2009

Things to read while the simulator runs; part 8

While chatting with Jake Hofman the other day, he pointed me to some analysis by the Facebook Data Team about the way people use online social networks. One issue that seems to come up pretty regularly with Facebook is how many of your "friends" are "real" in some sense (for instance, this came up on a radio show this morning, and my wife routinely teases me for having nearly 400 "friends" on Facebook).

The answer, according to the Facebook Data Team, is that while it depends on how you define "real," with access to the underlying data, you can pretty clearly see how much interaction actually flows across the different links. One neat thing they found (within a lot of interesting analysis) is that the amount of interaction across all your connections scales up with the number of connections you have. That is, the more friends you have, the more friends you interact with. (It can't be a linear relationship, though, since otherwise, people with 1000s of friends would be spending all of their free time on Facebook... oh wait, some people actually do that.)

A related point that I've found myself discussing several times recently with my elders (some of whom I think are, at some level, alienated and befuddled by computer and Web technology), is whether Facebook (or, technology in general) increases social isolation, and thus is leading to some kind of collapse of civil society. I've argued passionately that it's human nature to be social and thus extremely unlikely that technology alone is having this effect, and that technology instead actually facilitates social interactions, allowing people to be even more social overall (even if they may spend slightly less time face-to-face) than before. Mobile phones are my favorite example of social facilitation, since they allow people to interact with their friends in situations when previously they could not (e.g., standing in line at the bank, walking around town, etc.), even if occasionally it leads to ridiculous situations like two people sitting next to each other, but each texting or talking on their phones with people elsewhere.

And, just in time to bolster my arguments, The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a study this week (also discussed in the NYTimes) showing that technology users are more social than non-technology users, and that other, non-technological trends are to blame for the apparent decrease in the size of (non-technology using) Americans' social circles over the past 20 years. Of course, access to and use of technology often correlates with affluence, so what really might be going on is that, like with nutrition, the affluent are better positioned to lead physically and socially healthy lives than the poor.

Recently, for a project on evolution, I've been reading pretty deeply in the paleontology and marine mammal literature (more on that in the next post). The first thing that I noticed is how easy it is now to access vast amounts of scientific literature from the comfort of your office. Occasionally, I had to get up to see Margaret, our librarian, but most of the time I could get what I needed through electronic access. But, sometimes I would encounter a pay wall that my institutional access wouldn't allow me to circumvent.

At first, it was extremely irritating and induced open-access revolutionary spirits in me. Then, I did what I suspect many of you have done, too, which is to ask my friends at other universities to try to get access to the paper using their institutional access, and to send me a copy. On a small scale, this is like asking your friends to share individual musical tracks with you. So, naturally, the logical solution to the problem is to make a P2P sharing system for scientific papers, right? Exactly. There's apparently already such a system for mainly medical papers, but I think the time is ripe for something more ambitious. Given what's been learned about how to run a good P2P system for music, it should be pretty simple to develop a good system (distributed, searchable, scalable) for sharing PDFs of journal papers, right? I can't wait until the academic publishing industry starts suing researchers for sharing papers...

If you're male, when you use a public restroom, what do you think about for those seconds while your body is busy but your mind is free to wander? Randall Munroe, of xkcd fame, apparently, thinks about the mathematics of restroom awkwardness and minimum awkward-ness packing arrangements for men using urinals. Who knew something so mundane could be so amusing?

Finally, this next bit is already almost a year old, but it's just so good. Remember last year when the media when predictably bonkers over two studies, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, showing that happiness and obesity were (socially) contagious? That is, if you're depressed, you can blame your friends for not cheering you up, and if you're fat, you can blame your friends for making you eat poorly. (Or, wait, maybe it's that misery loves company...?) Shortly after those studies hit the media, a wonderful followup study was published by Cohen-Cole and Fletcher. Their study used the same techniques as Christakis and Fowler and showed that acne, headaches and height are also socially contagious! If only we had the data, I'm sure social network analysis could be show that hair color, IQ and wealth are socially contagious, too. Their concluding thoughts say it all, really:

There is a need for caution when attributing causality to correlations in health outcomes between friends using non-experimental data. Confounding is only one of many empirical challenges to estimating social network effects, but researchers do need to attempt to minimise its impact. Thus, while it will probably not be harmful for policy makers and clinicians to attempt to use social networks to spread the benefits of health interventions and information, the current evidence is not yet strong enough to suggest clear evidence based recommendations. There are many unanswered questions and avenues for future research, including use of more robust empirical methods to assess social network effects, crafting and implementing additional empirical solutions to the many difficulties with this research, and further understanding of how social networks are formed and operate.

E. Cohen-Cole and J. M. Fletcher, "Detecting implausible social network effects in acne, height, and headaches: longitudinal analysis." BMJ 337, a2533 (2008).

Update 10 Nov.: Oh jeez. Olivia Judson, please get a clue.

posted November 6, 2009 08:19 AM in Things to Read | permalink | Comments (4)

October 21, 2009

Machinima meets science geekery

Very poetic.

We are all connected (ft. Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye)

Tip to Cris Moore.

posted October 21, 2009 10:27 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

April 10, 2009

Social Bacteria

Quorum sensing in bacteria isn't new news, but Bonnie Bassler's lab (Princeton) is doing some pretty cool work in figuring out how it works, and how it plays a role in bacteria ecology or social behavior among bacteria. Her TED talk about it is a good one.

posted April 10, 2009 09:17 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

March 11, 2009

Pattie Maes

The more I think about this, the cooler I think it is.

Eons ago when I was looking at different grad schools, I remember liking Pattie Maes's work on software agents. Her "fluid interfaces group" seems just as interesting.

posted March 11, 2009 05:27 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

February 20, 2009

Barry Schwartz on Wisdom

It was a little more than ten years ago that I first met Barry Schwartz, sitting in his Psychology 101 class at Swarthmore College. He was just as powerful a speaker then, and if anything I think he's gotten better. This clip is his second TED talk, and I see he's still using New Yorker cartoons to illustrate his points. In this one, he hits the nail on the head about the trouble with creeping bureaucracy -- not just government bureaucracy, but everyday bureaucracies: more rules, more incentives, less judgement, less thinking, less wisdom. Surely, this is a talk for our times.

(Tip to onegoodmove)

posted February 20, 2009 08:50 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

January 30, 2009

Running the Numbers


Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.

This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibililties of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

~chris jordan, Seattle, 2008

Here's the piece entitled "Plastic Cups, 2008":

Depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.

Tip to Sabine.

posted January 30, 2009 03:55 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

February 11, 2008

Food for thought (1)

posted February 11, 2008 08:31 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

November 04, 2007

We're #1

Via Biocurious, Uncertain Principles and originally The World's Fair comes a cute little blog-and-google game. The idea is, you find five queries to google for which your blog is the #1 hit. Here are some for Structure+Strangeness:

posted November 4, 2007 12:05 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)

October 26, 2007

Equations as expression

The Edge and the Swiss Serpentine Gallery have posted the results of asking scientists and artists "What is your formula?" The results are various scribblings and typesettings of physical and social relationships, put in the form of a mathematical equation.

There's a wide diversity in the set -- some are kind of banal, some ideas make several appearances, and some are contentious opinions dressed up in math -- but some are both suggestive and interesting. I particularly liked Sean Carroll's hierarchy of fundamental scales in physics, spanning 60 orders of magnitude, David Deutsch's self-consistent time-traveling quantum computer, Lisa Randall's 5-dimensional solution to Einstein's equations for gravity, and Drew Endy's "mutation without representation" .

posted October 26, 2007 07:45 AM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (1)

October 24, 2007

Turning a sphere inside out

If you hang out with math nerds enough, you might eventually hear them talk about crazy things like turning a sphere inside out, without cutting or pinching its surface. In some circles, I think this is the math-nerd equivalent of a pissing contest. Well, I've hung out with them enough to hear it, but never gotten a good answer about how to do it. This very nicely produced little video (complete with Pixar-esque animation and human narration) explains it in a very accessible way.

(Tip to Scott Aaronson.)

posted October 24, 2007 01:13 PM in Pleasant Diversions | permalink | Comments (0)