The Future Is So Cool

When you were growing up, 2014 was the future. And it’s become cliche to bemoan that we don’t have the flying cars we were promised, but did get early delivery on a dystopian surveillance state.

So living here in the future, I just wanted to point out how cool it is that you can detect extrasolar planets with a home kit.

A camera mounted on a clever set of hinges to track the sky

Read the story at IEEE Spectrum: DIY Exoplanet Detector.

Small thoughts on Doug Engelbart

I just re-read “A few words on Doug Engelbart.” If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’re probably seen a headline like “Douglas C. Engelbart, Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Dies at 88,” or seen him referred to as the fellow who gave the “mother of all demos.” But as Bret Victor points out, to focus on the mouse (or “The Demo”) is to miss the point. The mouse was, in a very important way, a spin-off from his real work.

The work that Engelbart cared about was how to augment human cognition. By finding the right problem, at the right time, Engelbart found himself in a position where the spin-offs from his research agenda were, of themselves, tremendously important. (The formulation of “the right problem, at the right time” comes from Hamming’s talk, “You and Your Research“, which is well worth reading. It’s also clear from the Augmentation paper that Engelbart had a staged approach in which he could build towards his final goal, aligning with Hamming’s “right way.”)

So when you hear people talking about the inventor of the mouse, you might give some thought to the question of what you can do to conceptualize your work so that you get important results and impact.

To make that more concrete, in my own case, the way I’m approaching information security is to ask “why do things go wrong so often?” This forces me to think about the ways and frequency that they go wrong, and what we can do about them. It also led me into thinking about how we can make security thinking more accessible, resulting in some games and our NEAT advice on better warnings.

Lunar Oribter Image Recovery Project

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project needs help to recover data from the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft.

Frankly, it’s a bit of a disgrace that Congress funds, well, all sorts of things, over this element of our history, but that’s besides the point. Do I want to get angry, or do I want to see this data preserved? Yes to both.

First View of Earth from Moon
That’s why I’ve given the project some money on Rockethub, and I urge you to do the same.

Guns, Homicides and Data

I came across a fascinating post at Jon Udell’s blog, “Homicide rates in context ,” which starts out with this graph of 2007 data:

A map showing gun ownership and homicide rates, and which look very different

Jon’s post says more than I care to on this subject right now, and points out questions worth asking.

As I said in my post on “Thoughts on the Tragedies of December 14th,” “those who say that easy availability of guns drives murder rates must do better than simply cherry picking data.”

I’m not sure I believe that the “more guns, less crime” claim made by A.W.R. Hawkins claim is as causative as it sounds, but the map presents a real challenge to simplistic responses to tragic gun violence.

Negative temperatures?

Absolute zero is often thought to be the coldest temperature possible. But now researchers show they can achieve even lower temperatures for a strange realm of “negative temperatures.”

Oddly, another way to look at these negative temperatures is to consider them hotter than infinity, researchers added. (“Atoms Reach Record Temperature, Colder than Absolute Zero“, Charles Choi, LiveScience and

It seems to me that this is very strong evidence for the Simulation Argument, since apparently the simulation has some integer underflow problems. The researchers have proof of concept code.

The original, paywalled article is in Science, “Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom“.

Can Science Improvise?

My friend Raquell Holmes is doing some really interesting work at using improv to unlock creativity. There’s some really interesting ties between the use of games and the use of improv to get people to approach problems in a new light, and I’m bummed that I won’t be able to make this event:

Monday Dec 17th – 7:15 to 9:15pm
835 Market Street, Rm. 619, Downtown San Francisco State University Campus

Register at
In advance- $15 At the Door- $20

What happens when you combine the playfulness of improvisation with
the rigor of science? The Life Performance Coaching Center which
leads people from all walks of life in a performance-based approach to
human development is pleased to host Dr. Raquell M. Holmes founder of
improvscience. Holmes has been bringing the discoveries in human
development and performance to researchers and educators in many areas
of science including biology and computing sciences.

In this exploration for scientists and those interested in creativity
and development, participants are introduced to what the
improvisational arts bring to science. Learning to build with the
contributions of others and see opportunities for improvisational
conversation helps us to take risks and discover new ways of seeing
each other and our work.

Come and play as we break down the social barriers that can inhibit
creativity, exploration and discovery.

Helen Abel, LCSW, has worked with people to develop their lives for
over 30 years as a social worker, therapist and coach. She is on the
staff of the Life Performance Coaching Center where she leads the
popular Playground series {link if available} where people learn how
to use their capacity to create, perform and play. As a life coach she
helps people access these same skills to develop creative and new
kinds of conversations with their friends, family and colleagues.

Dr. Raquell Holmes is Director of Outreach, Recruitment and Retention
at the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling at University of
Connecticut Health Center. She helps biologists to incorporate
computing and computational resources into their teaching and
research. Community building and improvisational theater are explicit
components of the majority of her National Science Foundation funded
projects. She founded improvscience to provide scientists with
opportunities to develop skills in leadership, collaboration and
innovation. Since its inception improvscience has worked with over a
thousand professionals in Science, Technology, Engineering and
Mathematics education and research.

Neil Armstrong, RIP

Neil Armstrong in Eagle, photographed by Buzz Aldrin

Neil Armstrong died August 25, aged 82.

It’s difficult to properly memorialize this man, because, to a degree almost unheard of in our media-saturated times, he avoided the limelight. A statement by his family notes:

As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

EC has a certain fondness for privacy and for Apollo. If you do, too, please consider this suggestion made by Armstrong’s family:

For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

Image source: NASA

New Species Discovered on Flickr

Semachrysa Jade

There’s a very cool story on NPR about “A New Species Discovered … On Flickr“. A entomologist was looking at some photos, and saw a bug he’d never seen. Check out the photographer’s site or Flickr pages. The paper is “A charismatic new species of green lacewing discovered in Malaysia (Neuroptera, Chrysopidae):
the confluence of citizen scientist, online image database and cybertaxonomy

The online images were then randomly examined by the senior author (SLW) who determined that this distinctive species was not immediately recognizable as any previously described species. Links to the images were forwarded to additional experts in chrysopid taxonomy to elicit comment on its possible taxonomic identity. After extensive discussion it was concluded that the species was likely new to science but its generic placement inconclusive based solely upon the images at hand.

I find it fascinating that the distinction of a new species is keyed on a morphological difference like this. While I know nothing about the chryopidae, and this is just a lay comment, but substantially larger variations occur in dogs without driving the claim of a new species. Does anyone know what makes for a new chryopid?

Photo by Kurt, aka Hock Ping Guek.

How to get my vote for the ACM Board

I’m concerned about issues of research being locked behind paywalls. The core of my reason is that research builds on other research, and wide availability helps science move forward. There’s also an issue that a great deal of science is funded by taxpayers, who are prevented from seeing their work. One of the organizations which locks science behind a paywall is the ACM. As it turns out, the ACM is having elections, and I’m a member, so I thought maybe I could usefully vote on this issue. So I went to the ACM website to see what’s being said on it. Here’s what I had to go through to find the answer:

  • Are the elections important enough to be listed on the home page? Apparently not.
  • Maybe it’s an issue of importance to the ACM Membership? Nah.
  • Maybe I can find something about it on ACM US? That’s actually the “public policy” arm.
  • So perhaps it’s a matter of who will be on Boards and Committess? No, that points to this page, which is highly informative.
  • Maybe it’s under MyACM? Nope
  • Ahhh! Finally, it’s under Membernet: here

And it turns out that there’s no one running for the board of the ACM who’s running on open access issues. That’s too bad.

So let me be very clear. I’m a one-issue voter for academic societies. I believe that open access to science is a key part of everything that these societies should be doing, and it’s the only part that involves change to the business, and thus controversey.

If you want my vote, run on an open access platform.

(If you’re not familiar with the arguments for open access, see The Open Access Pledge site, The Cost of Knowledge site, or this faculty memo from the library of a small college in Cambridge, Mass.)

[Update: Don’t miss the comment by Brighten Godfrey, who’s been reaching out to the candidates, and gathering their positions.]