Category Archives: Big Data

Stone Cold Facts

Standard

Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Rendering Unseen Stories

Standard

I was recently alerted to this lovely collection of maps on Canva – a collection that isn’t meant to provide physical directions but to provide inspiration for design. Map-making has almost always been a way of telling stories at least as much as it has been a way to find places.

 

'Berlin rangé,' a tidied-up map of Berlin. Source: Armelle Caron

‘Berlin rangé,’ a tidied-up map of Berlin’s cartographical elements.
Source: Armelle Caron

This particular collection, which could hardly be more diverse, made me think of a cartographical story in progress. Namely, that we are seeing a democratization of cartography that is practically revolutionary.

I contacted my old friend Peter Skillman, who has a deep knowledge of cartography, and we talked about maps. When you ask a master about one of his favorite topics, you might just end up following an elusive tail down a deep rabbit hole.

Peter has more to say about the evolution of cartography than I have space for here, but what we talked a lot about was the use of maps to communicate the unseen – from political borders to financial interests (especially these days, with the listing of business locations and data so important to map users and providers) to how the same map can look different depending on where you’re viewing it from (the exact location disputed territorial borders viewed from India or Pakistan, for example).

Berlin divided, 1961. Source: Berlin Wall Online

Berlin divided, 1961.
Source: Berlin Wall Online

And then there’s the fallibility of maps, whether intentional or accidental, that can disappear towns or put roads where they aren’t. Once almost purely due to political agendas, now often due to glitchy data.

What I liked, though, was our talk about metro maps. We’ve all gotten accustomed to the abstract lines of color that represent transit lines, the dots that represent stops, but consider the leap in understanding required to read a map so completely non-topographical. This “intentional distortion” is often the only representation of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment a city can offer its citizens for a system that can only be seen in small bits.

Genuine maps of unseen, or only partially seen, realities.

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world. Source: DesignBoom

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world.
Source: DesignBoom

It used to be that if you wanted to give someone a map to your home, or your favorite swimming hole, or that terrific back road BBQ rib place, you had to sketch it out and somehow get it to them. Even those sketches were a way of talking about how we thought of getting from one place to another, our individual travel perspective.

It used to be that we mostly learned to navigate our way through paper maps because we had no other choice if we wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

Berlin. Source: Vianina

Berlin.
Source: Vianina

Now we click and point and create our maps from readily available online maps, which are, in turn, often created/improved/optimized by user-generated input – much of it collected anonymously via GPS. And our maps tell us what to do, where to go, and warn us when we’ve gone astray.

No more serendipitous sauntering to points unknown. Except that with every map telling its creator’s story, you can still get lost, even if you think you know where you’re going.

 

Finding Patterns

Standard

It’s a fact in the Western world that we have, for a very long time, operated on the assumption that we humans have consciousness cornered.

Whether we adhere to a religion or no, we have mostly acted as Genesis 1:28 commands: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network - which looks for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.  Photograph: Google via Guardian

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network – an artificial neural network (ANN) inspired by biological networks – a tool used to search for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.
Photograph: Google via Guardian

Even before I watched documentaries of primatologist Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in the 1960s, I found it hard to believe the long-held axiom of human superiority that of all creatures on the earth, only humans had emotions, social structure, intelligence, or some kind of consciousness.

That all creatures but humans operated solely on instinct.

Long-term studies are now bearing out the idea that we aren’t as special as we like to think. Descartes had it all wrong when he manage to persuade himself and countless others that animals are little more than meat machines.

I’m not talking here about cute animals stories, or reasons to become a vegetarian, or anything like that.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after an search for animal images.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after a search for animal images.

From the realization that many other animals use tools, to a study showing that other primates smile just like humans (and why should this come as a surprise?), to the complex social relationships of whales, to the self-restrained leadership techniques shown by alpha wolves, it’s pretty safe to say that we are not alone in the universe – and it’s not because we’ve found aliens, it’s because we’ve started seeing fellow Earth-dwellers in a different light.

They were there all along, we just didn’t know how to see them. Or we didn’t want to.

When will we get far enough in this journey of discovery to find out how they see us? What will we learn about ourselves?

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

Adding It Up

Standard

Not so very long ago, processing large amounts of data was a tedious business, riddled with human error, machine failings and limited reach.

These days, information availability can feel like a tsunami. There’s so much of it, all the time, all around. It’s become easier than ever to share information and images, sometimes involuntarily.

The sheer abundance of facts available all the time can mask what’s missing, namely, synthesis and understanding of the facts at hand.

The constant flow of information can also mask that we don’t really have all the information necessary to assess specific environments or track changes.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

The rise of citizen science projects has sought to harness both the ability to share information and the need for more facts on the ground.

A positive example of this is the Capture the Coast project getting underway in the United Kingdom. Financed by lottery funds to the tune of £1.7 million ($2.7 million), several universities and non-governmental organizations are collaborating to train 3000 volunteers to gather data on species up and down the UK coastline.

This data will be collected and analyzed by the various institutions to better track and understand climate change.

A somewhat less positive example of data sharing can be found in Wyoming, which recently passed a law that makes it illegal to gather and transmit data from open land (including photos or sample results) to the state or federal government.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

The first page of Wyoming bill WY SF0012, passed in March 2015.

In effect, this means that you can be arrested if you are a concerned citizen or scientist who is documenting a particular issue. And the issue at hand here is mainly the documentation of high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams due to poor ranching habits and bad herd management.

But once a law like this has been passed, it can be applied to anyone who is collecting data that could make someone else uncomfortable.

According to this Slate article, while other states have similar laws that protect the powerful agricultural industries from a concerned citizenry, Wyoming’s law is the first to actually criminalize taking a photo on public land.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Rather than embrace collaboration that connects and supports a better understanding of the environment, these moves seem to be an attempt to turn back time, to go back to an era when information could be stashed in a filing cabinet somewhere in the basement, or simply shredded.

But these days, it’s like trying to hold back the tide. Will this kind of obstructionism slow understanding that points the way to better solutions? Probably. There might be gaps here and there, but the data will still flow.

It’s a shame that some people would rather service the gears and methods of outdated structures and habits.

It doesn’t add up now, and it never will.

Old adding machine. Photo: Kevin Twomey

Old adding machine.
Photo: Kevin Twomey

Flavor Assumptions

Standard

I walked out of the house this bright morning and found a small blossom on the rosemary bush near our entrance, the first one of spring. We moved in almost twenty years ago, and the plant was massive and gnarled, even back then.

According to the neighbors at the farm next door, the rosemary bush was planted at least twenty years earlier. I trim it, sometimes, or not, and it just carries on year after year, blooming and growing and scenting the air around our house with its clean, piney perfume.

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.  Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679) Source: Alain R. Truong

A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary.
Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679)
Source: Alain R. Truong

Rosemary as an herb is even more deeply rooted in Western Europe cuisine and culture than the old plant is against our house wall. I cook with it all the time, combining it with whatever seems right–thyme, parsley, oregano, garlic. They all seem like intuitive flavor pairings.

There’s a beautiful interactive map of flavors created a couple of years ago by Scientific American that diagrams flavor connections between various foods, from rosemary to roast beef.

In Western cuisine, the tradition is to pair foods with overlapping flavors. I was raised in the culture of Western cuisine, which is probably why pairing rosemary with thyme or basil seems natural to me.

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.  Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds. Source: Scientific American

Excerpt from The Flavor Connection.
Click here for the full interactive map of foods with connecting flavor compounds.
Source: Scientific American

A recent study showed just how different other traditions can be. Indian cuisine, for example, tends to pair non-matching flavors and chemical compounds, rather than those that have many points of overlap.

The study, called Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine, starts by stating that “(c)ulinary practices are influenced by climate, culture, history and geography. Molecular composition of recipes in a cuisine reveals patterns in food preferences.” The food elements that form the basis for this kind of negative flavor pairing are spices.

The study authors posit that Indian cuisine developed along both nutritional and medicinal lines, and that the availability of spices played a large role in that. Perhaps the lack of ready accessibility to spices in Western culture–until fairly recently spices remained expensive–is one reason they play a smaller role in Western food matching.

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.  Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

A flavor graph of Indian cuisine. Ingredients are denoted by nodes and
presence of shared flavor profile between any two ingredients is depicted as a link between them. The color of node reflects ingredient category and thickness of edges is proportional to extent of flavor profile sharing.
Caption/graph: Jain, Nk, Bagler

At any rate, I was surprised at how many of my own assumptions about which foods and flavors intuitively go together are based on the culture in which I was raised. I love Indian cuisine, I cook it occasionally, but I can’t say the pairings come naturally to me.

If assumptions as fundamental as ‘what tastes good together’ are so determined by culture, where do other assumptions diverge unseen?

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) Source: Plantcurator

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Source: Plantcurator

Oxbows and Meanders

Standard

I found this tangled map, created in 1944, over on the ever-fruitful NASA web site for the Earth Observatory. It shows historical changes along a stretch of the Mississippi River.

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.  From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. Source: Earth Observatory

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.
From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

I stumbled upon it while looking at a small collection of river surveys from 1865, and comparing them to modern Google maps. There was this one, a stretch just south of St. Mary, Missouri.

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Marys, MO.  Source: Wikimedia

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Mary, MO.
Source: Wikimedia

The modern one looks a bit different – fewer bends, fewer islands – but not so much that it would be unrecognizable. Notably, the large bend that once branched off to St. Mary, Missouri, visible at the top of each map, is now just a small tributary.

One might have expected more of a difference over the course of 150 years of population increase and civil engineering.

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.  Source: Googlemaps

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.
Source: Googlemaps

But, at least on the Mississippi, the differences in major river flow come when the river is left alone to shift, meander, silt up and sidle over. The more humans work on this particular river, the more it stays the same. Levees are installed to prevent overflow (although they don’t always work).

The entire Mississippi Delta once shifted every 1,000 years or so – but with industries and port installations firmly established over the course of a few human generations, that would be an economic disaster. The Old River Control Structure, undertaken in the 1950s, keeps the delta in place.

More or less. At least, for the time being.

Because in the long run and when left to their own devices, rivers are all over the map.

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here. Source: VisualNews

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here.
Source: VisualNews

A Little Perspective

Standard

It’s been a rough start to 2015, so I thought I’d step back and look at a bigger picture.

NASA released an image of a section of one of our nearest neighbors, galactically-speaking: the Andromeda galaxy, also known as M31.

The image itself contains 1.5 billion pixels and represents the largest image ever released by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The section of the galaxy shown contains over 100 million stars and would take 40,000 years to traverse at the speed of light.

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.  Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.  Source: NASA

A section of the Andromeda galaxy.
Click here to explore the image using the NASA zoom tool.
Source: NASA

Something to remind me on the one hand, that we are part of something far more vast than the human squabbles that take place on the surface of our planet, and on the other hand, that among all these countless celestial bodies, this little planet is the only one we’ve got.

If you’ve got the time, set your screen to full-view and spend a few short minutes on this lovely fly-through video, put together by YouTube user daveachuck.

Subterranean Lines

Standard
A fracking well at the surface. Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

A fracking well at the surface.
Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

The bulk of the fracking boom currently underway in the United States is not only in one of the least populated and remote states, North Dakota (population 724,000 – and it’s only that large because of the fracking boom and all the new workers there), but it also takes place mostly underground. Sure, there are the ominous towers of gas flames and the torn up ground at the extraction points, but the real action takes place so far beneath the topsoil layer as to render it abstract.

The gap between what fracking looks like from above, and what it looks like from below, reminds me of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s drawings in The Little Prince. What everyone initially takes to be a sketch of hat is actually a rendering of something completely different, namely, an elephant inside a snake.

From The Little Prince By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From The Little Prince
By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

We humans are creatures of visual dependence. Or rather, what we can see tends to make the most conscious impression upon us, ahead of the more subtle senses of sound, taste, smell and touch.

And often, what is out of sight is truly out of mind. If we can’t see it, we have a hard time even thinking about it.

Well locations around New Town, N.D. Source: Fractracker

Well locations around New Town, N.D.
Source: Fractracker

These various maps and renderings of fracking in North Dakota attempt to make the underground activity more tangible, to show us the elephant inside the hat.

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota. Source: Mason Inman/Wired

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota.
Source: Mason Inman/Wired

According to Mason Inman over at Map Labs, who created the map above, “Each well travels down about two miles, then turns horizontally and snakes through the rock formation for another two miles. There were 8,406 of these Bakken wells, as of North Dakota’s latest count. If you lined them all up—including their vertical and horizontal parts—they’d loop all the way around the Earth.”

The New York Times took the added step of inverting the wells as if they were above ground, the long vertical drills standing like slender trunks one or two miles high, with only one or two branches of equal length suspended in the air, a high forest of activity.

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground
Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

 

Invisible Flow Dynamics

Standard
The flame is lit.  The images here are all from a short video, The Hidden Complexities of the Simple Match.  Images: V. Miller, M. Tilghman, R. Hanson/Stanford Univ./

The flame is lit.
The images here are all from a short video, The Hidden Complexities of the Simple Match.
Images: V. Miller, M. Tilghman, R. Hanson/Stanford Univ./

By now, most people have heard about the vast amount of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans, and how, once there, plastic bags, wrapping, toys, really all the stuff we make and use in this Age of Plastic, gets ground and beaten into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic until it is no longer recognizable as a human-made item, just a ever-tinier piece of material that is nonetheless non-biodegradable.

Which is one of the characteristics that makes petroleum-based plastic so very different from most other human-made utility products on the planet. It takes hundreds and thousands of years to break down the wrapping or plastic sack which we produce to be used for perhaps a few weeks or months, or even just once.

The images here show the turbulence of hot gases around a match as it is lit and then blown out – the unseen flow that takes place before our eyes, when all we see is a flame lit, and a flame extinguished.

Below is a map of the flow of ocean plastic around the world – researchers estimate the plastic refuse that was quantified and charted accounts for perhaps 1% of all ocean plastic. The rest is out there, getting up to all kinds of incendiary environmental nonsense – and while it’s right there in front of us, we are unable to see it.

Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations (legend on top right). The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites (1,127 surface net tows). Gray areas indicate the accumulation zones predicted by a global surface circulation model (6). Image/caption: Andrés Cózar et al./PNAS

Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations. The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites. Gray areas indicate the accumulation zones predicted by a global surface circulation model.
Click here for a larger image.
Image/caption: Andrés Cózar et al./PNAS

 

 

 

 

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/plastic-trash-piling-oceans-map-181700451.html

Flea Glasses and Hidden Spaces

Standard

Imagine the excitement of using one of the world’s first magnifying glasses back in the 16th century. All those creatures and items too tiny for examination with the naked eye would have suddenly revealed some of their secrets.

Early magnifying glasses were so popular for looking at minuscule life forms such as fleas that they were sometimes called ‘flea glasses’. The workings of bodily and natural mechanics that were once hidden by size were revealed.

Ah, well. The opportunities available today for finding hidden spaces are multitudinous. I saw these images and wanted to share them.

Wheat flowerbud, winning image in the 2014 Australian Museum New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography. Taken with an electron microscope. Photo: Mark Talbot

Wheat flowerbud, winning image in the 2014 Australian Museum New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.
Taken with an electron microscope.
Photo: Mark Talbot

It’s not just size or distance that has been revealed by new viewing methods, it’s time.

There are countless cellular processes that have been well-studied and photographed – but here’s a new option for viewing these processes in real time and in 3-D.  Lattice light-sheet microscopy uses extremely rapid pulses of ultra-thin sheets of light to scan living cells.

Below, a still image from the film showing HeLa cell division.

This kind of tool can help researchers better understand the actual behavior of cells and processes, furthering understanding of how cancer cells develop, for example.

But as the new microscopes inventor, Dr. Eric Betzig, has said, there are undoubtedly many applications for this kind of vision which haven’t even been discovered yet.

Because, of course, sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for until we find something looking back at us that wants further investigation.

HeLa division.  Source: Chen et al via Science

HeLa cell division.
Source: Chen et al via Science

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/109402304″>Movie 5 High Resolution</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user33367262″>HHMI NEWS</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>