Friday, June 06, 2008

Our Whole New Look

Check out the live beta of the new All the Best Bits web site! It should be more usable and accessible. We'll keep this site running as traffic picks up over at the new digs, but please do check it out and post comments at either blog to let me know what you think!


Saturday, May 03, 2008

San Francisco Bay Area from the ISS

Here's a neat image of the Bay Area taken from the International Space Station. I particularly like the visible outflow from the receding tide through the Golden Gate as well as the visible colored salt ponds in the south bay.

Photograph of San Francisco Bay
In this photograph of the San Francisco Bay area taken from the International Space Station during Expedition 4, the gray urban footprint of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and their surrounding suburbs contrasts strongly with the green hillsides. ISS004-E-10288 (April 21, 2002, 105 mm lens) Click on the image for full-resolution version.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Glass Frog

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

MA Regional First Championships

During my trip to Boston last week for the National Science Teacher's Association conference (more on that later) I totally lucked out in also catching the FIRST Robotics League Northeastern Regional Championships. If you haven't been to one, you simply must go. As remarkable as this sounds, there is almost certainly one in your area. It was AWESOME. There were more than 7,000 people in attendance in the Agganis Arena at Boston University to see the real deal, professionally produced and run, very well-organized, with pro announcers, cameramen and lighting.

Over forty teams of high school students were running robots that they built from nothing inside of 6 weeks to accomplish a VERY complicated challenge. They were so FANTASTIC that I am going to run out of superlatives before getting to the end of this post. The very idea that this organization has grown since 1992 to reach more than 13,000 schools across the US, and that there are 41 REGIONAL competitions before the upcoming late April finals in Atlanta is just incredible. Better yet, FIRST has clearly been very successful in perpetuating and growing a model that is self-sustaining, with many teams having competed for several years, with former FIRST team members returning to mentor their old team or going on to start new ones.

I managed to arrive just in time to watch the contest start up for the final day with a performance by the Blue Man Group, followed by the grand entrance of Woodie Flowers, the legendary MIT professor who founded FIRST, and before that was the originator of the famous MIT 2.70 and 6.270 robotics contests. Check out how these people LOVE him as he enters the arena using an interesting MIT spin-out technology called the Atlas Ascender (a self-contained box that allows rapid ascent as well descent.)

Woodie Rappelling - Boston Regional 2008.

The day began with the quarter-finals matches and I stayed through the final. The designs were quite varied, with the older more experienced teams (you could tell from the low team numbers below 100 that were granted years ago) clearly demonstrating that years of experience really helps in refining robust approaches to complicated problems. That said, even the rookie teams showed great creativity and incredible dedication and teamwork. Check out these photos of several of the robots.

The matches were real nail-biters with cheering and chants that rivaled any football game I had ever attended (except maybe the Chelsea Tottenham match in London). To see this leve of excitement and adulation usually reserved for sports and entertainment celebrities unleashed on students for engineering and innovation just warmed my heart. Something has been made right in the world.

Everyone I spoke with loved the experience and couldn't even imagine failing to participate next year. And as Steve Wozniak, one of the FIRST luminaries said, "There are lots of prizes and awards, and only one of them is for winning." Their hearts and minds are certainly in the right place.

Find out about your local FIRST events and sign up however you can, as a participant. mentor, coach, parent, whatever. You won't regret it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sneaking Out of the House to Build Robots

My favorite story from the whole FIRST Northeastern Regional competition was revealed in the delivery of the "Woodie Flowers" award. Woodie, you see, is the MIT professor who founded FIRST with Dean Kamen of Segway fame, after starting the legendary 2.70 and later 6.270 robotics contests at MIT. In many ways, Woodie was responsible for my attendance at MIT, just as he has now been responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of aspiring technologists across the US through FIRST.

So in thanks and recognition, the Woodie Flowers Award is granted to the team mentor at each regional and final First contest that best exemplifies Woodie's spirit of contribution, teamwork, and inspiration.

Woodie Flowers and Elizabeth Carruthers

This year's recipient, Elizabeth Carruthers from the Columbus School for Girls, had a great story. As a high school student, her parents weren't all that supportive of the time and energy that FIRST demanded, so she had to sneak out of the house to work on her team's FIRST robot.

She was so committed to the program and her teammates, that when her parents caught her sneaking out, she told them that she was just going to "parties with her friends," which turned out to be okay with them. You see, they wanted her to be socially well-adjusted, and feared seeing their daughter turned into a nerd.

Given that she has now gone on to a technical undergraduate program, and returned to mentor her old high school's FIRST team (an all-girl's team, at that) into the regional finals, (a remarkable accomplishment that takes MANY more skills in communication and leadership and interpersonal relationships than just the technical ones) I'd say she's VERY well adjusted!

Congrats, Elizabeth. Our nation need more inspirations like you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shuttle and ISS

Shuttle Separates from the Station.  Image Credit:  NASA

Monday, March 24, 2008

Data Visualization for US Politics

With the end of the primary season coming up this summer, I expect a resurgence of the talk about "red and blue states" that dominated the 2004 election as we approach the direct engagement of the Republican and Democratic parties. This morning, I stumbled on a great site by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman from the University of Michigan that uses very nice cartographic representations of the last election results to better visualize the electorate.

Popular publications such as USA today published many maps of this sort showing the winner's party by county.

But this graphical representation fails to take into account either the population density, electoral votes by county, or how close the vote was. If you process the map topology and scale each county to represent electoral votes, and color the vote results as a continuous scale from red to blue with even results represented as a mixed color of purple, the result is much more interesting.

Rather than the stark red/blue divide of the trivial map above, a more representative view of our nation deemphasizes sparsely-populated geographies with little economic impact and highlights those regions driving tomorrow's economy. We also look like a much more homogeneous purple nation in this view.

Interestingly enough, in the economic-political view, the most politically homogeneous regions are the blue counties where economic development is the strongest.

Check out the whole site here.

Time-Lapse Video of Retreating Glacier

For all you climate change skeptics, check out this time-lapse video of the Columbia glacier near Valdez Alaska from National Geographic (click through for full res version.)

From the Nat Geo page:
This remarkable image sequence captures a series of massive calving events at Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska. Composed of 436 frames taken between May and September of 2007, it shows the glacier rapidly retreating by about half a mile (1.6 kilometers), a volume loss of some 0.4 cubic miles (1.67 cubic kilometers) of ice or 400 billion gallons (1.5 trillion liters) of water.

The time-lapse was taken as part of the ongoing Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), an ambitious project to capture global warming-induced glacial retreat in the act. Beginning in December 2006, photographer James Balog and his colleagues set up 26 solar-powered cameras at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Alps, and the Rocky Mountains. Each unit will take a photograph every daylight hour until fall 2009.

In 2008, Balog's team began to return to each of the camera sites to collect images. In the end, they will have more than 300,000 images to analyze and stitch together to produce more dramatic videos like this one.

This kind of multiyear effort, says Balog, is necessary to "radically alter public perception of the global warming issue."

Aurora from ISS

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While docked and onboard the International Space Station, a STS-123 Endeavour crew member captures the glowing green beauty of the Aurora Borealis March 21, 2008. Looking northward across the Gulf of Alaska, over a low pressure area (cloud vortex), the aurora brightens the night sky. This image was taken on March 21, 2008 at 09:08:46 GMT, credit-Reuters.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Most Children Left Behind

Just last week, I had a chance to hear a presentation by Alfie Kohn, one of the more (in)famous progressive education proponents, on the perils of emphasizing achievement and performance over engagement in a subject. Besides being an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, Alfie made a number of great points that really resonated with me regarding the damage a national obsession with standardized testing and assessment has wreaked on the quality of education at large. (We coincidentally follow most of Kohn's recommendations in how we operate the WISE labs and programs...)

His central point on this topic was that by focusing so much school and parental attention on HOW students are doing instead of on WHAT they are doing and WHY, the very effort assessment has a now reasonably well proven effect of focusing the student's attention on external validation from teachers and grades instead of on the actual subjects under study. The result, according to the many cited research articles, is that students lose intrinsic motivation and interest in the very subjects around which we really hope to instill a lifelong love of learning. It didn't take much effort to extend the notions not only to grades and class rank, but even further to parenting techniques and practices as well.

And of course, the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, already the whipping boy of education Illuminati nationwide, took a severe beating in the process. One of my favorite moments in his talk was when he impersonated our current President and Senator Ted Kennedy complete with accents in their "misguided support in passing the law." It didn't take much looking around online to find pretty strong independent evidence in support of what Mr Kohn has been saying for years on this topic. My favorite articles came from Rice University and the NY Times.

The Rice/UT study was particularly sobering, not just for its striking revelations surrounding the duplicity of the Texas public school system's reporting, but because it was this very public school system's approach that was used to promote and establish the model for the national NCLB legislation. In the study entitled "Avoidable Losses: High Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis" McNeil, Coppola, and Radigan of Rice University basically stripped the clothes right off the emperor.

Until recently, the GOP held out the "Texas Miracle" program as a model for national education reform with improving scores and an astonishingly low dropout rate of less than 3%. According to this paper, however, when researchers actually investigated how many high school students actually graduated within 5 years (not even the hoped for four-year tenure) the answer was a horrifyingly low 33%. Yes, 33%. I'll say it again, because I didn't believe it the first two times I read it either. Fewer than 33% percent of entering public high school students in Texas graduate within 5 years.

Needless to say, this doesn't quite match up with the public accounting of dropout rates the state has been touting for the last few years. When challenged, the state sheepishly admitted,

"The discrepancy between the official dropout rates, in the 2 to 3 percent range, and the actual rates can be attributed to the state's method of counting, which does not include students who drop out of school for reasons such as pregnancy or incarceration or declare intent to take the GED sometime in the future."
Duh. As if they didn't know that their purposefully and carefully chosen metric diverged so widely from the stated goals of the program. "Oh. You mean you want us to count ALL the dropouts?" And the real results?

"A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas' public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation -- a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, Latino and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students, the study found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

"High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn't lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities," said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. "It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately we found that compliance means losing students."

In the effort to improve scores, MOST children, 67% of them in fact, are being left behind. My personal belief has been for years that we KNOW there is a problem already, and more testing will not fix the problem. Further, it won't even tell us anything we don't already know. In reality, the effect is even more damaging than I could have possibly imagined.

This was exactly one of the key points Mr. Kohn was making writ large across an entire state with unforgivable effects on the lives of millions of children across the nation, particularly impacting minorities. Don't take my word for it, and don't think I have even begun to cover all the deleterious effects of the assessment obsession that Kohn describes with heartrending insight. Read the whole report here.

If all of the references on Alfie Kohn's site and the Rice/UT report weren't enough to really depress you, or if maybe the paper was a little too academic for you, check out last week's article from the NY Times entitled, "State's Data Obscure How Few Finish High School." It basically exposes more of the same sort of accounting fraud. Here is the acompanying graphic from the article.

Graduation Discrepancies

This educational assessment disaster is yet another very good reason to strongly consider replacing the current republican administration so that we might quickly halt the spread of this cancer that is strangling our nation's future.

Even more importantly, don't be fooled that the testing is good for your own kids, much less for the minority kids down the street.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Live 3D Graphics With Excel

Every time I get a chance to watch one of our finance folks over at MobiTV wield a spreadsheet, I learn some new tricks. Those financial analysis folks steeped in the arcane features of Excel seem to be able to make the software package produce ever more astounding and useful models of increasingly complex systems.

But this one takes the cake. Check out this really cool implementation of a 3D graphics rendering engine. IN EXCEL! Peter Rakos over at Gamasutra outdid himself.

This image and video pair shows the rendering system using a simple display that colors the native Excel spreadsheet cells as the calculations are being performed.

This image and video pair shows the same program using the Microsoft Office Graphics Abstraction Layer to do the rendering instead of using writes to the spreadsheet cell.

Even better, some of the spatial layout and cell computation models of spreadsheets turn out to be very useful in designing and presenting very compact and elegant representations of the rendering pipeline. This design and layout in the 2-D spreadsheet grid is massively easier to see and understand than all the simple linear text files that I coded up in my college graphics course. It also makes the interrelationships and cell/function dependencies immediately obvious, and debugging is trivial with live previews of the calculations while the program is running. High cool.

"The yellow color marks the user-defined parameters and green color indicates the engine-calculated values. Numbered areas contain the following data:

  1. Parameters of the perspective projection
  2. 3D coordinates of the objects' points (relative to their center)
  3. Shift and rotation matrix (further details can be found e.g. at
  4. Parameters of the rotation
  5. 3D absolute coordinates of the points after the shift and rotation
  6. 2D coordinates of the points after the perspective projection
  7. Screen coordinates of the points
  8. End points of the objects' edges
  9. Formula of an element in the shift and rotation matrix. Simplicity and compactness are clearly visible."

    Now I don't think anyone currently expects this to evolve into a real 3D simulation system, but it does point to some very interesting 2D layout programming paradigms that might very well turn out to be VERY useful in developing more complex software. It wouldn't surprise me if the professional code development environments evolve towards this sort of thing within the next few years. And of course, 3D environments are just a step away.

    And I have a whole new animation tool for my next presentation!

    Check out the whole post here.

    Wednesday, March 05, 2008

    Earth As Seen From Mars

    Saturday, March 01, 2008

    The Last Twelve Lunar Eclipses

    Here's a nice montage of the 12 most recent Lunar eclipses from APOD. Click on the image for a higher-res version.

    See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  an mpeg movie file.

    Twelve Lunar Eclipses
    Credit Tunç Tezel (TWAN)

    Explanation: Welcome to the extra day in the Gregorian Calendar's leap year 2008! To celebrate, consider this grid of lunar eclipse pictures - starting in leap year 1996 and ending with February's eclipse - with the date in numerical year/month/day format beneath each image. Mostly based on visibility from a site in Turkey, the 3x4 matrix includes 11 of the 13 total lunar eclipses during that period, and fills out the grid with the partial lunar eclipse of September 2006. Still, as the pictures are at the same scale, they illustrate a noticeable variation in the apparent size of the eclipsed Moon caused by the real change in Earth-Moon distance around the Moon's elliptical orbit. The total phases are also seen to differ in color and darkness. Those effects are due to changes in cloud cover and dust content in the atmosphere reddening and refracting sunlight into Earth's shadow. Of course, the next chance to add a total lunar eclipse to this grid will come at the very end of the decade.

    For another nice series of images highlighting the Moon's libration (wobble and variation in orbit ) see my related post entitled "Our Constant Moon?"

    Friday, February 29, 2008

    Abstinence-only Driver's Ed

    Don't miss reading this link at McSweeny's. Hilarious.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008

    We Are What We Drink

    Cerling and Ehleringer over at the University of Utah just published a paper in the online journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" describing their new forensic technique, which uses Hydrogen and Oxygen isotope concentrations from local water tables in your hair to determine where you have spend your time.

    The two maps here show predicted average hydrogen (top) and oxygen (bottom) isotope levels in human hair across the continental United States -- isotopes that vary with geography because of different isotope levels in local drinking water. The ratios of heavy, rare hydrogen-2 to lighter, common hydrogen -1 are highest in red and orange areas in the top map, and lowest in the blue and darker green areas. The ratios of heavy, rare oxygen-18 to lighter, common oxygen-16 are highest in red and orange areas of the bottom map, and lowest in the blue and darker green areas. Credit: University of Utah

    “You can tell the difference between Utah and Texas,” Ehleringer says. But, Cerling adds, “You may not be able to distinguish between Chicago and Kansas City.”

    So in case you're considering a life of crime, you might want to
    1. Consider a new bald or buzz-cut look so the encoded travel history you carry along with you is limited.

    2. Drink only bottled water

    3. Shelve any green tendencies and eat at only imported meat and produce.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    Lunar Eclipse Tonight

    Don't miss tonight's Lunar Eclipse. Otherwise you'll have to wait at least three more years to see another one.

    Eclipse Diagram

    More details at NASA.

    Sunday, February 17, 2008

    Aqua Forest Aquariums in SF

    If you happen to live in the area, and have the slightest interest in fresh-water aquaria, don't miss this amazing store in San Francisco.

    Read my whole review of the field and the store complete with more images at the WISE student blog where we're helping schools learn how to set up these incredible balanced micro-ecosystems.

    New WISE Web Site Launched

    Hi all,

    We just launched the new web site for the Westminster Institute for Science Education [W.I.S.E.]. Click on the logo below to check it out, including the links to the student and teacher blogs. Comments and suggestions welcome!

    Oh yes, and for any of you wealthy philanthropists or corporate titans with a hankering to invest in nationwide science, math, or technology education reform, donations are encouraged! Just email or message me, or post a comment here on "All the Best Bits."

    How Grandma Sees the Remote


    via Gizmodo.

    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire" Book Review

    If any of you need just the littlest bit of inspiration in your roles as teachers, mentors, or students or perhaps if you are a parent looking for that perfect school for your kids, I can strongly recommend Rafe Esquith's book entitled "Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire."

    Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

    Even halfway through the book, I found myself wishing I could get my daughters into a class like Room 56 at Hobart Elementary. Several chapters actually choked me up a little and seriously redoubled my motivations to make WISE a success. And the stories went on, and on, and on, and on to the point where it seemed almost impossible that so many incredibly cool things could be happening in one class under a single teacher. By the time I was finished with the quick read I realized that it is a passing rare teacher that can give so much of themselves to their students.

    Esquith demonstrates an almost pathological level of commitment to his students. But a couple of other critical traits show through the anecdotes. Esquith has an innate sense of very high standards across a very broad range of disciplines, coupled with both humility and initiative that in combination are more rare than hen's teeth. His humility reveals itself with a wry self-awareness and a willingness to critically evaluate where his skills and efforts fall short of his exceptional standards. The initiative comes into play when he realizes his failings and takes steps to find true experts and recruit them to support his cause. All of that combined with a work ethic most Protestants would find over-the-top makes for a magical classroom experience and students who regularly return after decades.

    After succumbing to my recommendation, me wannabe-teacher wife's major comment was, "I'm not sure I could give that much to my students. How would my own kids feel when so abandoned? That said, she read the book over a single night, and came away with the feeling "I would TOTALLY have LOVED that in 5th grade." An excellent read indeed. I wonder if there is any way to get seats for the play.

    From the book's back cover:
    “Rafe Esquith is my only hero.”
    —Sir Ian McKellan

    “Politicians, burbling over how to educate the underclass, would do well to stop by Rafe Esquith’s fifth grade class as it mounts its annual Shakespeare play. Sound like a grind? Listen to the peals of laughter bouncing off the classroom walls.”

    “Esquith is a modern-day Thoreau, preaching the value of good work, honest self-reflection, and the courage to go one’s own way.”

    Get it here on Amazon.

    Tuesday, February 05, 2008

    Dean Kamen's Prosthetic "Luke" Arm

    What a technical home run. If you need any more motivation to engage in cool robotics projects, just check out the reaction when the test subject figures out he can feed himself for the first time in 26 years. That's social impact. From the IEEE Spectrum site.

    Do Your Civic Duty

    Decisions are made by those who show up. So go and cast your vote without delay. Our country's future depends on you.


    And as long as you are planning to vote, I'd like to put in a plug for the candidates who support those areas of science, technology, and education that will form the foundation of our future economy.

    If you are in any doubt as to which candidates are looking towards the future, just visit these links that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has established to review the science and technology policies of each of the leading candidates.
    Without making any specific plugs, let's just say that the Republican party has not been kind to science in the last eight years, and it would be good for this country to realize significant revitalization in those areas. Vote for science and our future!

    Sunday, January 27, 2008

    Kindle Review

    I have seen the future of books, and it is the Kindle. Or maybe Kindle rev. 2 will be anyway.

    Product Image

    Having witness the repeated failure of several electronic book efforts in the past, I was pessimistic. But now I believe. Amazon's new approach to the electronic book has successfully tackled several of the key barriers that stymied earlier efforts with a very well-executed end-to-end service on top of an aggressive device design. And while there are still a few warts on the Kindle typical of most first-generation consumer electronics products, it is clearly pointing to a very interesting future.

    As an avid reader with an extensive personal library of fiction, non-fiction, and technical books (as the numerous bookshelves scattered about the house and the 40 boxes of books in my garage will attest) the idea of forgoing the heft and ease of browsing and reference was a daunting one. And yet, I acknowledge having suffered under challenges of managing both the library and the habit, particularly while traveling. I have come to resign myself to allocating at least 10-12 pounds of luggage space to carry the books and magazines necessary to fuel a week-long trip when I might not otherwise have time to stop at a book store on the way.

    So when the Kindle emerged, bolstered by the ~90,000 title library, I was intrigued. So I convinced a friend of mine with a similar early-adopter bent to loan me one for a couple weeks while I traveled in Europe and the US. I hoped to be able to load it up before traveling abroad, and so save some weight. I anticipated a few primary areas of potential concern surrounding usability, ergonomics, and the image quality and readability of the E-ink display.

    The integrated 3-G wireless system (using Sprint's 3G CDMA network, which while fine in the US, fails to roam internationally---so I had to load it up while in the US before leaving the country.) was already pre-provisioned on the device and linked to my Amazon account, which made it completely trivial to download half a dozen books from various best-seller and "New and Noteworthy" type lists, and a built in search feature made it equally trivial to purchase a couple more esoteric science fiction titles for some brain candy. The wireless service, while not competitive with my snappy broadband connection at home, was perfectly adequate to the task of downloading the books, and had generally delivered ordered titles within about 10 seconds. But mostly, it just worked. I also purchased copies of The NY Times, SF Chronicle, Washington Post, WSJ, SJ Merc. News, Time Magazine, and the Atlantic Monthly. In the purchase process, I found the magazine library to be the most limited, but I did like the push-delivery feature of both the newspapers and the magazines, where subscriptions are automatically delivered to the device. It was nice not to have to stop by the news stand on the way to the plane. The stuff was just on the device without having to worry about it.

    Even before I got on the plane, I was feeling pretty good about storing all the books, papers and mags on the 10 ounce Kindle, and enjoying the uncharacteristically light heft of my luggage. And I was feeling greener than ever when I realized how much paper I had just avoided purchasing, along with the fact that there was going to be no land-fill impact from my reading addiction, and perhaps even some jet fuel savings as well (there was a great article not to long ago on how one airline had saved something like $230 million in fuel expenses the first year they instituted a policy of removing as many magazines as possible from the planes between flights.). The titles were also about 1/3 the retail price of the books.

    A couple quick mental calculations were illuminating. In terms of personal cost, even at the hefty early-adopter price of $399 for the Kindle electronics, at my rate of reading, because the electronic versions were significantly discounted from the paper versions burdened with production and shipping costs (magazines were roughly 1/4 to 1/5 the paper price and books were between 1/3 and 1/2 the paper price), I would recover the cost of the device purchase inside of 2 months. Yes. I read A LOT.

    Moreover, I realize that in terms of potential national impact, if everyone in the US went electronic just in their newspaper habits, i.e. if everyone received their newspapers via Kindle instead of having them printed on paper and delivered to their door, the savings in fuel costs for distribution alone would likely fulfill the nation's obligations under the Kyoto accord. And there would obviously be further green benefits from leaving all the trees standing to help sequester more CO2. (My wife is probably having heart palpitations at the prospect of a greener husband.)

    Yes, yes, sorry about the green diversion. Back to books and reading. My first flight with the device, a one-stopper from SFO to Zurich, was a resounding success. The size and overall form-factor of the device made reading books and flipping pages easier than with the real thing. Newspapers became manageable even in the cramped airplane seating which would otherwise require much folding, refolding, and apologizing the neighbors. I didn't even utter the obligatory curses when the person in front of me slammed their seat back up under my chin.

    Even though, the E-ink screen re-write was slow (about 600 ms) compared to LCD panels, it was still faster and easier to click the button your thumb was resting on than to flip a real paper page. The screen resolution is fantastic, and the text is very readable even at the smallest font size, which makes an electronic book mimic a regular paperback in terms of words-per-page. The contrast could be better (only about 100:1 because the high-res black text sits on a background that is gray rather than white), but in the proper diffuse lighting (standard plane lamps were fine) I had no difficulties whatsoever even with my aging eyes. The fact that the display appears to be only black and white with no grayscale limits picture rendering to dithered images. So I think there are going to be delays in the transition for many media that are more image dependent, like Wired, or Cosmo, say, but the model clearly works for most text-centric media, and it is simply a matter of time until future generations of the device/service expand to support the entire industry.

    paper-like screen

    After using the device all week in Switzerland, and making the return flight to the US without having had to recharge the unit even once, I said a short mental eulogy to the paper books and magazines. Their days are numbered. From now on, I'll be doing as much reading on the Kindle and its progeny as possible. In several years, I might not even need a bookshelf anymore. How about that? An electronic gadget that enhances Feng Shuei!

    Here are a few observations on things that should, and will likely, improve in subsequent versions of the product.

    1.) There are too many next and previous page buttons, and their current positioning makes them too easy to press accidentally. There is no easy and obvious way to hold the device or hand the device to someone without advancing a page unless you are REALLY careful. Smaller and fewer buttons, placed on the front of the device where thumbs naturally rest would be sufficient.

    2.) The current buttons look designed to be really cheap and simple to manufacture, but are open to dirt and look easy to break off with rough or extended use because of overhangs at the device edge and open gaps between the buttons and the overall device chassis. Future versions should take note of lessons from the mobile phone industry which now have closed single-membrane front faces or continuous touch screens with no gaps for dirt or mechanical failure.

    3.) I would have preferred a slightly larger screen, along with the possibility of having that extra horizontal and vertical real estate potentially reduce the thickness or depth of the device.

    4.) A simple anti-reflection coating on the front surface of the e-ink panel would substantially improve the display performance and readability with more specular lighting.

    5.) the qwerty keyboard would benefit from being virtual on a larger touch-screen display, because you really only use it in the purchase phase, and not at all while reading, which is how you spend the majority of usage time. It would be nice if it could go away when you're not using it. I realize, however, that the current E-Ink display is too slow to offer UI feedback, so some development will be necessary there.

    6.) The power and wireless buttons need to be moved to the front or sides of the device. It's a pain in the ass to have to flip the unit over to find the buttons.

    7.) While the white plastic unit case does evoke the color of a regular book page, it also collects dirt and smudges from being in a briefcase. And while it does come with a leather cover, my inclination was to discard it because of the extra size and weight it adds. Again, lessons from the cellular phone and PDA industry would be instructive regarding enhanced metallic and textured finishes that are more attractive and wear better at little additional cost.

    8.) The overall UI design was generally utilitarian, but clearly suffers from the slow update rate of the E-ink display. Menus take too damn long to load because they require a complete screen re-write cycle. There is a clever hack using a small PDLC display and scroll wheel on the side of the main display, but it is clearly a hack. I would recommend looking at figuring out how to do partial screen refreshes at faster update rates, i.e. only re-write the menu window to see if there isn't some way to speed that up. (the current version seems to gray-out the contents in the main window to forward the menu, but I think there might be a better trade-off in leaving the background and speeding up the menu refresh to improve navigation. This would be a nice area to explore in conjunction with making a virtual keyboard using a touch-screen interface.

    9.) Regarding the e-book format, it would be nice to have this be an open format that I could read on any device. While I don't expect my laptop battery to over a competitive platform to well-designed Kindle-type tablet for extended reading sessions, I would love to have electronic reference books available for my laptop.


    Keep in mind here, that I'm notably particular about gadget design, and that even with these first-generation flaws, I think the device is a winner. I'm definitely looking forward to the next revision. In summary, if you're a casual or infrequent reader, I'm not sure this is a device or service for you. But for the avid reader, particularly you mobile ones, don't wait. Get one now.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

    A very topical Op-Ed piece from Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle by Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. I liked it so much I include it in its entirety here.

    Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

    Sunday, January 20, 2008

    "Two years ago, the National Academies published the seminal study on U.S. competitiveness entitled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The study identified major shortcomings in U.S. investments in basic scientific research as well as in math and science education for our youngsters. The suggestions contained in this study were immediately picked up by the Democratic House Leadership as their competitiveness strategy and later by President Bush in his State of the Union message under his American Competitiveness Initiative. Legislation in the form of the America Competes Act was passed in the House and Senate in 2007, and it appeared the United States was finally going to move forward after years of neglect to increase investment in math, science and basic research. All parties agreed that our competitiveness in the 21st century was at stake and we needed to act.

    So much for political will.

    The recent budget deal between Republicans and Democrats effectively flat-funds or cuts funding for key science agencies. Excluding "earmarks," the Department of Energy funding for fiscal year 2008 is up only 2.6 percent, thus losing ground to inflation. The National Science Foundation is up 2.5 percent, with the same result. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is up 11 percent, however the labs where research happens only get 2.3 percent, again losing ground to inflation. Key national laboratories, such as the Fermilab, which focuses on high-energy particle physics research, face the likelihood of hundreds of jobs being lost and the closing of some facilities, helping to shortchange defense research. Predicting the impact of such funding cuts in basic research on future job creation is difficult. Who could have predicted a $300 billion semiconductor industry from the invention of a transistor? But our kids who are heading to college are very smart. They will make their career decisions based on where they see the priorities of our government and economy.

    The funding decisions on the America Competes Act took place a few days after Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill. In the eyes of our political leaders, apparently, corn subsidies to Iowa farmers are more important for our competitiveness in the next century than investing a few billion in our major research universities. The president expressed his happiness with the budget and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said, "The president didn't get his priorities, we got ours."

    At a time when the rest of the world is increasing its emphasis on math and science education (the most recent international tests - NAEP and PISA - show U.S. kids to be below average) and increasing their budgets for basic engineering and physical science research, Congress is telling the world these areas are not important to our future. At a time when we are failing our next generation of students, politically charged topics such as steroids in Major League Baseball and the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes command instantaneous congressional hearings while the seed corn (no pun intended) of our future is ignored and placed lower in priority than billions of dollars of earmarks.

    Perhaps this would all be a moot discussion if we could continue to import the best and brightest minds from around the world to start and staff our next generation of high tech startups. But Washington can't even get that strategy straight, as legal immigration - the process by which bright, highly educated workers immigrate to the United States - is being choked by our inability to control illegal immigration. While the EU has proposed a simplified and expanded program for importing highly educated talent from the rest of the world, we continue to make if more difficult for the same talent to work in the United States, even when some of these knowledge workers have received their education in the United States at partial taxpayer expense.

    Where are the voices in Washington to bring reasoned debate and action to these topics? Where are the voices among the presidential candidates to propose solutions to these challenges? What do we elect our political leaders for if not to protect our long-term future?

    The United States stands at a pivotal point in our history. Competition is heating up around the world with millions of industrious, highly educated workers who are willing to compete at salaries far below those paid here. The only way we can hope to compete is with brains and ideas that set us above the competition - and that only comes from investments in education and R&D. Practically everyone who has traveled outside the United States in the last decade has seen this dynamic at work. The only place where it is apparently still a deep, dark secret is in Washington, D.C.

    What are they thinking? When will they wake up? It may already be too late; but I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren't holding us back.

    Craig Barrett is the chairman of Intel."

    Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    Twinkle Twinkle Little Variable Stars

    My astrophysics professors always TALKED about variable stars and how particularly important the Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables have been in helping establish interstellar and intergalactic distance scales. They would show "Light Curve" graphs like this one from McMaster University in Canada that depicted the changes in stellar brightness over time.

    I realized intellectually, that many of the variable stars had periods on the order of a day and rather large changes in magnitude, but for some reason, nobody had taken any decent movies to really highlight the ubiquity or true visual impact of these stars. But contrast this traditional static image of the M3 Globular Cluster

    See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

    with this relatively recent four-frame movie take by Krzysztof Stanek and Andrew Szentgyorgyi over the course of one night in 1998 on the 1.2 m. telescope at F.L. Whipple Observatory in Arizona.

    M3 Color Movie

    Wow. That really gets the idea of variable stars across. And now with the temporal information across field of view, you start to notice other things that weren't obvious before, and that leads to new questions such as, " why to several of the stars separated by many light years seem to flash in synchrony? What is the mechanism for synchronization?"

    If you like that action, you'll love what the forthcoming LST telescope will turn out. Stay tuned for more.

    Images courtesy (APOD)

    Politicians Speaking in Code

    Who says encryption is only for mathematicians, geeks, or credit card transactions?

    Generally, I am used to politicians dodging questions they are asked while trying to "stay on message" to push their specific agenda. But there seems to be a new trend in political communication of sending "secret" messages to core constituent groups that are very strategically and specifically encoded or worded so as to not put-off others outside of that core group. Otherwise they might otherwise seek alternative candidates if directly confronted with an open message. And I really do mean code, as in encrypted messages that only those who have, or figure out, the appropriate key can understand. My favorite recent example was pointed out to me by Josh Marshal and his blog readers.

    One of Mike Huckabee's core campaign messages this season is that he thinks America needs "Vertical Politics" rather than "Horizontal Politics," and a "Vertical Thinker" for its next President. Here are a couple of examples from his speeches and his web site.

    Being reasonably well-informed politically, this sort of verbiage didn't even register with me as anything unusual or even noteworthy. It didn't appear to me as anything more than a typical no-content type positioning statement much like "We need change," or "The urgency of now." (More on this last code later).

    But it turns out there was a very important message embedded in what sounded, at first blush, to be otherwise meaningless positioning verbiage. I, however, being outside of the core group of intended recipients, did not have the key to decrypt the secret message. If you happen to be an evangelical Christian, or a faithful church-going Baptist, you probably already know what Mr. Huckabee is talking about because you have the key to his secret code. "Vertical Thinking" has become part of the common evangelical vernacular (see here on "Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking" and here at the "" blog for explanations and the general philosophy).

    The real message turns out to be a very clear statement to those "informed" that the US as a whole would be better off with a leader who holds God as the origin of all inspiration, morality, and, well, everything, and uses that to guide his leadership. This is in contrast to "Horizontal Thinking" wherein man figures things out without looking to God; it is this "Horizontal Thinking," according to Huckabee, which has gotten the US into so much trouble.

    Now it's certainly true that Mr. Huckabee has been completely open about his history as Baptist minister, and I have to say that in the end, the message is completely consistent with his background. And I have nothing against any candidate who would clearly state a religious political agenda. But I find the wording that was so clearly calculated to pass innocuously beneath the notice of the unaligned moderates while still reassuring the faithful to be both a stroke of genius and rather insidious at the same time. It demonstrates a realization that if his agenda were completely out in the open, and the candidate were forced to speak clearly and openly without obfuscating their position in order to placate a conflicted constituency (i.e. the evangelical vs. fiscal republican bases) they could not actually garner winning support.

    In all fairness, Huckabe isn't the only politician speaking in code. Sean over at Cosmic Variance pointed out Obama's "Urgency of Now" type code words taken straight from the civil rights movement.

    My personal preference would be to support a candidate who is completely open in his communication, without depending on codes or secret messages decipherable only be specific constituent groups. I want to understand what other constituencies I might be supporting inadvertently by supporting someone like Huckabee, and where their agendas differ from my own.

    I would also prefer that a candidate support such "horizontally" conceived issues such as stem cell research, family planning strategies based on real historical performance data and research, support for abatement of climate change. Lately, I have begun to contrast candidates who look backwards through tradition and religious adherence, and favor candidates who will openly accept the world as it is based on open scientific inquiry and look forward to how things might be. Is there such a visionary candidate?

    Well anyway, I have a couple new code keys now, and so do you. What other sorts of secret political codes can we winkle out? How would you construct a clever political code?