An article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (yes, I do read my new hometown’s daily paper) features the above image of the XO laptop designed as low-cost hardware to be supplied to children around the world. What attracted me to the image is the manner in which it anthropomorphizes the technology: the screen swiveled at an angle as if the XO had just turned to face us, the ear-like antennae perked up as if it were listening, and of course, the images of children to bring home the point. It would be difficult to make technology appear any more friendly.

And indeed, the technology seems quite friendly! Not just in terms of its use, but also in terms of its creators’ goals. One Laptop per Child (OLPC) intends “to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves,” through an innovative combination of hardware, software, and economic strategy. I’ve had an opportunity to see several XO laptops, but I haven’t played with one much. Very clever, in more ways than one.

BTW, the OLPC website features an interactive showing how the wee laptops communicate: the ear metaphor for the antennae actually suggests how the hardware daisy-chains together connecting one another. Humanizing and illustrative!

More Abstraction

Okay, I give up.

No, not with the blog, in spite of my lousy track record posting lately. I give up trying to figure out the image above…

I mean, it’s pretty and all, but what does it mean? I’m so baffled that I won’t even complain about the pseudocolor (indeed, I’m quite fond of orange). I read through the press release and the accompanying caption (which seems to have been removed recently), but… Huh?

Here’s the caption, BTW: “Spectroscopic image showing the microwave-frequency magnetic resonances of an array of parallel, metallic thin film nanowires (‘stripes’). The peak in the center is due to resonances occurring at the stripe edges while the strong horizontal bar is due to resonances in the body of the stripes.”

Since I’m trained in astronomy, my tendency is to read frequency along the horizontal axis, which would imply a peak of some sort at a particular frequency, but that doesn’t feel right, somehow. Maybe it’s actually a spectrogram of some sort, with the horizontal axis representing the spatial extent of the nanowires?

Whatever the image tries to show, the real question is: why confuse people with it?

The NSF Nose Best

It’s that time of year again! The National Science Foundation has announced the winners of the 2007 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

What I find clever about the image above is exactly what is remarked upon in the caption from Science magazine’s Ben Lester. “Normally, CT renderings meld slices together into smooth surfaces, but, in what he terms the ‘Rainbow Technique,’ Fung instead broke them apart, creating a topographical map of the airspaces described by the contour lines of individual slices, and colored according to the density of the tissues that border them.”

I question whether that’s a completely accurate description of the technique: the contour-like color variation suggests that there’s more than tissue density informing the color selection. Regardless, the technique draws attention to the asymmetries in the image, which would be far less apparent if the same data were rendered in a photorealistic fashion. As always, I wonder how the uninitiated interpret images such as this, but overall, I rather like it. Even the Moiré patterns I manage to find both engaging and distracting at the same time.

(A much less appealing—in fact, presumably inadvertant—appearance of contours shows up in an image associated with an ESO press release that came out today. I would recommend a Gaussian blur, kiddos!)

Anyway, take a look at the other winners. Interesting stuff. You can check them out via the link above or by going to the corresponding page on the Science magazine site.

One short year ago, I blogged about a 2006 winner (while I was visiting Chicago and listening to Wolf Parade, evidently), which also happened to be a CT scan. And that reminds me! This blog is just a little over a year old. Sadly, I’ve been unable to pay as much attention to it of late, but so it goes. I won’t give up just yet (although I will cringe when people make reference to it at conferences or before I give a talk, since I’m embarrassed at how rarely I post nowadays).

Mathematica Mojo

Visiting Chicago for the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I attended a one-day session on astronomy visualization (the usual suspects). Lots of things caught my attention, but I thought I’d highlight the Wolfram Demonstrations Project, a collection of visual (non-Java) applets that utilize the free Mathematica Player.

The image above is a snapshot of the “day and night world clock” from the collection. Nothing too special about it, particularly as a snapshot, but within the player, you can fiddle with the time of year and time of day to see how the dividing line between day and night changes over the course of the year. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the Geochron clock at my local planetarium, so perhaps I’m just being nostalgic. Still, I enjoy watching the terminator’s projection on the flat surface, bending through the course of a year.

Among the other demonstrations, I like the Cepheid light curve, too, as well as the hydrogen orbitals and the inverse Hilbert matrices.

Ball and Stick, Apple and Orange

Science Daily reported on research from Rice University that had actually appeared in a press release from Rice last week. Go figure. The new article includes the above image, however, which could be perceived as an improvement (or not) over the text-only copy from Rice.

A quick glance at the image caused a sudden nag, and I started to browse on before I figured out what was bothering me.

The nanotube should be made of atoms, right? Presumably those little grey shiny balls in the molecular model above. But interior to the nanotube, we see brightly-colored (one might be tempted to call them radioactive-looking) blobs that look like a scanning-electron micrograph of something-or-other. But these are supposed to be atoms! Specifically, astatine atoms, which should be a fair bit bigger than shown here.

This isn’t a big deal, I suppose, but it’s oddly distracting. First off, they use different visual vocabulary to represent the same kind of thing: atoms are shown in two distinctly different ways in the above image. Secondly (and I know I’m going out on a limb here), the image they choose perhaps even vaguely suggests cancerous cells… And given that the press release concerns using nanotubes to treat cancer, that’s potentially problematic.

Holy CMB, Batman!

A press release from NRAO announces, “Astronomers Find Enormous Hole in the Universe.” Hmmm. I’ll refrain from commenting on the overzealous word choice (except insofar as I just did) and focus on the image above.

I have to admit that the first thing I thought of when I saw the diagram was a poorly-rendered traffic cone—with a circular base, executed with an acute lack of graphical perspective.

The caption reads: “Illustration of the effect of intervening matter in the cosmos on the cosmic microwave background (CMB). On the right, the CMB is released shortly after the Big Bang, with tiny ripples in temperature due to fluctuations in the early Universe. As this radiation traverses the Universe, filled with a web of galaxies, clusters, superclusters and voids, it experiences slight perturbations. In the direction of the giant newly-discovered void, the WMAP satellite (top left) sees a cold spot, while the VLA (bottom left) sees fewer radio galaxies.”

The viewer (i.e., astronomers with their WMAP satellite and radio telescopes) is off to the left of the image, and it would probably be worth continuing the sides of the traffic cone until they meet—at Earth! Otherwise, it really doesn’t make much sense. Given its opacity and apparent solidity, the traffic cone looks like a structure, and truncating it simply exacerbates the problem.

Plus, the pictures of the two telescopes distract from what’s going on and further confuse things. They hover there by the tip of the cone, as if they belong there. But the radio telescope wasn’t even part of the observation depicted by the diagram: radio observations supplied confirming evidence.

I admit that I don’t have an immedite solution on how to depict the observations better, although the above image could be improved by making the cone appear more transparent, more a part of some continuous medium affecting the observations, and more connected to an observation point to the left of the image. Oh, and more appropriate in its perspective.

Curiously, the image is offered as a 73KB JPEG, a 278KB JPEG, and… a 34.3 MB TIFF! Now, I’m all about lossless compression of images, and I noticed that the giant TIFF had no compression whatsoever. So, just for kicks, I saved it out with LZW compression and it shrunk to 9.1MB. Yeah, disk space is cheap, but c’mon, let’s be sensible.


And if I see it crescent, what does that make me?

I know I’ve commented on comics before, as well as on incorrectly rendered moons. But the Family Circus above represents a classic astronomical faux pas—a couple, actually. With a bit of plain stupidity mixed in.

The plain stupidity I’ve already made reference to: it’s a crescent moon, duh. But also, if the moon were seen as a crescent as depicted, the sun would also be up in the sky—i.e., it would be daylight! And a more subtle point can be extrapolated from the orientation of the crescent: either Grandma’s getting Dolly and Billy up very early in the morning wherever they live in Middle America, or they’re staying up after dark in the Southern Hemisphere.

Anyway, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I couldn’t resist, as a way of breaking my week-long silence.

Earth Tones

Great, simple, clear image. Kudos to the NASA Earth Observatory! Here’s the caption:

“This image, created from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite from June 26 though July 3, 2007, shows land surface temperatures compared to average temperatures observed during the same period in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Deep red across the Southwest and the Intermountain West indicate that temperatures were much higher than they were in 2000-2002. The Southeast also experienced warmer temperatures. Northern California, Oregon, and Washington appear to be cooler than in previous years, as indicated by the blue tones. The heat wave started mid-way through the week-long period shown in this image. While temperatures may have soared at the end of the period, cooler temperatures earlier in the week dominate the signal.

“The Southern Plains are dark blue where temperatures were much cooler than they had been in previous years. During this period, torrential rains drenched the region, causing wide-spread flooding in Texas and Oklahoma and in Kansas and Missouri. The gray region over Kansas and Oklahoma is an area in which MODIS could not record the land’s temperature because of perpetual cloud cover during the week-long period.”

My only quibble is that “anomaly” might not be best phrase to communicate with broad audiences. “Variation from 2000-02 Average Temperature” maybe? Something like that?

The full-size, 4.8MB image shows the entire surface of the Earth, BTW. And the uniform grey oceans mean that you could easily add an alpha channel… Hmmm.

Stellar Tiramisu?

The press release from ESO compares a red giant to tiramisu—because, as Luca Pasquini puts it, “There is cocoa powder only on the top!” Hmmm.

(The cocoa powder analogy has to do with the distribution of heavy elements in stars with planets. We know that extrasolar planets are preferentially seen around stars with high iron content, but do the planets form around stars with a lot of iron distributed throughout, or do planets sprinkle iron, cocoa-like, on the stars’ surfaces?)

The image above does a bang-up job, I must say. It possesses clarity, first and foremost, comparing apples to apples and balancing the diagrammatic and the photorealistic with aplomb. I like the clear labels (with caveats to be addressed below), and the two stars even show limb darkening. Most especially, I must express my deepest appreciation for the inclusion of a small figure (in the lower right) to communicate scale! Yes! Fantastic! Super! Well done!

I would not go so far as to suggest that the diagram is flawless in its execution, however. Aside from a slight irrelevance to the topic at hand, the main liability I can detect is the inconsistency between the left- and right-hand images: “radiative zone” gets labelled only on the left, while ”burning shell” appears on the right. Something of a fumble in the home stretch…

And the Tiger Shall Lie Down with the Piglet

The inspiration for the above picture (taken, BTW, from a random blog page that at least gets most of the facts right) came while waiting in line at a restaurant here in Provincetown. They had several images posted, including the one above, showing mucho interspecies friendliness. I guess it fits with the love-everybody aesthetic of this place…

Anyway, the general story posted with the picture went something like the following:

“In a zoo in California, a mother tiger gave birth to a rare set of triplet tiger cubs. Unfortunately, due to complications in the pregnancy, the cubs were born prematurely and due to their tiny size, they died shortly after birth.

“The mother tiger after recovering from the delivery, suddenly started to decline in health, although physically she was fine. The veterinarians felt that the loss of her litter had caused the tigress to fall into a depression. The doctors decided that if the tigress could surrogate another mother’s cubs, perhaps she would improve.

“After checking with many other zoos across the country, the depressing news was that there were no tiger cubs of the right age to introduce to the mourning mother. The veterinarians decided to try something that had never been tried in a zoo environment. Sometimes a mother of one species will take on the care of a different species. The only ‘orphans’ that could be found quickly, were a litter of weaner pigs. The zoo keepers and vets wrapped the piglets in tiger skin and placed the babies around the mother tiger.

“Would they become cubs or pork chops?”

Of course it takes place in California! Always California… Anyway, I’d never seen the email with these images before, but evidently, it’s been around a while. And as with anything that looks mildly suspicious like this, it pays to check with Snopes. Turns out the pigs and tigers are real, but the whole thing has a more mundane aspect: the photos come from the Shriracha Tiger Zoo just outside Bangkok, where the piglet-tiger combos serve a sideshow niche. The Snopes page goes on to list a darker side to the whole venture, however.

So, at the level of interspecies relations, the pictures aren’t a hoax, and as such, I offer them up for your enjoyment and edification. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the tiger shall lie down with the piglet; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Or something like that. Great. Where’s our peace?

BTW, I’ve had terrible connectivity here in P-Town, which is why I haven’t been posting. Yeah, right. Back in the Bay Area on Monday!