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Here’s a story from last month about the Boston police and the use of license plate scanners. The scanners in question are just video cameras with some clever software designed to read plate numbers as they drive by. That may seem high tech now, but you’ll be doing it with your phone by Labor Day. Google recently demonstrated similar software that can read street address signs from Street View imagery.

So this Boston story is being presented as violation of privacy. Is it? What it really points to the slippery boundary between public and private these days. The technology required to build a plate scanner these days is not expensive. And it can’t be illegal to write down the license plate of a vehicle parked in a public place. What’s new is that you and your friends, just in the process of driving around with plate scanners, can assemble detailed information about the comings and goings of all your neighbors. The information is all public. I don’t see a way to stop it. This public-as-private pattern is showing up all over the place. The human form of the plate scanner problem is unsolicited face recognition. It’s not illegal for me to capture you in photo, and if the giant cloud brain is big enough to spot you in an incriminating position, that’s going to cause some discomfort.

This is already happening. The NameTag facial recognition app uses publicly available data to match your face with your name. This is what might be called a privacy invasion, only it’s powered by people’s natural desire to post labeled images of themselves on the web. The NameTag people are just aggregating that information. Did they sin?

One redeeming part of the story is that humans evolved in a world without privacy. We have no “biological expectation” of privacy. Google’s Vint Cerf went so far as to call privacy “an anomaly”. For almost the entire history of the human race, people have lived in small communities in which every action was accountable, every deed was scrutinized and judged by neighbors. We come from a small town, and to that small town we return. Welcome home.

Okay, one more post about this solstice business, and then we’ll put it to bed for another six months or so.

January 3rd was the day, at my latitude, with the latest sunrise. Having safely passed that date, we are now well and truly growing the day at both ends. Despite cold days ahead, we can nevertheless look forward to rapidly expanding sunlight hours. That counts for a lot in my book. Anyway, as you can quickly deduce, there are four crepuscular extremes during the year: earliest and latest sunrise, and earliest and latest sunset. If we are to recognize the special nature of any of these days, we should be prepared to recognize all of them. With that in mind, I dub them Crepusculus Winter-Set, Crepusculus Winter-Rise, Crepusculus Summer-Rise, Crepusculus Summer-Set. Bit of a mouthful, I know, but it’s all in the name of thoroughness.

As part of pondering sunrises late and early, I asked myself this question: who shares the instant of that latest sunrise with me? It’s not hard to work it out on a map, but doing the calculations was fun. Here it is on a globe view.

isochrons_04

And here we are zoomed in to the east coast of the U.S. As you can see, dawn’s rose-red fingers tickle almost the entire eastern seaboard at the same instant. I share that moment of daybreak with people from the western tip of Cuba to the north shore of Iceland.

isochrons_05

If you’re curious about how I created the plot, I talk about it more in a MATLAB-related post over here: Crepuscular Isochrons: Sunrise Here and There.

Happy Crepusculus!

Today is the special day that I celebrate each year. At my latitude (42 degrees North), the earliest sunset of the year is December 9th. At my exact location, that sunset time is 4:12:06 PM, Eastern Standard Time. More or less. And behold, my Sunset Clock is showing all the sunsets for the next two weeks occurring later than today! This is the sort of thing that makes me happy.

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If you are puzzled about the earliest sunset happening a few weeks before the shortest day, I agree with you that it is a little puzzling. My best effort explaining can be found here: The Earliest Sunset.

Now onto the important part: names. A special day deserves a special name. As a late riser, today has more significance than the solstice itself. When the sun rises is a matter of extreme indifference to me.

Last year I proposed to calling the day Seculus, following a recommendation that I came across on the web. But that idea didn’t gain much ground. So let’s try another one: Crepusculus, after the Latin for twilight. So? Will it sell? What do you think? What name would you prefer? These things matter. Hallmark will pay you big bucks if you can cook up another cardable day.

When the robots come, how will they come? Here’s one answer: the robot sheepdog. Researchers in Australia have built a robot that does an admirable job herding cattle, as you can see in the video below.

The researchers cite some advantages that robots have over people and animals. They don’t get tired and they don’t mind long hours or night shifts, so long as they get to charge up every now and again. They can gather data continuously, monitoring the health of individual animals or recording when intruders appear.

In watching the video, I was reminded of something I read in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan spends much of the book profiling the Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. One of Salatin’s innovative farming techniques is to use movable electrified fences to create small pastures that can be moved to a different location every day. These “walking pastures” allow Salatin to slowly cycle the cows around, preventing overgrazing and distributing the manure around the property. A second fenced area moves chickens around in the wake ot the cows, But the mobile fence operation is labor intensive. A robot dog would give a farmer the dynamic and programmable ability to move a virtual fence around at will. Even more effectilvely than Salatin’s electric fence, a robo-dog-fence could calmly guide cows to wherever their mouths and manure are needed.

Will robot-tipping be a fraternity sport in the future?

Have you ever had that experience of waiting through a traffic jam only to find that there was no accident, no construction, no constriction, no cop by the side of the road. Just a giant vehicular bolus that came and then went. I used to think that the jam-causing blockage had been cleared up by the time I got to the front, but it turns out the real answer is more insidious. When traffic is dense enough, standing waves of car-particles can build up quickly and with very little initial disturbance. In the extreme, one injudicious tap on the breaks can ruin everyone’s commute. Don’t believe me? Here’s a little interactive graphic to show how it works.

What Are Traffic Waves and Why Do They Happen So Much?

Scroll down to the circular highway diagram and press the “Hit the Brakes” button.

traffic-wave

Still skeptical? Here is an experiment with real cars that demonstrates the same idea.

But there’s good news too. Traffic waves are an emergent property of a dense particle flow. But that flow is becoming less dense. Believe it or not, there are fewer and fewer cars on American roads every year. Listen to this trifecta.

1. We own fewer cars.
2. The cars that we own are being driven less.
3. The driving that we’re doing is more fuel efficient.

This is not to pretend that cars will be gone anytime soon, but those trends are all moving in the right direction, if you believe this (PDF) report from Michael Sivak at the Univeristy of Michigan: Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?. Or you can just read the summary on Greentech Media: More Evidence That America May Have Reached ‘Peak Car’. Nobody knows for sure if these changes are permanent or if we’re still experiencing a post-recession hangover. But it warms the heart in a world of bad news. Then again, I don’t sell cars for a living.

The singing group that I’m in with my daughter is having a concert this Sunday (November 17th) at 4 PM. The location is the Newton Highlands Congregational Church at 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands.

nfs-fall2013

There’s a Talking Heads sub-theme going. I get to channel David Byrne for the first solo on Once in a Lifetime. Something that I’ll probably get a chance to do once in, you know, a very long time.

Follow the link for more information: NFS’ Fall Concert on November 17th.

I like the fact that the group is an activity I get to do with my daughter. I’m used to shuttling her around, but this is one place where I drop her off and stay. And afterward we get to sing the same songs together.

This is your Podcast Recommendation Post. I have a half hour commute every morning and evening, and I almost always listen to books on Audible. But between books, I usually plow through a bunch of podcasts. For a while I was listening to the History of Rome podcast, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But since the Roman Empire ended, so too did the podcast. So here’s your first tip: history podcaster Mike Duncan is back at it with Revolutions, “a weekly podcast series examining great political revolutions.”

The second tip also has a Roman connection: you should be listening to 99% Invisible with host Roman Mars. I just did a ten-show binge, and they were all good and getting better. As a product of the 1980s, I especially liked the show he did with the Planet Folks on Trading Places, the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy movie. If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, here’s a written version of the basic story: What Actually Happens At The End Of ‘Trading Places’?

It’s really staggering how many good podcasts there are.

We know what bad drones can do, but what about the good ones? Sensefly is a company that can map a disaster site with a few hand-held robot planes. Their latest PR move is to map the Matterhorn with the same technology. It’s pretty remarkable. Watch the video.

You see this and you realize it’s is being done by a small company with limited funds. Soon, these things, and other robots like them, are going to be everywhere. I imagine they’ll be putting aerial survey pilots out of business just as soon as the FAA sorts out how to manage drones and people in the same airspace.

And while these guys map the earth, the underwater drones will be spanning the seven seas. Get ready for a data tsunami.

I’ve started to notice significant numbers of LED streetlights around my town. This makes me happy for a few reasons: the lights use less energy, they last longer, the color is more pleasant, and they dump less light overboard into the sky.

berlin

I was thinking of this when I saw a picture of Berlin taken at night. After all these years, you can still see the divide between the east and west. It’s nothing like North and South Korea, but still, what’s going on? Different kinds of lights originated with different governments long ago, and the difference persists. The orange lights in the east are sodium vapor streetlights (Natriumdampflampen!) whereas on the west they had the whitish mercury vapor lamps (Quecksilberdampflampen!).

It got me wondering what the US will look like five years from now as you fly across it at night. Perhaps the sickly orange grid (we like those sodium vapor lights too) will be replaced by a muted soft white lattice.

It’s easy to latch onto one version of a story and forget about it for a few years. For a long time LED lightbulbs and solar power were the fanciful dreams of tree huggers. While it’s true that they’re not going to free us from petroleum anytime soon, they are both making huge advances. Here is an encouraging report from Greentech Media: Four Charts That Prove the Future of Clean Energy Is Arriving. Once these technologies become good business choices on their own merits (that is, unsubsidized), they will blossom quickly.

Have you read about this amplituhedron thing? Here’s an article that describes it: Physicists Discover Geometry Underlying Particle Physics.

You’ll be happy to know that the related improvements to twistor theory vastly simplifty the Britto–Cachazo–Feng–Witten recursion involved in the scattering process. In fact, I suspect you’ll never look at Britto–Cachazo–Feng–Witten recursion the same way again.

What I like about this is that it sounds so much like the crackpot science of mumbling weirdos. Or even better, the whole article reads like the loopy faux-physics back story in science fiction movies. You know, when the geeky scientist guy explains to the protagonist why the time machine works or the faster than light toaster or whatever.

doc-brown

I mean, this is from the first line of the article: We have “discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.”

A coruscating jewel at the heart of space-time. Thousands of hours of supercomputer time reduced to a scrap of paper. The foundations of physics buckling and reshaping before our eyes.

Yeah right. Sounds like H.P. Lovecraft to me.

You read this, and you think, oh wait, these people are credible? Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard, Oxford?

Sometimes a little math does the trick. Sometimes truth is as good as fiction. In 1931, while Einstein and his wife were visiting Caltech, they took a trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory. As Einstein admired the gigantic device, his wife Elsa got the last word.

Like a child at play, [Einstein] scrambled about the framework, to the consternation of his hosts. Nearby was Einstein’s wife, Elsa. Told that the giant reflector was used to determine the universe’s shape, she reportedly replied, “Well, my husband does that on the back of an old envelope.”

(from National Geographic)

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