Sunday, October 31, 2004

We Are All Becoming Data Processors

I remember reading the book The Hungry Ocean and thinking about the fact that a good Swordfish boat captain was no longer determined by how well you could read the weather, the birds, the water and instead was determined by how well you could parse the data: weather feeds, water temperatures, sonar output. The intrinsic feel that humans get was now being replaced by being able to intelligently interpret massive amounts of data.

As you look around you see more and more jobs where data interpretation is replacing other skills. There was the 60 Minutes show interviewing NFL head coaches.

NFL teams have more software engineers today than water boys. The Patriots, the Panthers -- every team spends millions on special video player-super-computers that allow every coach to scout every opponent’s every move.

Fox showed Stahl a game the Green Bay Packers played last year. “I could actually pick every game they’ve played and we can store up to three years,” says Fox.

Who knew that Vince Lombardi and his film projector would turn into this? The technology lets you go back, slow-motion, even sort by player. “If I’m evaluating a wide receiver, say his number is 85, I can push that, load it in and basically pull out all the plays he was involved in,” says Fox.

Fox spends endless hours at this. And Belichick comes to work at 5 a.m. to fire up his computer, and analyze his opponents.
And then there was this article in Wired about fighting wild fires. No longer is successful firefighting determined by how well trained your fire fighters are and the gear they have. Instead it is up to the commander using good fire simulation software to determine where the fire will go and distribute your troops accordingly. The data crunching and simulations are replacing the skills of old.
Predicting the path of wildfires has long been a notoriously difficult task because they continually react to an infinite mix of ever-changing conditions. Wind speed, varying terrain, and differing vegetation, for instance, can all influence how fast and furiously a fire burns. Big gusts can drive flames 200 feet into the air and fan fires that wipe out thousands of acres of timber within minutes. Temperatures can reach 2,000 degrees, roughly that of molten lava. The heat creates violent updrafts that loft thousands of golf ball-sized embers, called firebrands, hundreds of feet high, raining a fiery hell onto ground crews and igniting dozens of new fires. The conventional strategy for containing these kinds of big blazes - besides praying for rain - has been brute force. Ground crews, called hotshots, dig trenches and clear vegetation to create "fuel breaks" in the path of approaching flames. Firefighters also rely on tanker planes that drop thousands of gallons of water and chemical retardant. Yet the intense heat and speed of a big blaze can overwhelm almost any attempt to stop it.

Hotshots and tanker planes still play a vital role in battling wildfires, but the overall firefighting strategy - the where, when, and how many - is increasingly being left to computers. Consider a simulation program called Farsite (short for Fire Area Simulator). Created by Mark Finney, a researcher at the US Department of Agriculture's Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, Montana, Farsite can crunch more than a dozen variables - including wind, air temperature, humidity, altitude, terrain, and vegetation - and in a few minutes spit out 3-D animations that chart the most probable path of a wildfire.

Like the other commanders, Bunnell assumed the Beta-Doris fire would move northwest - away from Martin City. That's because the reservoir placed a big, wet barrier between the fire's northeast perimeter and the town. But he called Finney for a second opinion.

Finney, too, thought the reservoir would stop the flames. Yet when he crunched the data, Farsite predicted a surprisingly different scenario: Beta-Doris would catapult firebrands half a mile across the reservoir and ignite spot fires along the opposite shore. If unchecked, these could overrun Martin City and make a beeline toward Glacier.

There must be an error, thought Finney. Just to be sure, he ran the simulations twice more. The results were the same.

Bunnell was apprehensive about pulling crews from the existing fire and sending them across the reservoir to wait for an unlikely result predicted by a computer program. If he bet wrong, there would be hell to pay - Beta-Doris would likely take out the power station. He took a deep breath, and put his faith in Farsite: "I go to area command and make my play," he says. "I'm old, half bald, people don't remember me very well. And they're wondering, Who is this guy?"

The fire commanders eventually relented and agreed to send four fire trucks and six 20-member crews armed with shovels and Pulaskis to the reservoir's eastern shore. Meanwhile, Finney had uploaded Farsite's Beta-Doris model to a server that wildfire managers could access from the command center. They sent up an aircraft with infrared mapping capabilities that could see through the fire's smoky cloak and track its movement. To everyone's amazement, at 6 pm the next day a sudden wind squall lobbed firebrands across the reservoir. Thanks to Finney and Farsite, crews on the other side were already in position. As spot fires flared up, teams methodically attacked each one, snuffing them out before any torched more than a few acres.


Saturday, October 30, 2004

The End of Memory

Why bother to remember anything when you can just Google it?

I suspect that many people would love it if they no longer had to remember even the important facts, numbers and dates in their lives. As search technology continues to improve, that no longer seems like an outlandish idea. But it is an idea with wide-ranging implications.

In a post-memory world, the ability to retain and retrieve information -- a common standard (however flawed) for gauging intelligence -- would be far less important a life skill than being able to describe the information you seek so your search engine could find it for you. Even the ability to navigate abstract information spaces, a key skill during the Internet's early days, would fall by the wayside if the search engines get good enough.

More profoundly, using software as a substitute for human memory leads us toward a symbiotic relationship with technology that borders on scary dependence. Composing good search-engine queries becomes a critical skill for daily living. How long, I wonder, before elementary schools start teaching kids how to formulate good search-engine queries in elementary school?
via Buzzworthy


For Men Search Engines are the First Option for Advice

A poll conducted by MSN Search found that search engines are the first port of call for nearly half of men seeking advice. Family are consulted by a third, while partners are the sounding board of choice for only one in four men.

In comparison, the study into gender search patterns reveals that women still opt for more traditional advice options, with one in three rating family as their number one choice for help and information.
via vnunet


Voters Checking Out Other Sides' Sites

Encouraging to see that people are choosing to listen to both sides of the issue rathter than just get news that supports their view.

``They were extremely aware of the arguments for their guys, but they are no less aware of arguments challenging their guys,'' said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew group. ``They are not building walls, not screening out the other stuff.''

Television remains the primary source of news information for all groups -- about 74 percent got news that way, according to the study. More than half of survey respondents say they use radio and a similar number read newspapers.

Thirty-four percent of all respondents got news via e-mail or the Web, but the figure increases to 43 percent for dial-up Internet users and 64 percent for those with high-speed connections at home.
via NY Times


Friday, October 29, 2004

About Fat Knowledge

What is Fat Knowledge about?
Things that are interesting and important and things that aren't but are damn funny.

Fat Knowledge is about quantifying the previously unquantifiable, making the invisible visible and elucidating counter intuitive and thought provoking ideas.

Fat Knowledge tends towards the timeless over the timely, and towards problems that are global in scope and long term in nature. It is about imagining what kind of world we want to see in 2050 and what needs to happen to create that world. About how we can maximize well-being while minimizing consumption.

What isn't Fat Knowledge about?
No matter what Google might tell you, this blog is not about knowledge of fat, fat girls who dominate men, fat girls smoking weed, or america's next top model living in asia blog fish eating feet. And sorry Japanese World Diet Weightloss Beauty Health Blog, but this has nothing to do with how can lose 15 pounds.

Astronomy. I just don't give a rip about what happens outside of the Earth. Given the diversity of topics I post on and my general love for science you might expect differently, but as far as I'm concerned the Earth is fascinating enough and SETI is the biggest waste of human intelligence ever.

Why the name Fat Knowledge?
There used to be a book store named Fat Brain and I always liked the visual. Fat knowledge is what you need to fill up a fat brain.

Don't you mean phat instead of fat?
No, phat is synonymous with bling-bling, thoughtless materialism, and style over substance. Fat is synonymous with heavy and deep ideas, thoughtful minimalism, and substance without regard to style. Fat it is the anti-phat.

What topics does Fat Knowledge cover?
Click on the links below for a list of the best posts on that topic (though probably not up to date) or click on the links to the right under "Labels" to see the most recent posts.

  • Environmentalism - How we can minimize our footprint on the environment.
  • Technology - Reviews, cool web sites, browser tools, new gadgets, and cutting edge R&D.
  • Economics - The economy and alternative ways to measure economic success.
  • Energy - Alternative energy, oil, coal and natural gas.
  • Nature - Animals, wilderness, the oceans, and net primary productivity.
  • Funny - Name says it all.
  • Interesting Articles - The articles of the week I found most interesting.
  • Brain - Research on the brain.
  • Genetics - Research on genetics.
  • Photos - Posts that have images.
  • Video - Posts that have video.
  • Solar - Solar power technology and companies.
  • Cyborgs - Technology that is integrated directly with humans.
  • Digital Economy - Economics of digital goods.
  • Happiness - Research on happiness.
  • Labeling - Social and environmental labeling.
  • Bacteria - The micro organisms that live in our guts, and those that help us to create new biofuels.
  • Media - TV, radio, movies, newspapers, books and blogs.
  • Biofuels - Ethanol, biodiesel and others.
  • Vs. - Comparisons of two objects.
  • Men Vs. Women - How the sexes differ.
  • Other - Catchall for everything else.
What is your motivation for creating this blog?
To force myself to thoroughly think through important issues by going through the process of writing about them. To share information that others might find useful.