The Tale of Two Sine Waves

The most amazing person in the world made me this wonderfully nerdy Valentine, and I’m bragging about it, as I’m entitled to do. Illustrations, graphs, and poem by Joe Diaz.


This is the tale of two sine waves

One of Teal and one of Blue

Both oscillating towards infinity

As waves are ‘tend to do

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By fate of stochasticity

The two waves did converge

They loved each other greatly

And their amplitudes did surge

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Sharing an axis together

With interference non-destructive

They life they have is exciting, fulfilling

And occasionally seductive

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Though, no two waves are identical

This is true for Blue and Teal

Frequencies can differ

And synchronicity can unseal

Teal is deft and impressive

While Blue is slow and steady

In one second, Teal can complete 100 cycles or more

While Blue might just be getting ready

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A beat frequency is formed

Humming along betwixt the waves

It rises way up and falls far down

As Teal and Blue come in and out of phase

The times when the two part

Can be so low and sad

The phase shifts that go back and forth

Would normal sinusoids be driven mad

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Though, thankfully for us,

Our heroes are unique

The fibers that they’re each made of

Reach resonance and peak!

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Blue realizes he’s not perfect

But wants the best for Teal

One could say he’s (over)driven

To earn her mass appeal

Teal, I’ll always love you.

You are so divine.

From now until infinity,

Please be my Valentine?”

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Sensors, Uncensored

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How open sensor data can help enrich storytelling + bolster the media’s potential role in galvanizing civic engagement with the sciences.

By Lily Bui

Listen up, journalists.

Something interesting is happening, and you should be in the loop. Two words: “sensor journalism.”

The term is not entirely new, as it has circulated the blogosphere again and again. However, it’s been popping up more frequently in my e-mail stream and in conversations I’ve had with people on and offline, which kind of, sort of, really makes the science nerd in me tingle with excitement.

What is sensor journalism?

Sensor journalism refers to a method of generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story. You may think this sounds familiar, especially with the rise of data-driven journalism and the open data movement. However, as Kelly Tyrrell aptly puts it, “sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism.”

The distinction is this: instead of scraping data from the internet or existing databases, you are collecting the data (or enlisting the help of others to do so). Using sensors. In real-time.

I know that was a mouthful. So, let me show instead of tell.

My favorite example, to date, is WNYC’s Cicada Tracker. Lead by John Keefe, the project engaged WNYC listeners to build their own temperature sensors at home using instructions provided on the station website. The goal was to crowdsource temperature readings around the east coast to predict the emergence of the Magicicada brood. The data were then collected, visualized (beautifully) on a map, and used to tell a story.

The Cicadas Are Coming! from Radiolab on Vimeo.

Both scientific research and journalistic endeavor begin with the same thing: a question. In answering that question, for both science and journalism, crowdsourcing data allows the public to actively contribute to the investigation of the truth.

Who is gathering the data, and how accurate is it?

To reiterate, the idea of crowdsourced data collection is not new. Maker communities like Instructables, Spark Fun, Public Lab, MakeZine, and DIY.org have been around for a while and often focus on building tools (hardware and software) to make remote measurement possible. People who identify themselves as citizen scientists, hobbyists, or amateur scientists connected to communities like Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, CosmoQuest, SciStarter, Your Wild Life, and Zooniverse are also likely candidates for crowdsourced projects.

“This kind of technology is not for monitoring people,” said Travis Hartman in a recent interview with Current. “It’s for monitoring the environment we all share.” Hartman is a journalism grad student with an idea for a project to deploy a set of sensors throughout Columbia, Missouri, in order to study the city’s sound ecology.

As you’ve probably already picked up, Hartman is a j-student, not a scientist. Like him, many citizen scientists are non-experts (i.e. they don’t hold formal science degrees) but have an avid interest in science. That said, the argument against the quality or legitimacy of crowdsourced data does come up. And I’ll concede that it is, indeed, a valid one. How can we trust the data, even if we can track where it’s coming from? How do we know that build-it-yourself sensors are accurately calibrated and in working condition? Or worse–what if the data are biased or completely wrong? We can’t always know, but that shouldn’t deter us.

[AsideThere is also a phenomenon known as the “wisdom of crowds.”]

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An academic paper finds, “Most [citizen science] projects employ multiple mechanisms to ensure data quality and appropriate levels of validation. (Wiggins, et al., 2011)” Some citizen science project managers use crowdsourced data sets in an auxiliary manner to observe general trends rather than precise data points. Then, some projects use crowdsourced data comparatively, with reference to existing academic data. The basic message from the research community seems to be, We know. We’re aware. We’re working on it. We’ve found some solutions in the meantime.

Meanwhile, journalists are also finding ways to use crowdsourced data to contextualize and enrich stories rather than relying on them as a primary means of telling them (e.g. WNYC’s Cicada Tracker). At the end of the day, a healthy level of skepticism can only help advance current methods of crowdsourced data collection, as it suggests room for improvement.

How can open sensors benefit journalists?

When it comes to environmental monitoring, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do run regularly scheduled tests on air and water quality. However, this data is not always available to or accessible by the public. Also, if something were to affect the air or water quality between testing periods, and a government agency wasn’t aware of it, the public would otherwise be left in the dark about their environment. Bringing DIY-sensors into the picture could potentially democratize the process of monitoring your surroundings. For journalists, these data can offer insight into pertinent issues that eventually influence policy.

In making a case for why journalists should pay attention to and care about open sensor networks, Javaun Moradi writes (on his blog):

“It’s a responsibility that is every bit as noble as reporting and can achieve the journalism goals of informing the public, investigating corruption, speaking for the voiceless, and seeking truth. The other side benefit is that local media can deeply engage with their audience in new ways.” 

There’s also another dimension to this. While many citizen science projects are national and international (meaning anyone, anywhere can participate), some are local, focusing their research question on a specific region or city. As we all know, news can also be local–even hyperlocal. What could a more robust relationship between citizen science and the media potentially mean? A few things come to mind off the bat:

Tsuga_canadensis_adelges

  • raised public awareness and understanding of scientific research
  • a growing culture of civic engagement
  • deeper interaction with news audiences + richer storytelling

Local media outlets can also help connect the public to opportunities to take action in their own communities. WHYY-FM (an NPR affiliate station) in Philadelphia has launched a bi-weekly citizen science segment in partnership with citizen science site SciStarter, focusing on projects connected to their broadcast region. A recent story focused on how the public can help report sightings of the woody adelgid in Douglas firs to help scientists track the invasive species in or near Philly. Journalists and media outlets can help facilitate the discovery of these types of local opportunities.

Who else is doing this?

These are some more examples of crowdsourced science (some involving sensors, some not) in the news. No doubt, this is only a small slice of the pie. I sense (get it?) that there is much more brewing beneath the surface.

WBUR: Kite aerial photography to challenge construction permit on nuclear waste site
http://www.wbur.org/2013/07/10/pilgrim-nuclear-waste-permit

KPBS: Monitoring shark populations in San Diego
http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jun/04/sharks-attracting-attention-san-diego-waters/

KBIA: Urban sound ecology project
http://www.current.org/2014/02/grad-student-teams-up-with-missouris-kbia-to-measure-decibels-in-noisy-city/

Public Lab’s water monitoring tool, RIFFLE
http://publiclab.org/wiki/open-water
(There are many other Public Lab tools that can be used for environmental monitoring.)

“What Do Open Sensor Networks Mean for Journalism?” blog post by Javaun Moradi
http://javaunmoradi.com/blog/2011/12/16/what-do-open-sensor-networks-mean-for-journalism/

NBC: How citsci project JellyWatch identified species of salps clogging nearby nuclear reactor
http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/27/11432974-diablo-canyon-nuclear-plant-in-california-knocked-offline-by-jellyfish-like-creature-called-salp?lite

I am enthralled by how many people are trying new things with sensor data. I love this spirit of experimentation that is circulating, and I hope that it’s contagious.

As we move forward into the future, networked sensors will likely become a more integrated part of our lives. With the improvement of wearable tech like Google Glass, the FitBit, Jawbone, and more, will the possibilities for sensor journalism shift from reporting on our environment to deeper stories on data we’ve collected about ourselves and each other? Granted, these projections are not without their caveats. The incipient ubiquity of networked sensors also raises important discussions about surveillance, privacy, and ethics.

For now, I’d love to hear from you! You’ve made it this far, so you’re clearly interested in this conversation too. (That means we just formed a sacred bond. Sorry, you’re stuck.)

Questions: What other sensor projects (related to journalism or otherwise) have you come across? What other applications do you see for open sensor data that people haven’t tried yet? Leave your thoughts in the comment below or tweet me @dangerbui.

Image: Wikimedia (top & bottom right), USGS.gov (top right)

The Mapparium

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Image courtesy of the MBE Library

by Lily Bui / @dangerbui

It’s 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt is president. The U.S. population is approximately 127 million. A family’s annual income is about $1,500. Babe Ruth retires from baseball. And the Mapparium opens to the public.

The Mapparium is a three-story map of the world housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston and designed by architect Chester Lindsay Churchill. The word “Mapparium” comes from two Latin words, mappa, meaning “map” and arium, meaning “a place for.”

It’s almost impossible to look at the Mapparium without realizing the unique potential of maps as storytelling devices. Not only is the map a projection of the world in 1935; it’s also semblance of how people perceived the world during a time that was incredibly different from ours. Beyond strict cartography, the Mapparium is contextualized by the history and philosophical–even political–ideals that brought it into existence.

Let us begin at the beginning.

Although a surprisingly paltry amount of information about the architect Chester Lindsay Churchill exists, we do know that he was commissioned by the Mary Eddy Baker Library to construct the Mapparium. Along with the library’s board, Churchill recognized that the map’s existence would fill an important need–that of giving the public access to an accurate world map.

In a letter written on August 15, 1935, after the Mapparium is completed, Churchill reflects:

“The next step to achieve was to project mathematically the map of the world on a surface corresponding to that of the earth which encompassed the observer rather than receded the observer.”

This passage alludes to the design of a 12-ft bronze sculpture of the world in the New York Daily News office circa 1930. Churchill felt that most globes inherently place observers on the outside. He wanted something different, something more immersive. So he designed the Mapparium for people to be able to walk through it. The idea behind this is to enable people to stand together and look at the world in relation to one another.

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The globe that inspired the Mapparium from the NY Daily News lobby, 1940 (Wikimedia)

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Blueprints of the original map (MBE Library)

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Chester Lindsay Churchill, c. 1940 (MBE Library)

Construction 

Each grid component of the map was fired by a glass kiln, painted individually, and shipped from New York to Boston to be assembled. Rand McNally in Chicago prepared the map drawings, and Rambusch Decorating Co. in New York fired and painted the panels.

Every color on the map had to be baked separately, so panels with multiple colors took the longest to make. When the Mapparium first opened to the public, it was backlit with over three hundred 40- & 60-watt light bulbs. (They’ve since been swapped out with more sustainable LED lights.)

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Examples of pigments used for the map (MBE Library)

Churchill intended the map to be updated as international borders changed. For instance, Persia changed its named to Iran during the construction of the map, so the panel containing Iran had to be edited and was the last one to be installed. Although Churchill kept change in mind during the conceptualization of its design, the Mapparium’s construction was halted by the start of World War II in 1939 and postponed indefinitely.

Acoustics

Because the map is spherical and made of glass, the surface naturally reflects sound instead of absorbing it. There are two distinct acoustic tricks that you can achieve while inside the Mapparium:

[1] One person can hear his or her voice in surround sound if speaking while standing in the center of the sphere.

[2] Two people on opposite ends of the walkway can hear each others whisper as if they were standing right next to each other. This is called the “whispering gallery” effect, caused by sound traveling along all sides of the sphere and arriving simultaneously on the other side.

Brown Innovations in Boston designed the sound system for the Mapparium’s interactive exhibit, setting up four different speakers that direct sound upward with the intention to have it wash back downward toward the individual.

Some numbers

  • 1 inch = 22 miles on the map.
  • The radius of the sphere is 15 feet.
  • In 1935, the Mapparium cost $52,400 to build. Today, that translates to approximately $855,000.
  • Longitude and latitude are represented at 10 degree intervals on the map.
  • Twenty-two clocks can be found along the equator of the map to represent various time zones. At one point, these clocks were synced with a master clock by a magnetic pulse, although they are no longer functional.

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Map key (MBE Library)

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One of the clocks on the map (MBE Library)

Historical trivia

Because the Mapparium’s construction was postponed by WWII up until the 1960s, the MBE Library’s board decided that the map served better as a historical artifact rather than an up-to-date map of the world. If you look, you can spot a handful of significant differences from 1935 vs. what you would see on a world map today:

  • Israel is not on the map, as it was established in 1948 after the Mapparium was constructed.
  • Alaska and Hawaii were still U.S. territories and had yet to become states.
  • Korea was part of Japan and called Chosen.
  • Germany is split in two by Poland.

While Chester Lindsay Churchill may not have achieved exactly what he initially set out to build, the Mapparium still stands today. Any curious visitor who wanders into the sphere will certainly gain a remarkable, unique view of the world. The map may not tell us where we’re going or where we are, but just as important is this: like any good map, it gives us a deeper understanding of where we came from.

Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.

Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)

…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.

After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.

Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.

“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that [1] we would stay and chat and [2] we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.

The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.

(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)

“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.

After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture  warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.

The Birdman from Jessie Auritt on Vimeo.

Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.