How to discover a new type of cloud

Asperatus cloud formation, by Don Sanderson

Back in 2006, Don Anderson snapped this picture of an amazing cloud formation. He uploaded it the web site of the “Cloud Appreciation Society”, a deliciously-named organization founded 2004.

But it turns out that Anderson wasn’t alone. Other members of the Society were discovering, all around the world, this same formation — where the clouds cut deep, jagged valleys across the sky, producing a freaky, end-of-the-world look. These clouds weren’t new, of course; they’ve been occurring for aeons, and people have probably been taking pictures of them for aeons too. But before the Cloud Appreciation Society started up in 2004, they didn’t have anywhere to share them.

Now they did. Before long, submissions of this odd formation were coming in from all around the US, Europe, and Canada, including gorgeous shots like these:

As the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, saw these submissions trickle in, he realized his group had collectively stumbled onto something interesting: A new type of cloud.

This formation wasn’t listed in the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization since 1896. So Pretor-Pinney devised a name for this cloud — “asperatus”, derived from “a passage in Virgil describing a roughened sea”. He’s been working for years to get it accepted into the next edition of the Atlas. In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a superb piece by Jon Mooallem detailing the whole story.

The discovery of asperatus clouds is a lovely side-effect of what, in my book, I call “public thinking”: When disparate folks publish their observations online, they quickly discover the other people who share their seemingly niche obsession. As Mooallem writes:

Pretor-Pinney assumed that this phenomenon was so rare that, until now, no one had recognized it as a repeating form and given it a name. “As the hub of this network, a network of people who are sky-aware,” he said, “it’s easier to spot patterns that, perhaps, weren’t so easy to spot in the past.”

Today’s wave of “citizen science” is, of course, predicated on precisely this epiphany: The number of everyday folks interested in the natural world massively outnumber the scientist population, so why not harness them? There are now organizations set up have citizens classify galaxies, count hummingbirds, report coyote sightings, and parse reports of plankton.

But what charms me about the story of asperatus is that the discovery was unintentional.

Pretor-Pinney didn’t create the Cloud Appreciation Society specifically so he could identify a new cloud formation. No, he created it because clouds are rad; because staring up the darkening sky brings deep aesthetic delight. (As Mooallem notes, this is the rare group of people who, when their annual convention takes place on a crystal-blue day of gorgeous weather, are utterly crushed.) As goes the koan of open-source software, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Collect together enough people intrigued with some corner of culture or science or history, let them talk long enough, and odds are they’ll stumble into something the world hasn’t yet seen. Inquiry is often sparked by joy.

BTW, my single favorite picture of asperatus is this one, taken by Elaine Patrick. The sky looks so tangible!

Asperatus cloud formation by Elaine Patrick

Asperatus cloud formation, by Elaine Patrick


“Genius hesitates”

I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …
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The life-changing magic of being a total slob: My Wired column

cat lying on a desk
When I read Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I thought it was terrific — but not quite right. She argues that cleaning up will leave you with your mind and spirit clear, which is correct; but it can also leave you with your mind empty. That’s because, as I’d found in reading years of social science about the way we organize our desks, sometimes mess can be useful for sparking new ideas.

So I wrote my latest Wired column about this. Several friends emailed me in horror after reading it. “I’m never going to let my kids read this story,” they said, “because then they’ll use it as an excuse not to clean their rooms.”

Put Down the Broom: Why Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity
by Clive Thompson

If clutter drives you nuts, you’re in good company. There’s been a burst of excitement recently about neatness, propelled by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s best-selling guide that urges us to toss out anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” If we can succeed at decluttering, Kondo says, we will feel pure bliss. “The lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely,” she writes, “in a single shot, are without exception dramatically altered.” As the biggest neatnik and picker-upper in my casually messy family, I thrill to this idea.

But one kink, though. A strand of recent research suggests that mess can, counterintuitively, sometimes be useful.

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Where did “Ipsum Lorem” come from?

When you design a new web site, a design convention is to put in blocks of Latin text called Lorem Ipsum. This, the theory goes, lets you visually assess the aesthetics of the design without being distracted by the meaning of the text. I’ve always found this concept a little sort of, I dunno, aesthetically sociopathic — I mean, isn’t form supposed to follow function? But it got me interested in the origins of Lorem Ipsum.

Hello, Wikipedia! According to the hivemind over there …

A variation of the ordinary lorem ipsum text has been used in typesetting since the 1960s or earlier, when it was popularized by advertisements for Letraset transfer sheets. It was introduced to the Information Age in the mid-1980s by Aldus Corporation, which employed it in graphics and word processing templates for its desktop publishing program, PageMaker, for the Apple Macintosh.

Better yet is the what Lorem Ipsum means. It’s from a text by Cicero called “On the Ends of Goods and Evils”, and …

The original passage began: Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit (translation: “Neither is there anyone who loves, pursues or desires pain itself because it is pain”).

I hunted down this free online translation and found the passage in which this extract occurs. It’s pretty interesting; it’s all about the necessity of embracing pain. In it, he notes that there really is not anyone …

… who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? [snip] We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of the pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. [snip] The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.

Cool, but how precisely did designers pick this text to use? Why Cicero? And why this Cicero text?

According to a speculation at the Pricenomics blog, the original folks at Letraset may have picked it simply because Cicero was/is an extremely popular writer … and if you were sitting around looking for a long chunk of non-English text to work with, the odds were good you’d reach over to your shelf and find a copy of Cicero. As they quote the Latin professor Richard McClintock saying …

At some point, likely in the middle ages, a typesetter had to make a type specimen book, to demo different fonts, and he got the idea that if the text should be insensible, so as not to distract from the page’s graphical features. So he took a handy page of non-Biblical Latin — Cicero — and scrambled it into mostly gibberish. “Lorem” isn’t even a Latin word — it’s the second half of “dolorem,” meaning “pain” or “sorrow”. Thus Lorem Ipsum was born, and began its long journey to ubiquity.

I must say I’m charmed by the image of thousands of art directors out there, today, working into the wee hours as they attempt to design their textbooks and web sites and pamphlets and corporate reports, all gazing down at a Latin text that encourages them to embrace necessary pain.

The new site

From 2002 to 2013, I blogged at my old site Collision Detection — and had a riotously fun time doing so.

That site ran on Movable Type, a blog-engine that was super cutting-edge in 2002 … but today is a creaky mess; so much so that it became somewhat unpleasant to use, which is part of the reason I drifted away from dailyish blogging. (The other part was the well-known problem bloggers have: Twitter was more fun, and where all the audience was!) Anyway, I kept intending to relaunch Collision Detection using WordPress, but every time I investigated doing so, I’d run into a welter of technical problems: Preserving the formatting, preserving all the delicious Google manna I’d built over the years, figuring out how to prune all the spambot comments. (Or better yet, figuring out preserve all the spambot comments, since they’re probably the closest humanity has yet gotten to passing — in a practical sense — the Turing Test, as I discovered the night I bored a sexy-talk-chatbot into silence.)

Oh, how I dithered! Anyway, I finally decided …

  • to leave Collision Detection up and untouched, with all of its crepuscular Movable-Type code intact.
  • to take this URL, which I’d never really used, and make it a “personal site”: An archive of my journalism, stuff about my books, glamorous headshots, etc.

Thus this site!

And I must say, WordPress is soooo lovely compared to Movable Type.

(BTW, a big shoutout to Bad Johnny, the designer who created the blog theme I’m using here. It’s clean and crisp and I love it.)