Monthly Archives: May 2016

The “conflict shoreline”: A map that correlates climate change to drone strikes

Image from "The Conflict Shoreline" by Eyal Weizman

This map is a really interesting data-visualization, with a suggestive message: That climate change is very tightly woven with war and conflict.

In one sense, this relationship isn’t news. Climate change causes resource scarcity — and resource scarcity is, historically, one brutally reliable trigger of war and strife. The US Department of Defense certainly takes it seriously; last year it released a report calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Another nonprofit study recently argued that a massive 2006-2011 drought in Syria, by driving rural populations into the already-stressed cities, helped accelerate the country’s human-rights catastrophe.

But that map above suggests an even more intriguing and subtle finding: That climate change tracks conflict with such granularity that it even tracks drone strikes.

The map is from a book called The Conflict Shoreline, which I learned about tonight while reading “Let Them Drown”, a speech by Naomi Klein reprinted in this month’s issue of The London Review of Books. Klein describes the map really well, so I’ll quote her at length here:

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.

I can’t comment in greater depth on Weizman’s analysis until I’ve read his book (and after reading this I’ve ordered it). But if it holds up, as a piece of dataviz, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Klein’s entire speech is well worth reading too, as a synthesis of how climate change and human rights are inextricably entwined.

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Paintings of computer code

A painting of an Oracle java API

So, I’ve decided that I want paintings of computer code hanging on my wall.

I started thinking about this last week when I saw the image above.

It’s a painting that was introduced by Oracle in a big lawsuit filed against Google. You can read about it in a great piece by Sarah Jeong, but in brief, Oracle sued Google for $9 billion. Why? They claimed Google had violated copyright by illegally using a snippet of Oracle code. Oracle argued that if you wanted to use that code legally — without violating copyright — you needed to transform it somehow, so that you could claim “fair use”. For example, you could take the code and … render it as a painting! To show what this would look like, the Oracle lawyers actually created that painting of the code seen above. (Oracle lost the argument, thankfully, though the larger question around the copyrightability of APIs is still pretty freaky; you can read more in Jeong’s piece.)

Anyway, quite apart from the legal questions at hand, I was quite taken by the idea of … having a painting of computer code hanging on my wall.

We’re surrounded by software all day long, but we don’t actually look at it, ponder it, gaze at it. Plenty of artists these days use computer code to make gorgeous art, of course. And there are many artists who’ve inverted the flow and used digital scenes for traditional art, as with the video-game paintings of my friend James Barnett (one of which I have hanging on my wall.)

But me, I also dig the idea of the code itself being the subject of a traditional art like oil painting: “Still life with Javascript.” Having that stuff hanging on your wall would — maybe? — make the code running our world an ever-so-slightly more concrete thing.

That Oracle “painting” wasn’t very aesthetically interesting; it’s just a screenshot printed on a canvas, I think. So as an experiment to weirdify it, I ran the picture through Waterlogue, an app that takes photos and transforms them into watercolor-style images:

A "waterlogue" version of the Oracle "fair use" API painting

Eerie, eh? Then I went around online and found some other examples of famous pieces of computer code, and used Waterlogue to turn them into paintings.

The results were pretty striking. Here’s a chunk of code from MS-DOS 1.1, from the section where it’s doing a sector write:

A painting of MS-DOS code doing a sector write

Here’s a little piece of the code for the original Wolfenstein game (not sure what this chunk does):

Painting of computer code from Wolfenstein

Here’s a piece of the first version of MacPaint, involved, I think, in calculating the angles of shapes:

Waterlogue 1.2.1 (66) Preset Style = Blotted Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = None Format Border = Straight Drawing = Fountain Pen Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Low Paint = Rich Color Paint Lightness = Medium Paint Intensity = Normal Water = Cherenkov Blue Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Minimal Brush = Coarse Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Wide Paper = Soft Red Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Light Options Faces = Enhance Faces

This is a chunk of Will Crowther’s FORTRAN from the original Colossal Cave:

Waterlogue 1.2.1 (66) Preset Style = Bold Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = None Format Border = Straight Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = High Contrast Paint Lightness = Medium Paint Intensity = More Water = Tap Water Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Watercolor Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces

The top line reads “TOTING(OBJ) = TRUE IF THE OBJ IS BEING CARRIED”, though you can’t really see it when the font is so small. I zoomed in a bit more closely on the top left corner and turned that into a painting of its own …

Closeup of watercolor-ified code from "Colossal Cave"

… which lets you see the actual language and syntax a little more clearly.

I think my conclusion here is that a painting of code would look really cool if the text were a) prettily distorted by the medium (watercolor, in this case; or simulated watercolor anyway), but b) with a font-size big enough that you could still make out the text. So what I’d really like is code painted on a canvas or perhaps seven or eight feet square. Which would be nuts but great!

Has anyone actually heard of artists doing paintings of code? I poked around online and didn’t find any, but it seems like that someone has probably done this …

Update: On Twitter, Simon Carless pointed me to these fantastic posters that Ben Fry made in which he maps out the flow of the source code for several Atari games. And: You can order them as posters! Here’s the one for the game Combat; embiggen it to grasp the detail of the work here …

Ben Fry's illustration of the source code of the Atari game Combat

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Today I read …

Image from the first page of "The Art of Computation" by David White Goorich, 1873

Opening illustration from “The Art of Computation”, David White Goodrich, 1873

The Art of Computation: This was an 1873 book by David White Goodrich, a “lightning calculator”, capable (by his own boast) of doing fantastic feats of mental arithmetic. In this book he details dozens of mental algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing figures in your head. He bemoaned the fact that students were taught tons of mathematic theory, but weren’t taught practical, everyday techniques for doing everyday sums: “Pupils who can discourse learnedly upon permutations and combinations, make labored and lamentable blunders in adding a ledger column. They know arithmetic as a science; they have not mastered it as an art.” Since this was a period long before the common use of calculating machines, the ability to quickly rattle off mental math was crucial for everyone from bankers to carpenters to grocery-store owners. It’s a fascinating record of the world decades before mechanization began to take over routine calculation. The whole book is a free PDF here via Google Books.

“To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf”: An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by a programmer who did a liberal-arts BA and only later became a coder. He argues that of the programmers he’s worked with, some of the most useful problem-solvers had liberal-arts degrees. For example, at one point his team was working on a project and had a problem with pointers. “In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named ‘thing’ being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.” For my new book on “how programmers think”, I’ve been interviewing a lot of coders. One thing that’s struck me is how frequently the very-talented ones — the ones who launched difficult, new products that were pounded on by tons of users — came from a dual background: They studied computer-science and some liberal art. A lot of them double majored in CS and something like philosophy, art, literature, or drama.

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Beautiful failure

I’ve recently become addicted to the new iPhone game INKS — because it lets you fail beautifully.

Je explain. INKS is a pinball game where you have to complete each level by hitting all the colored targets on the pinball board. Lose a ball? No biggie, there’s an infinite supply. But the goal is to complete the level on a single ball. The fewer balls you use per level, the higher your score. Fun, yes?

Yes! But what makes this pinball so distinctive is … the ink.

Each time you hit a colored target, it splatters a big glob of ink onto the game board. Whenever your ball passes through that sploosh, it leaves a trail behind. As your ball crisscrosses the board, it keeps on running through inksplot after inksplot, leaving splats upon splats and trails upon trails, with the ink mixing and reflowing until you’ve got an gorgeous little inadvertent work of art.

It’s easier to appreciate this when you see it — so, a wee video:

As it turns out, this ink-splattering creates a really interesting experience of failure.

As the game progresses, you fail more. The levels get harder, requiring you to bankshot the ball into some lunatic-inaccessible nook of the board. So I’d try and fail and try and fail — which means I’d begin leaving crazed, fingerpaint-style trails of ink all over the place. I’d also start losing balls, and as you lose balls they change color; by the time you get to your fourth ball, the ball is black, and it leaves a trail of that dark ink. So now my accidental art creations were spiderwebbed with black too.

Behold some screenshots of what I’m talking about. These are several games, showing the levels getting harder and my increasing fail-itude:

The worse I play, the more crazy the designs become; they’re a record of my flailing. But the designs are also quite charming and thought-provoking. You see loops of physics written in ink, the iterated attempts and collisions turning into visual poetry. This is a game that turns your failure into art. 

Better yet, it lets you study your failure, because you can see the common patterns in what you’ve been doing wrong. I can’t say I necessarily learned anything from regarding the flight-paths of my errant pinballs, but when I really screwed things up, it was kind of impressive to behold.

I dig this game-design concept: Making your failure interesting. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite racing games, Burnout 3: Takedown, which took the normal fail-state — crashing your car — and turned into something new. Whenever you crashed, you could flip into a bullet-time slo-mo where you’d view your car slowly tumbling through the air. You could very slightly control the direction of the tumble, and if you could successfully smash your car into one of your opponent’s cars, you’d gain points and “boost” for you car. It was insanely fun and transgressive, and tweaked the game’s emotional import in a really curious fashion, because after a while you’d start looking forward to the next time you crashed.

Thinking about INKS and failure made me go to the shelf and rebrowse one of my favorite books about games — Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games.

the-art-of-failure

Juul is fascinated by the fact that failure is an absolutely central part of playing a video-game; indeed, as he points out, failing inside a game is so common an experience that we could regard it as the central point of playing a game.

Juul opens his book by talking about playing two games, one that was incredibly hard and frustrating, and one that was the opposite — too easy. It turns he found the latter game more annoying. I quoted him on this three years ago in a different blog post, but it’s worth quoting here:

I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.

The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.

Or, as he sums it up:

Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

When I pulled out the book again, a couple of other passages struck my eye. More below if you’re interested …

Continue reading

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Today I read …

Bicycle woodcut from 1908 Popular Mechanics

  • More proof that teenagers still prize hanging out F2F — and doing so, crucially, while away from adults. This was also the big takeaway from danah boyd’s wonderful book It’s Complicated, which is: a) kids want to spend time with each other, away from authority figures, but b) parents have created a world where that’s less possible than ever, so c) they moved it all to social media, which even they regard as a less-robust version of F2F, but still … better than nothing. <rant>These are the sensible, informed conclusions that generally come from field researchers who do in-depth, in-the-field, shoe-leather reporting, instead of engaging in the sort of lazy, deskbound chin-stroking that propels most “teens today!” punditry.</rant>
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The beauty of old, cheap Soviet watches

Vintage Wostok soviet watch

This is an old “Vostok”, made in the Soviet Union back in — probably — the 80s. I got it off Ebay for about $25, which has become one of my new addictions: Buying odd, good-looking watches from the former USSR.

A year ago I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about the elite Swiss wristwatch industry, and how it was coping with the advent of the smartwatch. (The short version: They were mostly ignoring it.) Anyway, after spending several days oohing and aching over gorgeous, precision-engineered mechanical watches, I wanted one myself! Alas, I don’t quite have $5,000 in spare change kicking around to get myself an entry-level Swiss timepiece.

So I started poking around on Ebay … which is when I discovered crazy old Soviet watches.

There had been watchmakers in Russia for a long time before the Soviet revolution, but in the years after WWII, Stalin was insistent the USSR develop its own inexpensive, quality watches. That was, according to one account, because he’d noticed that Soviet soldiers had developed a taste for them. From Charles M. Lee’s Meeting at Potsdam:

[Stalin] perceived a new and vital danger: Millions of Russian soldiers had seen foreign lands, foreign wealth, foreign freedom. Thousands and thousands had traded everything they had with British and American soldiers for — wristwatches. Wristwatches, gold plated, silver plated, with seventeen-jewel movements: What unimaginable wealth they represented, and every single British and American soldier seemed to have one, and treat it casually, as though it were a mere convenience.

So after the war, several Soviet factories set about making inexpensive mechanical watches that were pretty rugged and inexpensive. They were produced in huge quantities, so while they’re technically vintage, they’re not rare. There are thus tons kicking around on Ebay for not much money: I’ve picked up a few for $15-$40.

If you want to look around yourself, the main brands to search for are Raketa, Vostok (sometimes spelled Wostok or even Bostok, and I usually add “vintage” with this brand name), and Pobeda — which means “victory” in Russian, and was a brand name picked by Stalin himself.

The best thing is how distinctive these things look! Say what you will about the USSR — it was an absolute nightmare for human rights, obviously — but man, they had a rad design aesthetic. Here are a couple I hunted down just now on Ebay …

Obviously “buyer beware” applies if you decide to pick up one of these. As you can see, most of these watches have dings and scratches — they’re not pristine. Me, I kind of like that banged-up look; it certainly matches the Soviet vibe, in a grim sort of way. The watch “crystals” tend to be plastic, and the hands and decorations on the watch-faces are similarly cheap. (That lovely blue watch at the top of this post? A few weeks after I got it, the second hand dislodged and needed to be popped back on.)

But the actual mechanical movements are, in experience, in pretty good shape — the one I’m wearing right now …

Me repairing a old soviet watch

This watch came without a band, so I had to put one on myself.

… hasn’t lost a minute in the last few days of running.

I also find the tick-tick-tick of a mechanical watch oddly … soothing, I guess? It’s a nice metronome to have clicking along in my otherwise silent, digital workplace.

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Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho

sappho poem tonight-ive-watched

This is one of my favorite poems by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She was a master of packing a lot into a very tiny lyric — which is good since, tragically, only 200 scraps of her verse survive. This one is magnificent. In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

There’s something else about this poem, though: Its astronomical specificity!

Sappho talks about the Pleiades, a cluster of extremely bright stars near Taurus. What’s more, Sappho mentions two interesting facts:

  • she watches the Pleaides go down, sinking beneath the horizon. And …
  • … this occurs before midnight.

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

After all, constellations change their position in the sky as the year progresses. That means in different months they’ll sink beneath the horizon at different times of day. Since we know that Sappho saw the Pleiades go down before midnight, first you have deduce where Sappho was located — geographically — when she wrote the poem (because this will determine what part of the sky she was looking at). Then you check the star charts from that vantage point, and figure out what time of the year the Pleiades would have been visible right until midnight.

That’s what the scientists did, in their fascinating paper “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited”.

You can read the paper here — it’s really fun — but the tl;dr is this: They started by working with the year 570 BCE, around the time that Sappho died. (This year is, they admit, fairly arbitrary; but a deviation of a few years wouldn’t change the position of the Pleaides noticeably.) They assumed that she wrote the poem in Mytilene, which was the capital city of the island of Lesbos, and where most scholars suspect Sappho lived at that point in her life.

Then they used a bunch of software, including Starry Night, to visualize the night sky from precisely Sappho’s vantage point. They discovered that Sappho could have seen the Pleiades before midnight from the late winter until the early spring. 

To quote the paper for more precision:

Assuming that Sappho observed from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, we determined that in 570 BC the Pleiades set before midnight from 25 January on, and were lost to the evening twilight completely by 6 April.

As one of the scientists noted, this is one of the rare pieces of literature with which one can engage in this sort of analysis, because typically writers aren’t quite so exact in their descriptions of astronomical events:

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

True, though there have been some other surprisingly nuanced bits of astronomy tucked into literature. As Jennifer Oulette notes in a terrific post in Gizmodo, Donald Olsen — a “forensic astronomer” — has used astronomic calculations to analyze several works of art; he concluded, for example, “that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit ‘waking dream’ that inspired her to pen Frankenstein.” And the Pleiades have cropped up in other famous poems, including “On the Beach at Night” by Walt Whitman …

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

… and Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

And John Milton crammed so much astronomy into Paradise Lost that there’s an entire book devoted to analyzing it (written in 1913, and thus freely downloadable for your reading pleasure!)

By the way, if you google this Sappho poem, you probably won’t find the precise translation in my picture above, because it’s not online. It’s from a book of Sappho translated by Mary Barnard, who is hands-down my absolute fave. Her renditions rock like a Rush concert; accept no substitutes, and in particular try to get your hands on the University of California printing, which is aesthetically lovely and out of print. To give you a sense of how superior are her translations, read the one I snapped a pic of above, then compare it to these three that are quoted in the scientific paper:

Translation of Sappho's "Midnight Poem"

Those are okay, but they lack the deft, bleak drama of Barnard’s version.

Particularly her second stanza! Night is “half-gone”, but youth goes; the former is a factual statement about this particular night, then the latter pulls the camera back about sixteen miles and boom, you behold the existential arc of a life. Then she leaves you with that little hang at the end of “I am” … and nails it to the wall with the final line.

Completely metal.

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That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”

neworleanslighting

Up to the middle of the 19th century, cities were lit at night by gas lighting, candles, or flame — a soft, gentle radiance! But that changed around 1855 when electricians unleashed the first “arc lamps”, which were Promethean in their intensity.

What was it like when they turned on the first arc lights? Here’s a description from All The Time In The World:

“One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen,” a journalist wrote, reporting on scientific experiments with outdoor arc lighting in Lyon in 1855. “The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas — not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun.”

But not everyone was happy with this newfangled high-tech:

As demand for the technology grew, many resisted electricity’s brilliant new glow. It was just too bright. It lent a “corpse-like quality” to those subjected to its glare, one Londoner argued, and it could make a crowd look “almost dangerous and garish.”   Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris.  “A new sort of urban star now shines at nightly,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

Those damned millenials and their electricity. In a way, though, I can’t blame Stevenson. Version 1.0 of most technologies is often dreadful, and electric lighting was no different. Check out that picture above of New Orleans: Man, it looks like they’re walking around underneath an explosion. It reminds me of our current problems with low-energy lighting. I keep on buying super-efficient LED bulbs, but they always wind up making my house look like a surgical theater; I try to curl up with a book but it’s all horror-movie blue-spectrum pallor. They’ll eventually figure this out, but living through 1.0 of any new tech is always a pain.

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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

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