The Center of People

Via Joost Bonsen, whose Development Ventures Class in the MIT Media Lab was among the best course decisions I made in grad school, a graphic that’s trending on reddit showing the world’s population by longitude and latitude:

FVEcRlR The Center of People

From the graphic alone, I would have guessed this was in northwest India, but after looking up the coordinates, it turns out the center of people is just over the border in Pakistan:

cop 640x385 The Center of People

Coincidentally, as a direct result of Joost’s course, I ended up conducting some research on food waste in India right by the border, just 100 miles from the above coordinates in Pakistan. Here’s what it looks like:

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How Do People Get New Ideas?

trh creativity artwork option 04 wide 28a15d5d695bc709e4a13c6e6e258b8fe33a6e40 s6 c85 How Do People Get New Ideas?By chance I ended up coming across two pieces of content on the source of creativity today — both were very interesting and seemed worth sharing. The first is an NPR TED Radio Hour episode called ‘The Source of Creativity’ that first aired a couple weeks ago.

The second is an essay written by the science fiction writer Issac Asimov in the late 50’s called ‘On Creativity.’ It was actually written for an MIT spin-off company that had a contract with the US government to brainstorm “the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.”

The whole piece is interesting, but here’s the start:

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

More here. I would normally credit whichever blog pointed me to this piece, but I can’t seem to find it again. Other then this essay, the only other Asimov work I’ve read is The Gods Themselves, which was strange, but thought provoking and entertaining. It was written in the 70’s, but the core message seems even more relevant today — how greed and complacency can be self-destructive to society. Asimov clearly followed his own advice on coming up with new ideas.

 

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The Tallest Cow in the World

6ft, 4in, from Illinois. Nothing else to add:

 The Tallest Cow in the World

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Slo-Mo Dog Shake

After filming a bit the other day, I spent some time tonight experimenting with iPhone 6 slow motion video footage and the iOS video editor. I bring you the Slo-Mo Dog Shake:

The music is Beck’s ‘Earthquake Weather (maybe)’.

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First Impressions of the iPhone 6 Camera: Callahan State Park

I’ve had my iPhone 6 for almost a month now, but hadn’t really tested out the camera in a meaningful way until today. With all the warm weather we’ve had this week, Laura and I decided to head out to Framingham to meet up with my Mom and take Bella for a walk in Callahan State Park. In rained for the first part of the walk, but the sun broke out right around the time we got to Eagle Pond. The light was perfect.

I’d read the camera was a big step up from my previous iPhone 5, and after looking at a handful of shots on a big screen, I’m very impressed. The hardware is great, but I also love the auto HDR feature much more than I expected. I took a bunch of similar shots with and without it on, and found that it was extremely effective at capturing cloud contrast. When I had it off, I’d often be stuck with white washed skies. Taking the same picture with it on completely solved the problem.

All of these were taken on my phone, and edited right in Apple’s Camera app:

p624995607 4 First Impressions of the iPhone 6 Camera: Callahan State Park

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I also played with slo-mo. More on that soon.

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Uhhhh. Who gave this to you? The King of Sweden.

I found this to be very funny. Via Chris Blattman, 2011 Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt shares his experience taking a Nobel Prize through airport security in Fargo:

“When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

Original source here.

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World Away

Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer, who plays the drums, recently released a 20 song album, Sukierae. I just gave it a full listen last week. First reaction: much of it is awesome. I didn’t expect to enjoy it for the drumming, but I found myself extremely impressed with Spencer. Particularly World Away and Diamond Light Pt. 1:

Some of that is reminiscent of Bonham. Great rhythms. By about two thirds of the way through though, it seemed as though a handful of songs didn’t need to make the cut. They’re all good, but they simply reminded me of older Wilco or solo Tweedy, or even Mermaid Avenue without the Guthrie lyrics. And while I welcome new material, I’d enjoy the “whole album” experience a bit more if it were a bit more concise, focused only on what makes this new family collaboration different from Jeff’s prior work. That said, I definitely recommend checking the whole thing out.

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A Few Thoughts on Rhinos

I just learned that yesterday was World Rhino Day, an annual initiative to raise awareness about Africa’s big poaching problem. National Geographic has a nice series of pictures and history, including a picture that’s clearly from a very different time of a zookeeper feeding peas to a rhino while it’s carrying a woman on its back.

Having just been to South Africa last month, where over 80% of the 26,000 rhinos in Africa live, I thought I’d share some of what we saw and learned. Previous posts on South Africa are here and here.

While I had known that poaching has historically been and continues to be a huge issue, I hadn’t appreciated the extent of it. Over 1,000 rhinos were poached in South Africa 2013, the largest number in recent history, and this year it looks like the number might be even higher. That’s almost 5% of the population poached, every year, and doesn’t include rhinos that die of old age and other natural causes.

I had also always assumed that poaching was most prevalent in less populated areas with few tourists and little infrastructure — somewhere deep in the bush away from conservation areas and managed parks/reserves. That couldn’t be more wrong. Most of the poaching happens in Kruger National Park, the largest and arguably most well-known and visited park in South Africa. Despite the fact that it’s only open from 6am-6pm, has a team of dedicated anti-poaching police, and that the entry/exit points appear regulated with only a handful of well guarded gates and frequent car searches, rhinos in Kruger aren’t well protected at all. About one per day is poached.

In some ways it seems the parks and reserves just need to do more of what they are doing — searches and dedicated anti-poaching patrol — and maybe be a bit more tactical about it. The first very small private reserve we visited had four rhinos as recently as a year ago. Now there are three — poachers cut through the fence in the middle of the night, killed one, and cut off his horns. We saw the bones, which the reserve kept in place to raise awareness.

Apparently at the time it was well-known that the anti-poaching police weren’t on duty from about midnight to the early morning, which in many ways defeats the purpose of having them for the other ~20 hours per day. Obviously more resources are needed. But making the hours and routes less predicable would seem to help. However, my understanding of the context is limited to a few conversations, so I’m hesitant to assume too much about which aspects of protection failed.

In the parks, our car was searched a few times, but not every time, despite the fact that we were stopped for five minutes or so at each entry or exit point. There didn’t seem to be any reason why the guards couldn’t have quickly looked in our trunk each time. Maybe they were profiling us as tourists, but they seemed more interested in finding out whether we had alcohol than guns. And given the recent arrest of some park employees for walking around with a hunting rifle, it sounds as though guns coming in and out of the park should be a focus.

At many of the parks, we did notice a culture of secrecy around the rhinos. We often asked rangers and guides how many rhinos were in parks we were visiting, and the most common answer was that they don’t disclose the information. Also, many of the parks had boards at the visitor areas where people can mark recent sightings of elusive animals such as lions, leopards, elephants, hyenas, wild dogs, etc. Rhinos would have been an obvious addition to that list, but we never saw their locations marked.

Maybe this already happens on a limited scale, or is more challenging than I appreciate, but it would seem to me that anti-poaching efforts could be improved with a bit of technology. I’ve read about parks using motion sensors. But what about adding some cameras along key roads, maybe even streaming them to the web, and crowd sourcing the monitoring. People from all over the world could check out various parts of the parks, and report anything that appears suspicious. There’s clearly a large global network of people who care. When we visited the Tembe Elephant Reserve, we learned that they have a very popular 24/7 webcam covering one of the watering holes, and there’s something similar in popular spots in Kruger. Why not take this exact model and replicate it a few hundred times over using satellite internet in different parks? I suppose there’s risk of poachers using the cameras to locate rhinos, but I think the added monitoring of the areas would more than compensate.

We also learned of some innovative approaches to reducing demand for rhino horns that have been tested on a limited basis and sound promising. One example is to inject poison and pink dye into the horns — a practice that doesn’t harm the rhinos, but would be apparent to poachers and would make anyone consuming the horn fairly sick. This sounds like a promising approach, but it would likely have to be expanded on a much larger basis before it could really reduce demand rather than shift poaching to different areas. Time will tell — hopefully it helps.

I’ve included some shots of some of the rhinos we saw below.

The first two are from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, where we saw about 15-20 different rhinos throughout our day-long self-drive. I didn’t notice at the time, but after reviewing the pictures closely, it’s clear this rhino has large wounds on both sides. It’s difficult to be sure, but they look like gunshot wounds (especially the one on its left in the first picture) suggesting he or she may have escaped an attempted poaching:
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A couple others from the same park:
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And here are a couple more from a reserve near Hluhluwe:
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If you’re interested in donating to anti-poaching efforts, I found that savetherhino.org has a bunch of great programs across Africa, including one at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park.

 

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African Cat Rehabilitation Center

Continued from my previous post here. On our second day in South Africa, we took a ride about 10 miles up the road from our lodge to the Emdoneni Lodge Cat Rehabilitation Center. The center takes in injured and orphaned cheetahs, servals, African wild cats, and caracals, and provides care for them, generally with the hope of releasing them back into the wild. In some cases the cats become too tame and comfortable around humans and can not be safely released, so these guys live out their days at the center.

Somewhat surprisingly, after speaking with one of the center’s staff members, we learned much of the funding for these centers comes from hunting organizations. My understanding was that they typically want to help support sustainable population levels, across many species, such that “responsible hunting” does not pose a risk. These are obviously longer term objectives for currently threatened animals, and the dynamic seems nuanced and complex, but it felt a bit odd knowing a lot of the support for a great animal protection program had these underlying motivations.

Fascinating all around. With that, I’ve included a few highlights below.

Here’s an African wild cat:

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Shots of well-timed yawns always look viscous. They resemble house cats, and apparently house cats were bred from domesticated African wild cat ancestors beginning about 10,000 years ago, but these guys are just a bit more dangerous.

Here’s a caracal, named Bar One:

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A cheetah:
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And finally a serval:
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We were able to go into the fenced enclosures and walk right up to the all of animals. The cheetahs actually weren’t the most dangerous — apparently the caracals are most unpredictable and prone attacking if threatened. The guide wouldn’t let any children into the caracal area, and said that if Bar One started running around everyone’s legs, we should just remain still and let him do his thing as we wouldn’t want to see his reaction to fast movements.

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First Few Days in South Africa

Laura and I recently returned from a visit in South Africa, planned around a package we “accidentally” won in a charity auction. The Auction was for Girls’ Leap, an amazing organization Laura volunteers with that provides self defense and empowerment training to girls and young women in the Boston area. By “accidentally,” I mean that we weren’t the high bidders and didn’t necessarily intend to win, as it was clear the other bidders were more enthusiastic. But once the highest bidder won, the auctioneer had a “surprise” for us. She happened to have more than one package on hand and conveniently offered it to us — in front of 200 or so other people — for our bid. It’s obviously a great cause, was a great deal, was the price we bid, (and was a great auctioneer technique), so quite unexpectedly and without much thought, we were going to South Africa.

We planned the trip around the package, but took the opportunity to rent a car and explore the country a bit. Our first few days were in KwaZulu-Natal and Zululand, near Hluhluwe (pronounced shlushluwee) at a private reserve and lodge that were part of the package. We then traveled in and around St. Lucia and iSimangaliso Wetland Park, spent a day in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, then drove through Swaziland up to Kruger National Park.

The entire trip was incredible, especially for shooting, and it’s taken me over a month to sort through and edit my photos. Below I’ve included the first batch from the first few days. I’ll likely have some new presets to post as well, as I definitely came up with a few good combinations editing these.

Here was a sunset on the first night from our room:
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The private reserve at our lodge was small compared with the national parks, but still had some incredible wildlife and landscapes:
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On the second day we “spotted” one of the cheetahs in the reserve, along with her cub:
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Apparently elephants keep cool in the afternoon by filling their trunks with dirt and spaying it over their backs:
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More to come soon.

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