San Francisco Bay Area from the ISS

Here’s a neat image of the Bay Area taken from the International Space Station. I particularly like the visible outflow from the receding tide through the Golden Gate as well as the visible colored salt ponds in the south bay.

Photograph of San Francisco Bay
In this photograph of the San Francisco Bay area taken from the International Space Station during Expedition 4, the gray urban footprint of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and their surrounding suburbs contrasts strongly with the green hillsides. ISS004-E-10288 (April 21, 2002, 105 mm lens) Click on the image for full-resolution version.

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Glass Frog

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MA Regional First Championships

During my trip to Boston last week for the National Science Teacher’s Association conference (more on that later) I totally lucked out in also catching the FIRST Robotics League Northeastern Regional Championships. If you haven’t been to one, you simply must go. As remarkable as this sounds, there is almost certainly one in your area. It was AWESOME. There were more than 7,000 people in attendance in the Agganis Arena at Boston University to see the real deal, professionally produced and run, very well-organized, with pro announcers, cameramen and lighting.

Over forty teams of high school students were running robots that they built from nothing inside of 6 weeks to accomplish a VERY complicated challenge. They were so FANTASTIC that I am going to run out of superlatives before getting to the end of this post. The very idea that this organization has grown since 1992 to reach more than 13,000 schools across the US, and that there are 41 REGIONAL competitions before the upcoming late April finals in Atlanta is just incredible. Better yet, FIRST has clearly been very successful in perpetuating and growing a model that is self-sustaining, with many teams having competed for several years, with former FIRST team members returning to mentor their old team or going on to start new ones.

I managed to arrive just in time to watch the contest start up for the final day with a performance by the Blue Man Group, followed by the grand entrance of Woodie Flowers, the legendary MIT professor who founded FIRST, and before that was the originator of the famous MIT 2.70 and 6.270 robotics contests. Check out how these people LOVE him as he enters the arena using an interesting MIT spin-out technology called the Atlas Ascender (a self-contained box that allows rapid ascent as well descent.)

Woodie Rappelling – Boston Regional 2008.

The day began with the quarter-finals matches and I stayed through the final. The designs were quite varied, with the older more experienced teams (you could tell from the low team numbers below 100 that were granted years ago) clearly demonstrating that years of experience really helps in refining robust approaches to complicated problems. That said, even the rookie teams showed great creativity and incredible dedication and teamwork. Check out these photos of several of the robots.

The matches were real nail-biters with cheering and chants that rivaled any football game I had ever attended (except maybe the Chelsea Tottenham match in London). To see this leve of excitement and adulation usually reserved for sports and entertainment celebrities unleashed on students for engineering and innovation just warmed my heart. Something has been made right in the world.

Everyone I spoke with loved the experience and couldn’t even imagine failing to participate next year. And as Steve Wozniak, one of the FIRST luminaries said, “There are lots of prizes and awards, and only one of them is for winning.” Their hearts and minds are certainly in the right place.

Find out about your local FIRST events and sign up however you can, as a participant. mentor, coach, parent, whatever. You won’t regret it.

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Sneaking Out of the House to Build Robots

My favorite story from the whole FIRST Northeastern Regional competition was revealed in the delivery of the “Woodie Flowers” award. Woodie, you see, is the MIT professor who founded FIRST with Dean Kamen of Segway fame, after starting the legendary 2.70 and later 6.270 robotics contests at MIT. In many ways, Woodie was responsible for my attendance at MIT, just as he has now been responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of aspiring technologists across the US through FIRST.

So in thanks and recognition, the Woodie Flowers Award is granted to the team mentor at each regional and final First contest that best exemplifies Woodie’s spirit of contribution, teamwork, and inspiration.


Woodie Flowers and Elizabeth Carruthers

This year’s recipient, Elizabeth Carruthers from the Columbus School for Girls, had a great story. As a high school student, her parents weren’t all that supportive of the time and energy that FIRST demanded, so she had to sneak out of the house to work on her team’s FIRST robot.

She was so committed to the program and her teammates, that when her parents caught her sneaking out, she told them that she was just going to “parties with her friends,” which turned out to be okay with them. You see, they wanted her to be socially well-adjusted, and feared seeing their daughter turned into a nerd.

Given that she has now gone on to a technical undergraduate program, and returned to mentor her old high school’s FIRST team (an all-girl’s team, at that) into the regional finals, (a remarkable accomplishment that takes MANY more skills in communication and leadership and interpersonal relationships than just the technical ones) I’d say she’s VERY well adjusted!

Congrats, Elizabeth. Our nation need more inspirations like you.

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Shuttle and ISS

NASA

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Data Visualization for US Politics

With the end of the primary season coming up this summer, I expect a resurgence of the talk about “red and blue states” that dominated the 2004 election as we approach the direct engagement of the Republican and Democratic parties. This morning, I stumbled on a great site by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman from the University of Michigan that uses very nice cartographic representations of the last election results to better visualize the electorate.

Popular publications such as USA today published many maps of this sort showing the winner’s party by county.

But this graphical representation fails to take into account either the population density, electoral votes by county, or how close the vote was. If you process the map topology and scale each county to represent electoral votes, and color the vote results as a continuous scale from red to blue with even results represented as a mixed color of purple, the result is much more interesting.

Rather than the stark red/blue divide of the trivial map above, a more representative view of our nation deemphasizes sparsely-populated geographies with little economic impact and highlights those regions driving tomorrow’s economy. We also look like a much more homogeneous purple nation in this view.

Interestingly enough, in the economic-political view, the most politically homogeneous regions are the blue counties where economic development is the strongest.

Check out the whole site here.

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Time-Lapse Video of Retreating Glacier

For all you climate change skeptics, check out this time-lapse video of the Columbia glacier near Valdez Alaska from National Geographic (click through for full res version.)

From the Nat Geo page:

This remarkable image sequence captures a series of massive calving events at Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska. Composed of 436 frames taken between May and September of 2007, it shows the glacier rapidly retreating by about half a mile (1.6 kilometers), a volume loss of some 0.4 cubic miles (1.67 cubic kilometers) of ice or 400 billion gallons (1.5 trillion liters) of water.

The time-lapse was taken as part of the ongoing Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), an ambitious project to capture global warming-induced glacial retreat in the act. Beginning in December 2006, photographer James Balog and his colleagues set up 26 solar-powered cameras at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Alps, and the Rocky Mountains. Each unit will take a photograph every daylight hour until fall 2009.

In 2008, Balog’s team began to return to each of the camera sites to collect images. In the end, they will have more than 300,000 images to analyze and stitch together to produce more dramatic videos like this one.

This kind of multiyear effort, says Balog, is necessary to “radically alter public perception of the global warming issue.”

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