So, I clicked it.
A few years back, I wrote a letter to CareerBuilder about their Superbowl adverts for their exploitative use of chimpanzees. I shared the letter on my alter-ego blog. A few people left comments telling me that I totally missed the funny.
Before doing it again this year, I hope CareerBuilder.com will take into account two articles. The first is “Cute TV Chimps May Harm Their Wild Brethren” from Science Magazine. The second is an article from The Christian Science Monitor called “Super Bowl commercials: What happens to those CareerBuilder chimps?“
Wild chimpanzees…gone within our own lifetimes. But golly, they’re entertaining!
I’m listening to Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America
right now, and it has me thinking about my disappointment from a recent visit to rewilding.org. Something ain’t quite right.
I first became familiar with the rewilding concept from Scientific American, some time ago, and blogged on Mammoth Cloning. The idea was compelling. But my takeaway was that the backers behind the article had a vision for a “Pleistocene Park.” What a great idea!
Essentially, they assert that North America is missing significant members of its mammalian megafauna. Giant ground sloths with prehensile tongues as large as elephants, mammoths and mastodons roaming in matriarchal herds, short-faced bears who stood on all fours with shoulders taller than I, native camels and horses, lions and cheetahs. These and other creatures disappeared from the landscape suddenly, just some 13,000 years ago. Right about the time that the first reliable evidence of humans appears. If you accept that overkill played a key part in their demise, the assertion that today’s North America may likely have had them still, if it were not for us humans.
That’s not a reason to rue our very existence. The Pleistocene Park idea is inspirational. The world still hosts rough analogy species, many endangered on their native continents. Patriating them to a new preserve in North America could roughly reconstruct some of the lost world. It’s far out, and would certainly be challenging to win. But the success of African game reserves show that the challenge would not be containment or management. It would more be getting the public behind the idea.
My disillusionment started when I found out that an EarthFirst! founder was involved. That made me skeptical that I might find an overly radical agenda. Their blog featured a couple stories about Greenpeace, using the same brand of sensational and righteously indignant style that lead me away from Greanpeace. Yet the site also features interesting, easy-to-understand principles of conservation science, such as diagrams for good-better-best geometry for wildlife habitat preserves (some courtesy of Michael Soulé, a UC Santa Cruz professor from who lectured for a class I once took). But the real disappointment was that the site no longer lead me to see anything achievable.
Instead of a Pleistocene Park (bold and visionary, albeit really hard to achieve), they now seem to advocate the rewilding of North America more in more general terms. That is, I don’t see an inspiring vision for species conservation coupled with a contextual justification based on analogous predecessors. I see a nebulous vision that feels a bit idyllic and nostalgic. What am I supposed to get behind? This blog post is really just to try to get one of them to comment on why they seem to have moved away from their most concrete idea.
The United States Geological Survey’s website provides map downloads of geologic unit data. You can download and view these files in Google Earth. This makes Google Earth a “killer app” for geologists, paleontologists, and other earth sciences explorers. What an amazing resource for understanding and exploring the surface rocks of a given area!
My partner Heidi and I love to camp and explore areas in which the terrain may have fossil bearing rocks. So, we use Google Earth on my Mac to do a lot of our planning. Once out in the field, I like to have the same data on my iPhone, too. But that’s a bit tricky.
Here are some tips and tricks that I have learned about using USGS data.
USGS data, KML files, and Google Earth
The USGS digitizes geologic units in Keyhole Markup Language (KML). KML is a text format that uses an XML schema originally created by Keyhole, Inc, the original creator of Google Earth. (Google acquired Keyhole in 2004.) Google Earth is free–meaning there is no financial cost to download and use it–and can open and render KML files. (An alternative to Google Earth is the Free Software project called Marble.)
KML file extensions: .kml or .kmz
KML files can get quite large, especially when it comes to mapping a whole state’s geologic terrain. For that reason, KML data is frequently found in a compressed (zipped) version with a .kmz file extension instead of .kml. Both are referred to as KML files. Google Earth can use .kmz files directly, without being first unzipped.
Getting the USGS KML File for Your State’s Geologic Unit
The USGS provides geologic unit data for each state on their website as KML files. Open one in Google Earth, and each geologic unit’s regions display as opaque colors layered atop the terrain. Zoom into an area and click one of these colored units open a balloon showing the info contained in the KML for that unit. The data is pretty lean, but the Detailed Information link in it will take you to the USGS web page containing more information.
Using USGS Data on the iPhone
Can you put USGS data on your iPhone? Yes.
I have found a couple ways to do this, each with its pros and cons.
There’s an App for That
This is essentially one of those apps that just re-packages public domain data. What makes Geology UT any different from Geology CA? Essentially, it’s the data (USGS, mainly) bundled with the app. At $7.99, it’s not too steep for the functionality it provides. Unfortunately, Integrity Logic has yet to update it (despite having graciously thanked me for providing several ideas for enhancement).
To be sure, this app is not nearly as slick as Google Earth. The main advantage of using this app is that it works offline (unlike Google Earth), and includes descriptive data from the USGS website that is not in the USGS KML files. If you work in the field, far from a cellular signal, I definitely recommend this app.
Using KML Data on the iPhone in Google Earth
To be sure, Google Earth on the iPhone presents a challenge when it comes to using KML files, but by no means an insurmountable challenge. Here’s how to make KML data usable through the iPhone edition of Google Earth.
* A Google account
* Google Maps (maps.google.com)
* A Computer with Google Earth
* An iPhone with Google Earth on it
* USGS KML file
You’re going to use the Google Maps feature called “My Maps” to import the KML file. Then, you can use Google Earth’s My Maps feature on the iPhone to see the data.
There are a couple inconvenient issues to get around. First is the 10MB maximum file size that you can import. This restriction applies to the uncompressed file size, which may prevent you from importing. The .kmz for Utah is 6.9MB, but it contains 25MB of data when uncompressed. Second is the default opacity of the data layers. These big, opaque shapes mask the underlying terrain, which is inconvenient. I’ll show you how to get around both of these obstacles.
- Download the USGS KML file that contains the data that you need.
- Open the file with Google Earth.
- All of the geology data will display on the landscape in numerous opaque layers. It will also display in the left-side Places navigation.
- Right-click the unit that you want to add to your phone, and select Get Info from the menu.
- Now, go to the Style/Color tab and set the opacity to 50%. (Also, you may want to change the color to something that will show up well in Google Maps, given the iPhone’s small display.)
- Once you have set the color and opacity to your liking, you can export that unit as its own, self-contained KML file for that unit. Right click the unit again and choose Save Place As… and give your file a name. This should yield a file that is well below the 10MB import restriction imposed by Google Maps.
- Now open a browser and go to Google Maps. (Make sure that you have logged in with your Google Account.)
- Click the My Maps link (on left, near Get Directions).
- Click the Create new map link.
- Create the Import link, and upload the file that you saved from Google Earth.
- Before clicking Done, consider whether you want this map shared. (Google Maps will default to Public.)
- After clicking Done, you will see the geologic unit in Google Maps. (If it appears to be incomplete, scroll down through the list of elements at left, and you’ll see why: Google splits the list into multiple pages. Google Maps is not very good for viewing numerous polygons that often comprise a geologic formation.)
- At last, it’s now time to get your iPhone and open Google Earth.
- Click the Options button (i) in Google Earth.
- If you have not already done so, log in with your Google account. Once you have, you can use My Maps to enable the map you just imported into Google Maps.
And with that, you have brought USGS geologic units onto your iPhone.
In a parallel universe, I am a field biologist. In another, a paleontologist. In yet another, an ornithologist. And several very useful applications now available for the iPhone have recently re-kindled a yearning to live these parallel lives.
Mobiles Go Wild
The utility of mobile phones for field science keeps getting better and better. Behind this are three inter-related trends, the advances in which can largely be attributed to the iPhone.
- The first is the long-running convergence of mobile technologies. GPS, compass, and camera are now integrated on a single hand-held device that not only offers broadband Internet, but also adequate storage capacity for storing data for offline use.
- The second is richer user interaction. Beyond large, high-resolution screens, a combination of diverse gestures allow interaction directly through the visual interface. The result makes it possible to provide user experiences that go way beyond the classic constraints of keypads and standard buttons.
- The previous two trends yield a device that can be purposed many different ways, which is what makes the third trend–application programs–so powerful. App programs give software developers a means to create applications that use the advanced hardware features and rich user interaction for special purposes that phone manufacturers could never produce on their own. (For that matter, even fathom on their own.)
The result is a wave of new applications that promise to revolutionize–among other things–scientific field work. In the forefront is the iPhone, but I expect that Android devices–with their more permissive developer model–may show similar promise. Nevertheless, the iPhone can take credit for setting a new high bar for the current wave of mobile devices. Consequently, there is an emerging treasure trove of high-value applications for doing field science. Let’s take a look at a few.
These are a few of the iPhone apps that I find to be essentials for planning and conducting explorations in the natural world. If you have some suggestions for me to add to this list, please leave a comment. An asterisk (*) notes an app that does not require live Internet.
- Geology UT* is one of several similar Geology apps, each using a different US state’s set of public domain data. The app uses on-board GPS with its own map to help you find out quickly what the US Geological Survey knows about the age and composition of the surface wherever you may be. I use the Utah version extensively while I search for fossils or wonder about the age of an outcrop.
Because the app stores all of its data on the device, this is also a good example of an app that works in the field without a data connection. Tap any area of the map that you might want to know about, and it presents details that normally require a browser when using Google Earth and a kml file on a computer.
- Geotimescale* is a simple reference app, providing a visual guide to the age old question: “What on earth does Cenozoic mean?”
- Google Earth is an excellent tool for understanding the terrain. Using the on-board GPS lets you quickly see where you are. Various layers, including Panaramio photos, further enrich the virtual exploration experience. And similar to the desktop app, Earth features tilt, which allows you to virtually explore the terrain relief of an area before heading out.
For example, here is a tilted view showing Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park. In the bottom right (at the ‘s’ in technologies), there is a trailhead for a trail that follows the ridge across from the rock “cathedrals.” Although this screenshot was not done on site–there is no data connection in this part of the Utah outback–you can see how studying it can help you to understand the landscape you intend to explore.
I should also note that the desktop application is an essential companion to the mobile version. I often start investigating on the big screen, especially since the USGS makes various .kml files available for many areas of the US.
- GPS tracking apps enable you to record your tracks so that you can know where and when you were at a given time. That’s great for when you find something that you want to come back to later. I have yet to settle on a single one, since they each provide different features (for example, some can download the topo map for a given location).
- Compass* is a default application that Apple introduced with the 3Gs, eliminating yet another piece of equipment to carry.
- Pocket Universe* satisfies my long-running desire to know the night sky. Books always frustrated me., mainly because I have a hard time mapping them to the sky. “pUniverse” tells me which constellations and planets are visible on a given date, at a given time, from a given location. That’s handy, but the application uses the iPhone’s compass and GPS in what pUniverse calls “planetarium mode.” Imagine simply holding up your phone and seeing a labelled map of the night sky in any direction. Tap any labeled celestial object to find out all about it. This is the kind of app that makes you feel smarter than you are without your phone.
- Weather happens, and meteorological surprises can be the difference between a great excursion and misery. There are many, many applications to let you know what’s in store. I use the free (ad-laden) app Weatherbug, mainly because I have yet to research and find a better tool.
- iBird Explorer Pro*, at $29.95, will likely remain the most expensive app I have ever purchased. There are several lighter-weight versions of iBird Explorer, but I’m an avid admirer of birds–I had to have the full catalog of North American birds.
With this app, you can quickly narrow down a species by its shape, family, markings, colors, habitat, and flight style, and range (with options to filter using the data and your current location).
Content is an age-old trade-off with field guide books. For example, each bird’s range map in my trusty old Peterson’s guide is stuffed in one of the book’s appendices. As an application, iBird Explorer makes each range maps simple–each species has a Range tab. Similarly, the trade-off between illustrations and photos is settled handily. (Most birders favor illustrations, but the debate becomes moot with iBird Explorer.)
Much as I love my Sibley’s guide–which became my manual of choice while out birding–no printed field guide allows you to play a bird’s call. Not only does iBird Explorer play calls, it does so loudly enough that Heidi and I have been able to use it to draw in Ravens and Pinyon Jays in from a good distance. (Now I want a selection of calls, since the Common Raven’s vocalization, for example, varies considerably from region to region.)
My one critique is that I would like a sightings and life-list feature, similar to Audubon Mammals.
- Audubon Mammals* is a splendid reference for identifying the mammals that you see–and those that you don’t. Beside providing photos, you also get range maps, track and scat illustrations (sometimes with comparisons), and a thorough description. Designed to help you quickly identify a creature, the app flows in ways that you always wished your field guide would. The app also allows you to record sightings, as well as a life list, which get GPS-tagged and allow you to add your own notes and observations.
General Field Tools
- Camera* taking a picture or video not only documents what you saw, but where you saw it. Each photo has latitude and longitude coordinates applied by the GPS. That means that you can document exactly where you saw a specimen. However, rather than use the on-board camera application, you might consider using it through a notetaking application, such as…
- Evernote* is an application whose importance I can’t emphasize enough. What a great tool Evernote is!
Geo-tagged photos are a great start, but there are other ways you may want to document your experiences.
Whether recording simply for your personal memories or for detailed field notes, Evernote geo-tags your notes. Notes can be text–of course–but you can also record your voice as a note. And that means that you can even record a location’s ambient soundscape. Evernote also allows you to take geo-tagged pictures, and if a picture contains text, Evernote will even process the text so it becomes searchable.
One of the most important features of Evernote is that it’s not just an iPhone app. All of your notes get uploaded to your account on Evernote’s servers. That means that your notes are effectively backed up each time the Evernote app synchronizes. And…you can access and update your notes through any browser. And…you can also access your data from an Evernote on your computer. In fact, Evernote will sync between applications on Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, and PalmOS. Simply put, Evernote is a life tool.
Even if the iPhone represents the upper echelon of expensive mobile phone gadgetry, the various applications available on it for working in the field allow you to replace numerous books, maps, and other reference materials. In short, the iPhone has opened access to scientific participation by laypeople–amateurs and enthusiasts–as well as professionals. However, the applications I list here are mostly popular applications–primarily made for laypeople, but able to provide substantial support for actual field biologists, botanists, archeologists, paleontologists, and so on. I expect that there is a huge raft of more applications ready to be made…applications that are custom-tuned to the specialized technical details of various types of field research and data recording.
My interest in sharing this is not simply to bring about more awareness so that more specialized science applications get created. With many, many science-friendly tech geeks like me starting to make field observations through iPhone and Android devices, science may now face a huge opportunity in crowd-sourcing. In the 90’s, SETI@home demonstrated how willingly geeks will apply effort to help science. In the past decade, Wikipedia used volunteerism to produce one of the foremost social-informational triumphs of the web. Now with an army of geeks readily equipped with powerful mobiles, and with strongly overlapping areas of interest between tech-geeks and science nerds, perhaps a new era of scientific data gathering is waiting to be unlocked by innovative, creative minds.
(last updated 28DEC09)
Here are some additional apps relevant to the list subject:
- Field Assets is “a field data collection application for the iPhone and iTouch.” Some further web research uncovered this app. It appears that this could easily be purposed for science work. At $12.99, I have not tried it yet.
Also check out these links…
- Could an iPhone be a useful field tool?
- Is the iPhone 3G Good for Geologizing?
- The iPhone: A Field Tool for Geologists?
- The top 10 science applications for the iPhone
- Top 10 life science related apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch
- 22 iPhone Apps for Science Geeks
- 50 Useful iPhone Apps for Science Students & Teachers
- 10 Best iPhone Apps for Science Majors
Into Bell Labs
I’m now working within Bell Labs, which is part of the recently merged company Alcatel-Lucent. Bell Labs is renowned for its venerable history of major R&D innovations (such as the transistor, the solar cell, and the laser, and of course, the Unix operating system).
Where in Bell Labs would someone like me fit? Bell Labs has a start-up organization called Alcatel-Lucent Ventures, which is chartered with advancing Bell Labs’ innovations and other ideas into commercial products and services. One of the venture groups is a lean team (like, barely into double-digit headcount) called touchatag, and that is my new home.
Touchatag is working in a space that is sometimes called “The Internet of Things,” a vision in which real world objects have online identities. By putting an identifier tag on any object, you can use that object in many new ways, such as accessing web-based information about it.
Today, touchatag gives you two types of tags to work with: 2D barcode tags (also called QR codes), and a type of RFID tag for use with Near Field Communication (NFC) readers. The QR code shown at right is my “social business card.” If you have QR code reader software on your phone or computer, you can use it to take you to a web page showing many ways to find out more about me.
RFID tags are the solid-state complement to QR codes. Small stickers, each embedded with a unique RFID, give you a more durable and less easily copied identifier that can be applied to any object. The scenarios currently available for use on touchatag’s site today is a mere pinhole glimpse at the breadth of possibilities that this technology will eventually yield…which brings us to my role at touchatag.
Assume Innovation Occurs Elsewhere
What do you do when the uses for an emerging technology’s potential extend far beyond what you can possibly deliver? Quoted in various ways, Bill Joy’s law advises: “Most of the bright people don’t work for you–no matter who you are. You need a strategy that allows for innovation occurring elsewhere.” Perhaps Bell Labs, so well known for innovation, would be an unexpected source for that sentiment. Nevertheless, it’s why I am now at touchatag.
Developer networks are one of the more powerful programs that companies use in order to accomodate Joy’s Law. Rather than trying to deliver everything for a technology or service unilaterally, providing developers opportunities and interfaces into that technology allows innovation to run far and wide. A well run developer program fosters mutual success and/or prosperity between the company and the 3rd party developers who adopt the company’s services.
Touchatag is building an online service that we hope will make it easy for developers to innovate extensively in the emerging space of NFC or QR codes, and the larger Internet of Things. My charter is to define and direct touchatag’s developer network.
For now, I’ll stay out of the details and simply say that the touchatag team and I have a lot of interesting work ahead of us.
But What About Open Source?
If you’ve read my blog in the past, you may notice that I’ve dropped the old title “Open Source Advocacy with Reverend Ted.” While I still hold many of the ideals of Free Software, I hold other ideals that are much more dear to me.
When I was half my current age, I became conscious of environmental conservation, particularly the survival of species. Through 15 years of building a career in technology, I deepened my passion of the natural world by working to become more scientifically literate. I became increasingly focused on human consciousness and how it came about. In the process, I also developed a fascination for the Great Apes: bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. These wonderful creatures, all severely endangered in the wild, are humanity’s closest kin. I never want to see our world without them.
This past summer, I met Heidi, a beautiful and intelligent woman who shares my interest. It’s both her hobby and her field of study. Together, she and I have formed a partnership in which we can collaborate on a shared cause. With Heidi, I see a path ahead in which my work in technology can contribute to something that is intensely important to me.
There are important ideals and ideas in the Free Software movement–I see it as a Humanist cause. But many of its proponents become singularly absorbed in its ideals, perhaps at the expense of more pressing issues. Poverty. Diseases, such as AIDS and malaria. Global human rights. Extinction. Climate change. There are serious problems in the world for humanity to address. I want to apply my efforts to affecting positive change.
I hope that those who come here for any reason will continue to read my posts about technology, but also my periodic posts about this other subject too.