A gigapan

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Map my shiny metal a**, the past becomes the future

In 2004 Schuyler Erle and wrote up an outline for O'Reilly Associates for a book on maps.  This became Mapping Hacks.  The project lead to definitely measurable and small amounts of fame and fortune, and allowed me to work with Schuyler and Jo Walsh.

We saw it as our mission to take our software/hacker/artist/malcontent sensibilities and go and explore the World of Conventional GIS and bring back dispatches from the intersection of what temporarily became called 'Neo' and 'Paleo' geography.

Here is a wordy bit of recollection in which I try to create a cohesive arc between some of my previous thinking about mapping and my current work on Gigapans.

On this evening we were up against a deadline.  We needed to create an outline of 100 'hacks.'  In O'Reilly Hacks-Book language a hack is a nugget of actionable information, as short as half a page,
maybe up to 10 pages, and more typically 2-3 pages.

We had 99 hacks on our outline, and we needed 100 hundred.   I blurted out 'Map my shiny metal ass.'

Schuyler chortled a bit, and then said 'no, seriously, we need one more.'

Schuyler and I can each be a tad, er, pig headed.  So I dug in and tried to come up with some way in which 'Map my shiny a**' might be considered a serious hack.  I had already been succesfful at getting 'Will the Kids Barf?' into the outline (and ultimately into the book), so it seemed possible.

And I started spinning an idea of using the techniques of mapping for collecting, analyzing, and presenting information about the very small-specifically here about mettalurgical analysis.  I had thoughts that you could automatically extract vector data from metal samples showing things like cracks and fissures and contaminents.

And then use the language and management tools from mapping to think about the seemingly similar problems of analyzing metal, and welds, and fracture cracks and so on.

I can write a spatial query which will show me, for example, all of the places where a line geometry (say, a road) intersects with a polygon geometry (like the habitat for an endangered species).  Or will show me the total area covered by a set of polygons.  It seemed 'obvious' to my naive brain that you could treat various attributes of metal - stress fractures and crystal structures and weld overheating, etc, as geometries, and then use spatial operations to extract meaning from those representations.

And then over time I started thinking more about worlds and mapping and a bit of half remembered William Blake's Augeries of Innocence came to me:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
And other thoughts started to follow, and I remembered petri dishes, especially I remembered my mom's friend, John Scott, who was working on a PhD at Stanford when I knew him.  And he would get up, or stay up, at all hours in order to go into the lab to start, check, monitor, and generally work on experiments.

If your goal is to monitor a biological process, than you need to be there when the process needs management or observation.  So it seemed he was always going in to move pietri dishes into and out of incubators, and to analyze colonies of e. coli (?) at different phases of development.

I pictured a robotic system which would take pietri dishes, and bring them in and out of the right temperatures, and would also photograph the pietri dishes at appropriate intervals, and to treat each
dish as its own world - varying over time.

If we can automatically identify corn versus soy bean fields from space than it seemed that we should be able to identify microorganisms from inches away.

And damned if, a few years later, we can't do a lot of that!  We don't have automatic identification, but we do have high resolution imaging, and we are working _hard_ on developing more tools to allow us to image more and better and take time lapses of everything from galaxies to microbes.  To tell stories and explore our world, to show people places and people they didn't imagine existed, to create empathy and understanding, to advance scientific understanding, create art, and if I may wax philosophical a moment, to move us that much closer to the Omega Point, or the Singularity, or maybe just support our (hopefully) rise in empathy.

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