Confirming Sleep Habits

Most of you who know me well are familiar with my bizarre sleep habits. I’m a night owl. Always have been. It’s a highly productive part of my day when the chatter of email and phone calls die down, the “checkpoints” of meetings and social engagements on my calendar come to an end, the sun no longer makes its inexorable march across the sky, and my sense of time dilates. The passage of each moment is not so acute and keenly felt. I can finally take a deep breath and sit down to think. It’s lovely.

Anyhow, I have often wonder how my sleep schedule has evolved over the years. I would assume that I don’t stay up quite so late as I did when I was a freshman back at college. Surely not! Well… I just recently ran across a potential answer to this question in the form of a set of statistics on my soda consumption during freshmen year. You see, we used to have a soda machine on our hall called SodaLord that stocked the usual Coca-cola, Mountain Dew, and (the dreaded) Fresca & Orange Soda. This soda machine was wired up to a computer system that would keep track of your soda consumption, and credit you account whenever you purchased a soda. (You had to pay into the system periodically to ensure that you had credits available to spend.)

Like any computer system in our dorm, SodaLord was connected to the Internet, where it would (helpfully) serve up soda statistics on its users. I just ran across it again the other day, and amazingly I’m still in their system. Here are my stats:


Michael's SodaLord stats from freshman year at MIT.

This data show a strong trend of sleeping from ~6am to noon every day, with some shifting on either side. My most active hour was 1am, and it tapers off slowly from there. There are small peaks in the late afternoon and late evening. All of this is more or less in line with what I remember of my habits from those days.

Now zoom forward to 2009. I don’t drink soda anymore, thank goodness, but other statistics are now available to help suss out my daily habits. Google just released a new service called Google Dashboard, which lets you see all of the personal information that Google has stored about you in its many, many services. It’s an awful lot of information. Among other things, it has a complete log of your search history, including some aggregate statistics. Log in and scroll down to “Web History,” and then click on the “Web” link. This brings up a search history page. Click on “Trends” on the left side of the page, and you will be presented with some cool graphs like this one:


Michael's Search Statistics for 2008-2009

This is the time distribution of my search activity for the past year. Once again, there’s a clear rhythm to my day. Sleep most often happens between 5 and 10am, and there’s still an activity peak between 1 and 2am. There’s still the same peak in the late afternoon followed by an evening lull… I guess the evening isn’t a popular time for searching or sodas for me. It doesn’t look like I get much more (or less) sleep than I did back in college, though maybe I do get to bed a little earlier. It all looks amazingly similar overall.

So, not all that much has changed in the last ten years. Reassuring I suppose, and proof, as if any was needed, that I’m a total night owl!

Introducing… PhosphorEssence

Greetings, Internet! This year has been very, very busy, and so much time has passed since the last post to this blog. Routine writing has never been one of my strong suits, but it’s been hard to keep up the blog these days, especially when there are so many other social channels on the Internet these days that help keep people abreast of what is happening in my life. I use each of them in fits and starts, but Flickr is really the only site that I post on with any real frequency. So… during dry spells on this blog, I highly recommend that you take a peek at my flickr stream, where you are much more likely to turn up news of what I’ve been up to. Sometimes a life is better shared through pictures anyway, don’t you think?

However today I have some blog-worthy news to share — I’ve been working on a new art project called “PhosphorEssence.” It’s a piece of software that lets you interactively explore a beautiful, abstract space of color, audio, geometry, and video feedback that is rendered in high definition by your computer’s graphics card. Simple geometric objects and transformations combine and evolve, creating emergent behaviors that are organic, self-similar, and strangely natural and alluring to the eye. To see what PhosphorEssence looks like, take a look at this demo video:



In PhosphorEssence, some primitive shapes respond to audio input, while others are controlled by a pair of joysticks (each with many knobs, switches, and buttons) that effect color, motion, and the transformations (both linear and non-linear) that are applied in the feedback loop. The joystick controls are intuitive and repeatable, so you can quickly learn how to “fly” through these abstract spaces.

For those of you who are curious, PhosphorEssence is a completely custom-written piece of software in C++ and Python. Considerable inspiration as well as many of the basic transformations and effects were adapted from the Milkdrop visualization plugin for WinAmp. I spent many, many hours staring at this plug-in during my years in college, and was delighted when the source code was released. I pored over the entire thing, and took its particular flavor of feedback as my starting point when I began working on PhosphorEssence. Other influences include the Electric Sheep screen saver and this excellent paper written by Scott Draves and Erik Reckase on their fractal flame rendering algorithms.

I’ve been working on PhosphorEssence since March of this year, and so far it has appeared at Alchemy, Priceless, and Burning Man. During this next month there will be opportunities to go see PhosphorEssence at two public events:

  • 10/27 — I’ll be giving an in-depth talk on the software and theory behind video feedback at LearnTech, which will be held at Il Pirata, near Portrero Hill.
  • 11/20 — PhosphorEssence will be on display at the Artumnal Gathering: a Black Rock Arts Foundation fundraiser.

This project has been tremendous fun, and there are many enhancements and plans in the pipeline. The next few months should be very interesting, so stay tuned for more updates.

Summer… was… intense!

Wow! Another eight months has gone by with no updates to the ol’ blog. No surprise, really… summer in California is always a very busy time for me, and this summer was no exception. Fortunately everything is busy in a good way — I think that rich or intense would be the correct words.

At work, we had one of the most amazing collection of summer interns so far in my time at Ames. They each did phenomenal work that has helped to propel our software forward in a number of areas. The algorithms and technologies we’re using for 3D surface reconstruction from stereo imagery are growing more and more sophisticated and we understand the statistical underpinnings of the problem, and some very large pieces of infrastructure for “bundle adjusting” large collections of images (that is, jiggling around the images until they all line up perfectly) are now working on some production data sets. Thank to Zach, Sasha, Morgon, Tony, and Melissa for all of your great help this summer!

In between extremely busy work-weeks were equally busy weekends full of climbing and hiking trips, yoga retreats, festivals, house parties, and assorted other adventures with friends. It’s hard not to thrive in an environment such as this where communities and friendly people are plentiful and welcoming. However, despite all of the fun I had, I have to say that I’m feeling ready for fall and winter. Things will settle down just a bit and I can spend more time at home working on personal projects, reading books, and cooking good food. Speaking of books, I’m currently reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which I highly recommend if you are interested in the history of 20th century science and the discovery of the atom.

This summer culminated in a trip to Burning Man which, once again, was a highlight of the year. This came shortly after a trip to Yellowstone National Park — a beautiful place for backpacking, though I recommend steering around mosquito season(!) You can check out pictures from those trips (and other assorted adventures) on my new flickr page. (I’ll be posting there from now on because the community features of that site simply can’t be matched by the venerable old gallery software on this site.)

More updates as events warrant…

Walking Robots and Airborne Telescopes

*tap, tap* Anyone still out there?

It has been a long break from the blog, but I’m going to try to hop back in the saddle here after nearly 4 months of relative silence. Thanks to any dedicated readers who are still checking back here from time to time. For the rest of you, I hope you are subbed to my RSS feed!

It all started when my laptop bugged out on me while I was innocently writing an email from the comfort of a local coffee shop. Colors inverted on the screen, windows started disappearing, and eventually the whole UI ground to a stop. The poor thing lost its mind. I immediately started the process of ordering a new machine, but it ultimately took about 2 months for my request to wind its way through a particularly complicated bit of bureaucracy. It’s actually a funny story that could probably do well as part as one (or several) Dilbert cartoons. During that time I was clunking along with my old G4 laptop, so I had to put compute-intensive projects like my photo processing on hold, hence the lack of new photos and blog posts.

However, I did take my camera along with me to a few notable events during the winter months. A few folks in the robotics group got invited to a Honda special event at the Computer History Museum where they were showing off ASIMO, Honda’s (very impressive) humanoid robot. The big new technical achievement of the day was ASIMO’s brand new ability to run — to actually get both feet off the ground, if only for a fraction of a second — as it (he?) crossed the stage. He did this along with the usual physical antics like dancing, kicking soccer balls, and climbing stairs. It was all quite impressive, but what really turned my head was the quality of ASIMO’s industrial design. He is all shiny, smooth edges. No exposed wires or cameras. ASIMO looks like a tiny astronaut in a space suit. Even his movements are all very fluid and natural — it’s all very human. It was clear from the Honda representatives that this is intentional. They are designing ASIMO expressly for the purpose of interacting with/serving humans, and they’ve done everything they can to get rid of the “scary robot” look and replace it with something pleasing and familiar. ASIMO has a long way to go before he’s serving your Grandma a bowl of soup, but he’s clearly on that trajectory, and I think he’ll make it there at some point soon.

I also took off a few hours one day when NASA’s SOFIA Aircraft visited Moffett Field. During their visit, they invited people at the center to take a walk-through tour, so I grabbed my camera and ran to see what a total retrofit of a commercial airplane (in the name of SCIENCE!) looks like.

SOFIA stands for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It’s essentially a Boeing 747 that has a gigantic (2.7-meter diameter) reflecting telescope pointing out of the side of the fuselage. It is designed to gather astronomical observations at 40,000 ft. where it can fly above much of the water vapor in the atmosphere, which tends to block light in the longer wavelengths. It replaces NASA’s old Kuiper Observatory (which some of you will remember from Yuri’s Night last year). While it may not be one of NASA’s so-called great observatories, it’s still cutting edge, and I think it’s a pretty amazing that they’ll be able to hold that telescope steady enough to take pictures while that plane flies through the air.

As seen at Dulles airport…

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and when I pass through airports on these business trips, I am usually bleary eyed and fuzzy brained. Amidst the sea of diverse people, the repetitious buzz of PA announcements, and the downright irony of the ever-present cable-news and airport terminal advertisements, it takes quite a lot for something in that environment to really stand out.

However, when Matt pointed out the words on this glass display case in Dulles International Airport, I couldn’t help but laugh…

This could be the result of wry humor from some disgruntled airport employee, or maybe there isn’t a process in place at Dulles for copy-editing the lettering on a glass display case. Either way, when you’re grumpy because you’ve been on an airplane all day, it’s hilarious!

New Content for Google Moon

Google Moon

A very, very busy summer is drawing to a close, and we’ve been wrapping up some exciting projects at work. Our latest effort has been to prepare map data and educational content for a new version of Google Moon!

Although it lacks the cheese of the original version (which many people seem to miss), we’ve added a nice range of new features that should appeal to scientists and members of the public alike. Aside from the basic Visible and Elevation layers, you will find a collection of historical lunar Charts with a wealth of geological and topographic information. These charts should be useful to amateur astronomers, teachers, and even folks who might be planning their own private mission to the moon as part of the next X-Prize Competition. The charts are definitely handy, but the new Apollo layer is, without a doubt, the most exciting new addition. In this layer, you can zoom into each of the Apollo landing sites and take a tour that chronicles the story of that mission. There are fun anecdotes, images, movies, and even zoomable panoramas to explore. It’s an excellent way to become acquainted with what was learned during the Apollo program, both in terms of science and in terms of the operational challenges encountered by humans operating in the lunar environment. With NASA and other space agencies gearing up to return to the Moon at some point during the next decade, now is a good time to dust off that old knowledge so that we can start planning our next trip.

For more information, check out the NASA Planetary Content Team website about lunar data in Google Moon or read the post on the Google Lat Long Blog.

Burning Man 2007

Burning Man 2007

For years now, I have been trying to go to Burning Man, but life always conspires against me, and for one reason or another I have had to call off my plans. Well, this year I finally made it. And it was awesome.

I hardly know where to begin in describing the experience. For one, Burning Man is big. I’ve heard estimates that there were on the order of 40,000-50,000 people there this year, which is more than twice the size of the town I grew up in. The level of organization and infrastructure is staggering for a city that springs into existence for only one week out of the year, which is funny because very little of the event is actually centrally organized in the conventional sense. Instead, it seems that everyone brings something, and some people band together to bring big things. Some things have been brought repeatedly, and over the years they have evolved to become a lasting part of the Burning Man culture, and in some cases, to literally define it (e.g. the Temple, or the lamplighters). The culture means a lot to the people who participate in it, and there is a universal sense of respect and awe for what the event has become, especially given that no one person or group can claim credit for architecting it. Even the event organizers have adopted a hands-off strategy, encouraging the event to emerge based on the artistry and passion of the attendees.

I managed to take a small handful of pictures, but to be honest, I was having too much fun to be lugging around a camera most of the time. However, there were a few magical moments that just begged to be captured, including a spectacular double rainbow that nicely complemented the full lunar eclipse that I witnessed on the night when I first arrived. I also grabbed a few shots of some of the incredible large-scale art, including the Supplicant Figure, the Steampunk Tree House, and a life-size block puzzle. There are numerous places where you can find very good photos of the event; here for example.

There is no question — I will definitely be at Burning Man again next year. And for those of you who have been trying to come for years, as I had been, all I can say is that you should put in that extra bit of effort to make it happen. You’ll be impressed.

NASA Featured Content Layer

NASA Planetary Content

Just a quick update to announce that we have released our first batch of data for Google Earth in the form of a new NASA featured content layer! Simply fire up Google Earth, go to the layers pane in the lower left and select NASA under the “Featured Content” heading. Kudos really go to Matt (at Ames) for pulling this all together and the folks at other NASA centers who worked hard to prepare the original content — I only played a supporting role insofar as the Vision Workbench was used to do much of the image processing.

The layer contains two sets of placemarks: astronauts photography and satellite photography, which contain some of the most interesting imagery collected over the years of the earth as seen from space. Several of the placemarks allow you to overlay imagery on the globe itself, and in some cases there are several images that show a progression over time for a given location.

The NASA layer also contains a global base map illustrating urbanization via Earth’s “city lights” at night. You can see some very striking patterns in this map, and it really underscores how certain features immediately jump out at you when you can see things on a global scale. For example, it’s striking (though not surprising) to see how population centers remain closely clumped around sources of water, like rivers. Just take a look at the Nile! Some geopolitical boundaries are evident, and so are major transportation corridors. One of our favorite thing to do with this layer is to turn on cities and roads in Google Earth while the city lights map is enabled. As you zoom in, you can watch as the roads “connect the dots.” Perhaps most interesting of all is to see what areas are not urbanized but are clearly very populated, like parts of China and Africa.

In conjunction with the featured content layer, we also released some great global scientific data sets that are being provided as downloadable KML overlays. Go directly to the planetary content web page to access global maps of land and sea surface temperature, lang vegetation index, ocean chlorophyll concentration, and land cover classification. I also highly recommend that you follow some of the links on that page to other NASA sites that specialize in earth data. I’m a particular fan of the very slick NEO website from Goddard Space Flight Center.

Baby Goats!

Summer is full of many pleasantries, but our recent trip to Hidden Villa to hike with baby goats was surely one of the nicest weekend outings of the year. Hidden Villa is a locally owned and operated farm where Claire works. The occasion for this particular visit was a celebration of Claire’s birthday!

Hidden Villa is somewhat similar to Terra Firma, the CSA that delivers a box of fresh fruits and veggies to our house every week. However, unlike many CSAs in the area, Hidden Villa specializes in outreach to kids of all ages. As part of this program, they have a number of farm animals including cows, a ram, and (of course) baby goats.

As it turns out, baby goats aren’t the best hikers. They are easily distracted by new green things to eat (mmm… ferns…), and they definitely resist being led around on a leash. In then end, Vytas and Lindsay both ended up carrying the goats a good portion of the way.

Good Times and Great Fortune

The summer has arrived, and with it, the fog. Yes, Mark Twain’s old adage, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco,” has taken on a whole new meaning of late. The weather had the good grace to lift over this past weekend (and the sunshine was enjoyed, to be sure), but it has been rolling in every day for the past several weeks and we’re scheduled for at least another month or two of this strangely consistent but highly localized weather pattern. Fortunately, if I drive in pretty much any direction — either to the east bay or to work — I escape into the regurly scheduled California sunshine. So… it wears on me less than it otherwise might.

However! The weather can hardly offset my good mood, for summer has arrived in full force! My calendar is rapidly filling with summer campouts, backpacking trips, bbq’s, and weekend house guests. I feel like I need to schedule a free weekend here or there to recuperate! (But no, that would be foolish…)

Much has been happening lately, and it has all gone unreported here. Allow me to briefly summarize.

First, to follow up on a previous post, Yuri’s Night happened, and it was a great success. My photos, mostly taken during party setup, are here. There’s a lot to say about the party, but I’ll leave it to the Internet to summarize. Keith Cowing’s article really hits the nail on the head and captures my feelings about the event fairly well. More press and pictures can be found on NASAWatch or on Flickr.

Also noteworthy is the news that Lindsay and I have moved into a new house in a SF neighborhood called Glen Park. The house is an amazing 6 bedroom place (I’ll eventually get around to posting photos), and we’ll be living with four other close friends. It’s already shaping up to be a good community focal point — we had guests over every day during the past two weekends, and I’m glad to be back in a semi-large group living situation.

The spring was filled with an assortment of fun trips and activites including a long weekend in Vegas (a ridiculous place, but fun), a trip to New York City for Leo and Celine’s wedding, and an assortment of festivals and parties as the SF “scene” gears up for the summer. There have been some good outdoor adventures to Point Reyes and Yosemite (pictures forthcoming), though I’m already itching for another long backpacking trip.

So, with summer just getting started, many recent positive experinces to draw on, and a new house to look forward to, I can’t help but smile. Life is good. I hope that you all are enjoying a similar mix of contentedness and optimism. Go have some fun!

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