Monday, December 20, 2010

Google Trends for History!

Information is Beautiful's caption: "See how big cocaine was in Victorian times."

This is Google Books' new Ngram Viewer tool. Looks like it gives you the prevalence of your search terms over the years in published books.

So... it's Google Trends for history! That's awesome! I don't know why but I've loved Google Trends ever since it came out. In case you aren't familiar, it shows you how often people search for any set of terms you're interested in. So it's a rough, but surprisingly insightful view of the rise and fall of public interest over time for anything searchable.

I use it all the time, but I'm often disappointed at its historical wall of 2004. It doesn't show data from before then. And in any case Google didn't exist before the late 90's so you're out of luck if you're curious when Aerosmith's comeback really kicked in or when people actually started paying attention to Watergate.

So it's not like the Google Books' new tool has that kind of granularity. But the point is, we finally have a tool for seeing the general rise and fall of concepts in the popular zeitgeist.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

yes, Minecraft

**Edit: I've decided that if there's any chance I can create a Google search result for "crafting recipe Olivia Wilde," well then by God I need to take that chance:

"Ever since I saw Notch retweet someone saying that Tron Legacy is actually about a guy's Minecraft addiction gone out of control and the resulting intervention I've been trying to figure out what the crafting recipe is to make Olivia Wilde."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chickens, internets, and biology

This should just be a funny piece of internets.

But unfortunately I'm a biologist and so after I got over how funny it is, I got fascinated. Its head is so incredibly motionless! How? Think about the motions it's performing with its neck and body. We can't imagine coming close to matching that. Why have they evolved this way?

I can only guess it's because birds have an incredibly developed inner ear in order to react very quickly and accurately during flight. I've previously been amazed at the balance of birds. Have you ever seen a seagull or duck with one foot that nevertheless stands effortlessly motionless? Or think whether you've ever seen a bird fail at balancing on a power line and fall off. This image demonstrates exactly how accurate their inertial sensor is and how instantly it provides feedback. I guess that's what's necessary to deal with the split-second world of flight.

TL;DR: Biology is awesome.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Less-controversially awesome things Wikileaks has done

(disclaimer: I really love this thing)

These days most people who recognize the name "Wikileaks" know it from recent hits like "Iraq War Diary" and "U.S. Diplomatic Cables." Unfortunately these well-known works don't suit everyone's tastes and critics are divided on Wikileaks. While I'm still making up my mind on their recent offerings, I thought I'd highlight some of their vintage efforts that might appeal to a wider range of tastes.

Translation: It's a big question whether the recent releases by Wikileaks are a good idea. Not sure what I think myself. But as a long-time fan of them it's troubling hearing so many assessments of Wikileaks and its merits from people (understandably) unaware of the sort of organization it's been up to this point. To help out, I compiled a list of previous releases of theirs that define my impression of them as an organization fiercely committed to free and open information. Then you can judge whether they still do more harm than good.

(credit to Wikipedia for the master list)

2007: Corruption of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi

Wasn't even aware of this, but apparently Wikileaks helped expose a web of corruption led by this Kenyan president who funneled millions of dollars out of the country.

2008: Scientology's secret documents

During Project Chanology, they published highly-secret documents about rituals and beliefs in the Church of Scientology. When the Church predictably reacted with all sorts of rabidly litigious threats (including demanding logs identifying the source), Wikileaks reacted with one of the most awesome statements in the history of free speech: "in response to the attempted suppression, WikiLeaks will release several thousand additional pages of Scientology material next week" (which they did).

2008: British National Party membership list

The BNP is a British political party. All you really need to know about it is that membership is restricted to white people and it's so bad it has to keep its membership list very secret. Wikileaks obtained and released it.

2009: ACMA blacklist (Australian internet censorship)

The Australian government has been considering censoring the internet, originally with the excuse of filtering only extreme and illegal pornography. Wikileaks released their developing blacklist, which shows how it has expanded to a much wider range of questionably "objectionable" material and completely unrelated sites like Youtube pages, Wikipedia articles, and the websites of religious organizations. In an interesting case of how quickly they're falling down the slippery slope of censorship, Wikileaks itself was on the list before the release, because they'd released a similar Danish blacklist.

2009: Congressional Research Service reports

The CRS is an organization under the Library of Congress that produces research to help with policymaking in Congress. Their reports aren't released to the general public unless the office of the congressmember that requested it allows it. These are nonpartisan researchers (an expert called them "even-handed to a fault") and their work is a great resource when trying to find information on national issues. Which is why I think most people could agree that it's a huge benefit that Wikileaks published thousands of CRS reports in 2009.
Read more at the Washington Post.

after the jump:
More-controversial things that may still be more palatable than the war logs and diplomatic cables

Sunday, December 5, 2010