Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blue Marble in Menlo Park

Insomnia. Tuesday night. So far so good. Got some things done at work today. Ducks in a row for tomorrow. My next promotion is coming this summer. Big money. Eyes on the prize. Halfway past winter already. My car is paid off. My life is moving.

Take it slow. Be in the the Tao. Keep moving but don't forget to rest. Two years ago I lived off the kindness of friends. Now I feel like a space shuttle blasting off. I can fly wherever I want on the weekends. I can furnish and decorate, buy new clothes. I can build a music studio in my apartment, buy a hi-def camcorder and a boom mic, make movies, score them, upload them to the web. Why not? The world is my oyster, whatever that means.

But take it slow. Life is long. Don't rush, and don't forget to study. Stay current with my stock in trade. Words and numbers. Watch them fall like dominoes of doom, right where I drop them.

Was bored when I got home. At 6:45, I checked the craigslist event listings and found “Web 2.0 Mapping and Social Networks February Meetup (Menlo Park). Everyone welcome, free admission.” A gathering of nerds. I'd better investigate. After all, I'm a web 2.0 dork. I embed flash videos in blogs without a second thought. I even hacked my blogspot account by sifting through the source code until I found the column width, then adjusted it pixel-by-pixel. I like to stay ahead of the proverbial curve. Besides, I thought, they probably have free food (I've already eaten dinner: chicken and zuchinni, but old habits die hard).

I drive up to Menlo Park in the rain to a small but attractive high-tech corporate meeting room (one of thousands of similar rooms in the Silicon Valley). Formica counter in a rectangular U across three walls, chairs inside and outside the U. Small microphones embedded in the Formica for call-in meetings. Data Jacks for video-meetings. Digital projector screen in the fourth wall for power-point presentations.

Programmers, journalists, marketers, and small-time venture capitalists. Masters degrees and PhD's. Middle-crust corporate-geek socialites. A businessman from Germany; a programmer from Thailand; an AP reporter (off the clock, or so he claims); a photographer; a shaggy academic-type whose interest was “meta-cognition”. We went around the room introducing our names, what our web 2.0 interest is and what our favorite city is. I said “I'm Scott and I'm just a curious guy with nothing to do. My favorite city is Black Rock City, Nevada.” That got a few chuckles. I could have said “technical writer, technology enthusiast, aspiring gonzo journalist and my favorite city is anywhere but Fresno.” But who cares who I am? I'm just here because it's cheaper than a movie.

A couple of guys from NASA Ames Research Center gave a presentation. The young Asian guy is a graphics specialist. He had an XPS laptop jacked into a projector. The white-haired guy is a NASA project manager. He did most of the talking while graphics guy manipulated the XPS with a handheld USB device I've never seen before. Someone asked him how much the device costs. He says they're down to $60. Not bad. It's not as cool as the touch screens coming in the next few years (like the one in my consilience post), but it's a hell of a lot cheaper.

They showed us World Wind. A 4 terabyte 3-D spatial map of planet Earth, at 15 meters-per-pixel resolution. It's fast, smooth, and beautiful . Similar to Google Earth, but open source. Anyone with a browser and 16MB of storage (and a cheap graphics card) can view it and anyone with the right programming knowledge can mod it. This thing is compatible with VR goggles. Better yet, anyone with 4TB server space can host it, lay whatever code they want on top. Think Second Life writ large. Early next decade, I think, massively multiplayer online games will be overlaid on a scale sized model of Earth, updated in real-time. Think Neal Stephenson's Metaverse. Cyberspace is gaining on us. Soon there will be a thousand satellites, a billion videophones, a trillion RFID tansmitters. Big weirdness coming.

We sat and watched the digital cloud patterns over Silicon Valley as white-haired guy answered questions. My eyes riveted to the glowing screen, I could see a huge storm pattern over northern California. Just over the San Francisco peninsula, moving slowly east, is a clear spot. Although had been raining when I got there, I could hear that the sky was quiet now beneath the speaker's voice. A few minutes later, I watched the hole in the clouds drift over the mountains onscreen, heard the sound of rain on the walls and windows outside the conference room. The speaker was interrupted by a flash of light through the venetian blinds and then a clap of thunder. A chill ran up my spine. My mind, juxtaposing the action on the screen with the action I heard through the walls. My frontal lobe is in two places. Thinking: we've come a long way in a couple hundred years. That's when the speaker tells us that Earth isn't the only planet we can play with in World Wind. They've mapped Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. This is some heavy software.

When their speech was over, I grabbed a plate full of catered food, walked it to my Corolla in the pouring rain and ate while I drove home, pondering.

I've been playing with World Wind for hours. It's awesome. I zoomed into the SF zoo and saw a polar bear. From space. The Scientific Virtualization Studio can show earth at night, water temp, infrared, cloud patterns, topographical, aurora, solar flux, and more. Data sets added regularly. The white-haired speaker mentioned trying to crack open the government's data sets. Let's hope he succeeds.

Go ahead, play with it.


bullsworld said...

The white haired guy was Patrick Hogan, the other guy was Randy Kim, glad you like World Wind, spread the word.

CLB said...

Thanks for the terrific write up. I'm glad you came to see World Wind. Hopefully, we'll see you at the next Web 2.0 Mapping and Social Networks - that is, if there isn't a good movie playing that catches your attention first.

CLB said...

Do you mind if I post this on the Web 2.0 Mapping and Social Networks Meetup.com page? http://web.meetup.com/49/