Archive for September, 2005

Satellites and New Orleans wetlands

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

Scientists, policy makers, and the public have made enormous use of satellite images since Hurricane Katrina struck (e.g., see here). Using these images, NASA has just reported how important wetlands are in absorbing flood waters.

Economics of virtual worlds

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

The Washington Post has caught onto a phenomenon that we have reported on before, namely how the economics of virtual gaming worlds have intersected with the real world:

increasingly popular online role-playing games [called MMORPG–massively multiple online role-playing games] have created a shadow economy in which the lines between the real world and the virtual world are getting blurred. More than 20 million people play these games worldwide, according to Edward Castronova, an economics professor at Indiana University who has written a book on the subject, and he thinks such gamers spend more than $200 million a year on virtual goods.

Virtual goods are those items, whether a sword or a character, that have been created online but are now sold in actual markets, such as eBay. The iconic example was an island that sold last year for $26,500US. This article has “photos” of the island for would-be real estate speculators.

I know how the financial exchange takes place in the real world but I always wondered how the exchange took place in the virtual world. The Washington Post article explains:

At one typical currency-exchange Web site, the MMORPG-Exchange, the current rate for Star Wars money is $24 for 5 million Imperial credits — about enough to buy a fast speeder bike. Put in an order via PayPal, and a green-skinned delivery guy will, within minutes, pop up inside the game to hand over the money in one shady corner of Mos Eisley, that corrupt city on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine.

(Why journalists treat this phenomenon with wonder and view the sale of virtual goods are any different from the sale of most stock instruments like derivatives is beyond me. That’s normalization for you: stocks are normal; virtual swords are weird.)

The article mentions two other websites (if only they’d do the work and provide the links!): Game USD that tracks the value of virtual game currency against the US dollar (the site is cool because it’s so prosaic). allows you to purchase a variety of products across the online gaming spectrum (a credible site because it doesn’t “dupe, exploit or farm”).

The article by The Washington Post probably came about because of the new book by Castronova, an Indiana University Bloomington professor. Called Synthetic Worlds : The Business and Culture of Online Games it covers how online computer gaming has become a lucrative part of the worldwide entertainment industry.

See our previous posts, about Sony launching its own virtual goods auction site and the impact of gaming on Chinese culture. Apparently, when reporting on the sheer size of these massively multiple player games, neither the reporter nor Castronova checked the Guardian newspaper article, which reported that there were 40 million game players in China alone.

One final intersection of the virtual and the real world mentioned in the Washington Post:

After Hurricane Katrina, the operators of EverQuest II assured more than 13,000 members in the Gulf Coast region that their virtual property would be protected and preserved until they could resume playing.

GIS-assisted picture of fraud

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

I read about this investigative series, about to be published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, about the massive corruption at the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and came across this paragraph on how they did the analysis:

Reporters overlaid maps of the various storms and disasters with maps of where FEMA money was spent. The newspaper tracked some one million claims, Mauker said.

Update: The first article in the Sun-Sentinel series has just been published.

Cheery news

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

Another cheery message from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre at Colorado University, who’ve been longitudinally comparing satellite images of polar ice. Via the Independent:

A record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this summer has convinced scientists that the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate may never recover. Scientists fear that the Arctic has now entered an irreversible phase of warming which will accelerate the loss of the polar sea ice that has helped to keep the climate stable for thousands of years.

It’ll be nice in Montreal, except for the extra ice storms and 30 degree summers that no one is prepared for…

Cats in a Box

Friday, September 16th, 2005

From our former colleagues, Lisa and Robert, who are now ensconced in Indiana.

Update: Lisa and Robert are the owners and not the cats. The cats are Love-ums and Zoe. Zoe has been featured in previous Friday cat blogging posts (here and here).

New Orleans’s Oil

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

Greenpeace has satellite images of massive oil spills coming from the offshore platforms and pipielines that were destroyed by the hurricane.

Update: The US Coast Guard reports that they are contending with “44 oil spills ranging from several hundred gallons to nearly 4 million gallons”.

Exploiting uncertainty

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

As scientists, we are comfortable with uncertainty. We live in a paradigm of very few laws, in which research is structured by hypotheses that can be tested, debated and even falsified. Consensus–scientific truth–emerges from questioning. However, a coalition of pro-business conservatives and religious conservatives are casting doubt on the very validity of science by exploiting the paradigm of science. This is never better explained than in the new book by Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science.

In an excellent but scary review of the book, the reviewer sketches out the plan revealed by Mooney.

Using methods and strategies pioneered under the Reagan administration by the tobacco industry and anti-environmental forces, an alliance of social conservatives and corporate advocates has paralyzed or obfuscated public discussion of science on a whole range of issues. Not just climate change but also stem cell research, evolutionary biology, endangered-species protection, diet and obesity, abortion and contraception, and the effects of environmental toxins have all become arenas of systematic and deliberate bewilderment.

And towards the end of the article, the result:

By turning science into an endlessly fudgeable tool of politics, and rejecting any notion of scientific consensus in favor of a landscape where all science is either liberal (“junk”) or conservative (“sound”), the American right has fulfilled the darkest prognoses of postmodern philosophy. In this view, science is indeed just an artifact of culture; it has no more objectivity than astrology or dowsing or medieval Catholic theology.

I encourage you to read the review and then buy the book. It’s the scary world we’re now in.

March of the Penguins or March of the Conservatives?

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Just saw the March of the Penguins, an excellent documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica and a testament to the filmmakers who had to endure the harsh climate to shoot the film.

Now news that US conservatives are hailing the film as a crowning testament to family values. No longer the Passion of the Christ but the Passion of the Penguins. Some churches are taking busloads of parishioners to see the movie.

According to the religious and other conservatives interviewed for the article, the film is anti-abortion, pro-family, and pro-monogamy. The ingenuity of penguin breeding is seen as a validation for intelligent design. The film is also light on science. The filmmakers intentionally play down topics such as evolution and global warming in the hopes of broadening the audience.

Certainly the film turns penguin behaviour into the saga of the nuclear family. The film lingers on any moment that appears be actions of a loving couple and parents. The filmmakers are almost apologetic or breezy about activities that disagree with that premise, such as the fact that the penguins are serially monogamous and only mate for a year. The male penguin may nearly starve while he’s caring for the child; however, before he starves to death, he will abandon the child to freeze to death. Moreover, when the father does leave, he abandons both the mother and child. Also, penguin behaviour certainly argues AGAINST one of the tenets of the conservative family, that the female has the sole child rearing responsibility. With emperor penguins, there’s no mother – stays – at – home – takes – care – of – the – kids – while – the – father – provides – for – the – family. The father is as maternal as the mother. Finally, while the child is still young, the mother also abandons the child and never looks back.

Indeed, I thought the film was an excellent counter argument to intelligent design. What godly designer would create an animal as inefficient as the emperor penguin, who has to abandon his/her baby and traverse miles of ice in horrific conditions in order to feed itself? (Unfortunately, the article points out that this inefficiency is the same argument used by intelligent design advocates to bolster their case that this film does indeed affirm intelligent design.)

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I guess that truth is even stranger than the documentary.

Update: this is the best counter-argument to intelligent design that I have found.

Soup Bowl, part 2

Monday, September 12th, 2005

An update to a previous post on the toxic “soup bowl” that is now a large portion of New Orleans.

Solid Waste Magazine has an article on the Superfund site, a huge toxic site called the Agriculture Street Landfill (ASL), that’s likely been exposed by the flood.

To place it in perspective, the article states that “the ASL can be thought of a sort of Love Canal for New Orleans -– and now it sits under water.”

Here’s a case study of the environmental justice issues at the site.

Measuring Climate Change Awareness

Monday, September 12th, 2005

A interesting tool I’ve came across today, Blogpulse, among other things gives an indication of what percentage of blog posts on a certain day contain a certain keyword.

It’s difficult to determine from the Blogpulse website exactly which blogs are indexed, however it seems to have a fairly broad range of English language blogs. Of course, the caveat about who is likely to use blogs and the according systemic bias, applies. It is still fun to play with however.

Obviously the word Katrina takes a huge spike as it approaches and hits, and now finally seems to be dropping off. In a similar pattern, at much lower frequency, do mentions of the terms climate change, and global warming occur in blogs. Clearly at least some people are bringing these things together.

It would seem logical for those in the know to use the interest in climate change that spikes with such events, to inform people more generally what climate change could mean for events like hurricanes. The various posts over at realclimate were a good start for me, there seems to be various conflicting threads of knowledge drifting about the internet, with some saying climate change (although usually ‘global warming’ is used in this context) had no effect, and others immediately blaming the people in the hummers.

GIS and Tennis

Sunday, September 11th, 2005

(From time to time I’ll post information that students send me on interesting applications of geographic information systems. This time from “Tennis Fan”:)

Looking for that competitive edge?

Professional Tennis and Cricket have a new tool in helping players form winning strategies. The ‘Hawk-Eye’ tracking device, used since 2001 in telecasting, processes data from multiple cameras on a Tennis court or Cricket pitch to form a 2D or 3D image pinpointing landing spots within 2 or 3mm on a respective court or pitch.

If you are a tennis fan, you will recognize this technology in the computer generated replays, used in broadcasts of major tournaments, often showed after a controversial call by the umpire or a particular close call at the baseline. In tennis, the use of many cameras on the court allow for three dimensional recreation of ball trajectory and precise landing point location. What’s the use of such technology? Asides from making broadcasters sound smarter by giving them loads of additional statistical data, the Hawk-Eye technology allows for better understanding of player’s strategy.

The following link is to an article at detailing Venus Williams’ service pattern against Maria Sharapova in the Wimbledon 2005.

Using a vector spatial data model, the article examines the landing points of Williams’ first serves and Sharapova’s return hit points in the first and second set. In the model, first serve landing points and returns are shown as yellow circles and second serve returns as black circles. The white lines are the court delimitations, and a net is added to increase the realism of the CG representation. We can notice that the black circles in the return pattern are on average closer to the net, indicating slower second serve speeds. The article states that Williams’ strategy was to “serve the ball into Sharapova’s body – a sensible tactic against a tall player with a long reach.” This can be seen in the dispersal of the first serve points on the model. Had she wanted to make Sharapova move around more, hypothetically speaking, the model might have shown a higher concentration of landing spots in both corners of the service square. The article also mentions “there was no discernable change of tactic by Sharapova in the second set” meaning the the ball patterns of return hits were similar in both sets. Had Sharapova understood Williams’ strategy and decided to become more aggressive, she could have advanced into the court and thus the yellow circles on the model would have been closer in. The result: Venus beat Maria in two sets of 7-6 and 6-1.
So there you have it, if you have a big match against one of your buddies coming up and you really need that edge, hire Hawk-Eye Innovations to analyse his/her tactics. This will allow you to inflict severe ego-bruising pain on your unsuspecting fair-playing opponent… shame on you!

Click here for an additional article on Hawk-Eye.


High tech flood control

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

Some high tech ways to control floods. Interesting that in the article, the reporter asserts that high tech must be accompanied by natural controls but then completely dismisses the idea.

Toxic dust

Friday, September 9th, 2005

Is your computer emitting dust? According to a recent study by several environmental groups, “toxic dust” has been found on computer processors and monitors. The highest level of toxins found was a form of polybrominated diphenyl ethers called deca-BDE. deca-BDE is the most widely used fire retardant chemicals in computing manufacturing.

The study found that computers are likely to be a significant source of deca-BDE exposure in the dust of homes, offices, schools and universities. deca-BDE is linked to reproductive and neurological disorders. Worse yet, the substance is bioaccumulative so the multiple exposures add up over time.

This is not only significant for humans, particularly for nursing mothers, but also for animals:

Also of great concern is the alarming fact that the concentrations of deca-BDE found in peregrine falcons approach those concentrations reported to have caused neurological damage in mice. So, like penta- and octa-BDE before it, manufacturers’ claims that the biological uptake of deca-BDE would not occur, certainly not in high concentrations, have not only proven to be false, but deca-BDE itself has been documented as having caused harm in lab research.

The recent study, by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action, is the first study to find brominated flame retardants on the surfaces of computing devices in homes and offices.

A soup bowl of toxics

Friday, September 9th, 2005

We’re beginning to hear about the enormous amount of toxic contamination in and around New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the reports have focussed on contamination from sewage.

However, New Orleans and that area of the Gulf Coast have long been surrounded by a soup bowl of toxic materials of petroleum, heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides.

the Mississsippi was one of the world’s most polluted rivers, draining nearly 40% of America’s landmass. In 1990, Mississippi basin farmers applied 21bn pounds of fertilizer and 283m pounds of pesticides. The run-off of nutrients starves the water of oxygen and creates the world’s largest “dead zone” off the Louisiana coast. This year it expanded to an estimated 8,000 square miles.

Lake Ponchartrain, on the other side of NO is not much better. It’s been a historical dumping ground for sewer plants, dairy farmers, and recreational boaters, rendering the lake unavailable to swimmers until cleanup began at the late 1990s.

That’s just agricultural and human waste. The hardest hit area of Orleans and Plaquemines Parishes sits at the stretch of the polluted lower Mississippi where some 140 oil and petrochemical plants are clustered together. It’s called Cancer Alley, so called for the high incidence of varying types of cancers that afflict its primarily poor and black residents. A lot of that has washed into the floodwaters.

Locally, gasoline, diesel and oil leaking from underground storage tanks at gas stations also poses a problem. Add to that oil and gas bubbling up from the sunken fishing, pleasure and cargo ships. This fuel is creating a deadzone for fish and wildlife.

(Don’t forget the natural gas erupting from burst underground lines, which is causing fires all over the area.)

The biggest needs at the moment are clean drinking water and making the area minimally habitable. So incredible effort is being made to get rid of the water by pumping it into Lake Ponchartrain. However, we’re just removing one problem to create an environmental time bomb. According to geographer Chris Wells, who works for the US Geological Survey:

“The New Orleans area that was flooded was an industrial area where you have all the lubricants and batteries and heavy-metal plating — it’s just hideously dangerous,” … “We can’t wait around to test the floodwater before we pump it back into the lake — people are already dying of disease from it — but it’s a terrible thing to do. We’re going to avoid a great human disaster by doing this, but we could be creating a damn big environmental one.” Forget for a moment the scenario of a toxic lake in the middle of a major American city; should a future hurricane breach the levees again, New Orleans could literally be submerged in poison.

Just another example of our modern lifestyles comprising the ingredients of a toxic soup we then have to live in. Sorry, the poor among us have to live in.

Update: Apparently the US federal government may not be able to find out the ingredients of this soup as they’ve excluded the Environmental Protection Agency from cabinet level talks on the aftermath of Katrina.

Ping Pong

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

I’m in the middle of writing serious posts about Katrina and I come across this. It’s hysterical and a good break from the tradegy around us.

ENVR 401

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

Meets in 428 Burnside Hall at 4pm.

The birth of disaster map wikis

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Wired news reports on the first disaster map wiki. The site is at A wiki is a webpage that anyone with permission can edit in a very simple user interface. The most famous wiki site is wikipedia. The disaster wiki combines the collaborative ideas of wikis with an api (application programming interface) of Google Maps. (FYI: unfortunately, the google maps api doesn’t work in all browsers. So use IE to view it.)

The result is a simple and heart wrenching website where people can communicate using a map interface. Here are some examples:

There are two ventilator dependent brothers at 907 Galliard Dr., Mobile, AL

Water above rooflines on Chapalie [NO]

lost my sister

The NYTimes has just posted an article (mostly) on the growing use of remote-sensed images by the general public to get information about disasters.

Cat carpet

Saturday, September 3rd, 2005