Saturday, March 06, 2010

They're back -- yesterday I saw my first Sandhill Crane of the season in Madison

Yesterday I Saw My First Sandhill Crane of the Year in Madison
Spring is on its way -- the cranes are coming back! I was walking on the UW-Madison's path along the Lake Mendota shoreline near Picnic Point when I sensed something large moving slowly in the University Bay marsh. Two somethings, actually. A pair of cranes were picking their way gingerly through the reeds. They were almost invisible against the brush surrounding them. Their bearing was both awkward and regal, and they walked in absolute silence. I wondered if they were my bad weather buddies from Lake Wingra last fall.

I took a few photos, but it was hopeless. Close as I was, their images just blended into the background. Suddenly, with the beating of powerful wings, they took off. I pulled the camera back up to my eye and started shooting. The first few frames were obscured, and their flight path soon disappeared behind some trees. In between, I got one clear shot at the second crane.

A bit closer to life size.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Shorty Award winners illustrate scope and impact of real-time short-form internet content

This tweet and others like it were what most of America relied on last year for first-hand accounts of the crash landing in the Hudson. The mainstream media began by playing catch-up and taking their cues from the tweeters on the scene.

The Shorty Awards, "the Oscars of Twitter," were presented in New York this week and provided a fascinating snapshot of this new medium's impact.
William Shatner congratulated the winners via video and read some of his own favorite tweets from @shitmydadsays, which is being turned into a TV pilot by CBS with Shatner in the lead role. In all, 34 awards were given across 28 categories, including several new ones. Haitian TV presenter Carel Pedre received a special humanitarian Shorty Award for tweets that shed light on the devastating earthquake in his country. Janis Krums received a Real-Time Photo Shorty Award for his camera phone shot of U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River.
Best of all, the acceptance speeches were limited to 140 characters. Oscars take note. Scroll down here to check out the list of all 34 award winners in 28 categories. They make fascinating reading. Some are familiar names, and some are not. You may want to start following some of them.

We still have a lot of snow on the ground, but a lot of it will just disappear into thin air

Snow and the Sublime Process of Sublimation
If all the snow on the ground had to melt before it disappeared, we'd have even more runoff and flooding in the spring than we normally do. Instead, some of it just disappears into thin air. It's called sublimation -- in chemistry, "the transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without undergoing intermediate liquification." And that's why a nice run of sunny days like the ones we've had gets rid of a lot more snow than you'd think just looking at what's running into the storm sewers.

Clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion

From "Shutter Island" review by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker.
In a celebrated riff on “Casablanca,” Umberto Eco wrote, “Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.” “Shutter Island” is that reunion, and that shrine.
So, does he like it? No. But it's a thoughtful piece that pays Scorsese the compliment of taking him seriously and acknowledging his stature as a director, while also holding him responsible for this misbegotten mess. Beautifully written, not a casual dismissal. In no hurry to see the film, but this is the kind of review I'd enjoy reading even if I did like the film. Like some of Pauline's in the old days.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Let there be lights (and kites) again!

Kites on Ice Finale, 2001
The tricks that memory play -- when I came across this old print the other day of fireworks at Kites on Ice back in 2001, I thought I remembered the show coming Sunday night, at the end of a wonderful weekend. But then I found some old notes that that put it in the middle of the weekend, on Saturday night, more of a climax than a finale -- "In the evening went to the kite show for fireworks and the magic of kites flying in the night. Dark little Brueghel figures on the ice." I know I sound like a broken record, but we should have something like this again -- and fireworks certainly do brighten a winter night.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Ours won't be as fierce this time, but March supposedly comes in like one of these

March Supposedly Comes in Like One of These
Normally, though, it would have two eyes -- but, hey, you go into March with the lion you've got. In this case, it's the lion I photographed last year in the Conservation Carousel, Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison Wisconsin. Because of the camera angle, the other eye is hiding behind the nose. Sorry about that. In any event, looks as if our March lion in Madison took temperament lessons from the groundhog. It's supposed to be a nice day.

Lions are not the only animal metaphor used in regard to March. There's also the salt marsh harvest mouse.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What could scientists learn about concise writing by summarizing their papers on Twitter?

A Twitter contest with hashtag #sci140 sponsored by the science blog Faculty of 1000 asked readers to summarize research papers (either their own or classics) within Twitter's 140-character limit (actually less, to leave room for the identifying hashtag). Most contestants opted for the classics, summarizing famous breakthrough papers from the points of view of their authors and benefiting from audience familiarity with the work. Some examples:
Where are you, Heis? “Don’t know exactly, but I can tell you how fast I’m going!”

Salt of DNA structure= double helix. Strands anti-parallel; has implications. (PS Rosie didn’t help)

Dropped heavy and light ball at Pisa; saw landed at same time. Peer review problems now, especially after telescope incident.
The tongue-in-cheek entries, funny as they are, don't tell us much about the usefulness of Twitter in actual scientific discourse. What if you try to use Twitter to summarize an unknown research paper? That's what intrigues Coturnix at Blog around the Clock.
I found tweets about people's own papers fascinating. Why are these tweets so much clearer about the papers than the actual official titles of those same papers? Can we or should we try to make our papers' titles so short yet so informative as if they will be tweeted in full?

Twitter forces one to think about the economy of words, to become much more efficient with one's use of language. It takes work and thought and practice to get to the point of tweeting truly well. I remember Jay Rosen once saying that some of his tweets take 45 minutes to compose and edit until he is satisfied that the text uses the words for maximal clarity and impact. There is no luxury in using superfluous language and the result can be a crystal-clear statement or description that far outshines the often-wordy original.
What do you think? Can the constraints of Twitter actually improve communication in complex technical fields by cutting through the clutter with clear and concise summaries? Can it enhance communication, or does it simply increase noise, just adding to the clutter and chatter that bombard us on all sides?

March comes in like a ** and goes out like a *

With the approach of March, we were recalling John Belushi, who tried out many different animal metaphors in place of the asterisks in his great SNL rant as a weatherman who becomes totally unhinged as he explains to Chevy Chase the ins and outs of March around the world.

It was from Belushi that I first heard of the salt marsh harvest mouse, the endangered species that Republicans love to use as a tiny little mammalian scapegoat in their culture wars and political skirmishes with the Democrats. For Belushi, the little critter was just the start.
And there's a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it's sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat. (Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it's not Australia! Now, now, you'd think it would be Australia, but it's not!
Wait, wait, wait! That's not all. There's more. I wish we could see a video clip on the internet. What really makes the performance come alive is Belushi's body language, his comic timing, and especially, the passion that transforms his rants into comic art. They should be on the internet as national treasures, but apparently NBC is protecting its intellectual property; I can't find any video clips. But there are many transcripts of the text floating around -- here's one, so you can enjoy the whole thing.

And what about the salt marsh harvest mouse? Things may finally be looking up.

Image: Paul Kelly/EPA