• Signing off

    Charles Platt

    I've decided to wind up my guest blogging a couple days early, but I want to thank Mark Frauenfelder for offering me the unique and wonderful opportunity to post here. Thanks Mark.

    If any BB readers wish to contact me I am easily findable through makezine.com.

    –Charles Platt

  • Easy Encryption

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Back in the mid-1990s, the successful fight for the right to use strong encryption seemed hugely significant. Some of us believed that within just a few years, all emails would be encrypted, and no one would be able to snoop on anything. (Of course, this would have interfered with the evolution of Gmail, since Google scans messages to create its context-sensitive ads.)

    Strong encryption from trusted sources such as PGP and TrueCrypt has been available free for more than a decade, now, yet people seem to find that installing it and using it is just complicated enough to be a disincentive. In any case, many people seem to feel that they'll never be hassled, even while grandmothers are hauled into court for copyright infringement and federal agencies gain increasing power to monitor just about anything.

    Well, at least there's no excuse anymore not to encrypt external hard drives. (Note, I'm not an expert on this stuff, just a consumer, and there may be other products that I don't know about.) Maxtor's BlackArmor series has strong encryption built into hardware, so that all data is automatically protected as you save it. As soon as power is disconnected from the drive, it secures itself. Now you don't have to worry if you travel with sensitive corporate data (or other embarrassing materials) and you leave an external storage device behind in an airport or hotel room.

    This system is password-activated, not fingerprint-activated. I dislike the idea of fingerprint scanning, because I do a lot of shop work, and have been known to cut a finger. I'd hate to be locked out of my hard drive by a band-aid.

    The Aegis Vault is another hardware-encrypted USB drive, but I had difficulty installing and using it. Maxtor's system seems better thought out to me, and its 320 GB version retails for less than $150. This means I can carry with me every piece of text that I have ever written, every email that I have ever sent or received, and every photograph that I have created during the past 15 years, without worrying about someone digging into all that stuff if I leave it lying around.

    In fact I have moved all my personal data off the internal hard drive in my laptop computer, onto a pair of BlackArmor drives (for redundancy). I normally keep the drives at separate locations, in case of fire or theft. The only problem I've had is that if I try to run both drives simultaneously to do incremental backups from one to the other, the bundled software doesn't support this. Still, my favorite primitive backup software, Xxcopy, handles it without any problems.

    Of course you do suffer a speed penalty when saving to a USB device, but far less than I expected.

  • Name this Insect

    Bizarre insect

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    No doubt some BB reader can name this far-fetched creature, which I found pinned to some styrofoam in a display case at the Butterfly Museum in Boca Raton, Florida. Picture yourself camping somewhere in the wilderness and seeing one of these six-inch weirdos zooming into your tent. I have to wonder why such a thing should evolve the way it did, especially with that weird extra pair of wings, like the canard on one of Burt Rutan's composite airplanes.

    The museum is a fun place to visit, allowing you to walk through giant cages full of freshly hatched butterflies. Watching people trying to photograph them is highly entertaining, since butterflies move chaotically while flying and then, as soon as they land, most of them close their wings.

    It was much easier to take pictures of the insects that were dead.

  • Climatic Heresy: 4.

    Nigel Lawson book cover

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Here are two more books that examine climate change from other perspectives. They differ in their tone and message, but they're both intelligently written.

    An Appeal to Reason by Nigel Lawson is a small but heavily referenced overview by a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Energy, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK. Lawson is not a scientist but does understand politics, and he sees a lot of it in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which is the primary source of global-warming projections. If you want an erudite introduction by a shrewd observer, this is a good place to start. This book almost failed to find a publisher because, as one editor put it, it defies the “prevailing orthodoxy.” Contrary to allegations, Lawson inists that he receives no money from special interests.

    Bjorn Lomborg book cover

    Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg. Formerly an avid Greenpeace supporter, Lomberg wrote his previous book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, after becoming convinced that many strategies advocated by environmentalists do not have a good cost-benefit ratio if we are primarily concerned with saving lives and fighting the spread of disease. Cool It uses a similar economic approach. He argues convincingly that if world hunger and mortality are our priorities, an immediate reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is a foolish way to allocate resources. Unfortunately this kind of economic assessment tends to be ignored in favor of emotional appeals featuring pictures of polar bears, raising the depressing possibility that people may care more about arctic animals than about third-world human beings.

    In any case, the affect of climate on polar bears should not be a significant concern right now, since the observed area of arctic sea ice has continued to fluctuate seasonally from year to year (see the graph below, reproduced from the International Arctic Research Center), and the primary factor affecting the bears has been “harvesting"—i.e. people killing them (see this site sponsored by the International Institute of Forecasters), which is now prohibited by federal law.

    Arctic ice seasonal fluctuations

    As for that picture of bears “stranded” on a piece of ice, here's the back story according to Denis Simard, the Environment Canada representative who distributed it:

    ". . . have to keep in mind that the bears aren't in danger at all. It was, if you will, their playground for 15 minutes. . . . This is a perfect picture for climate change, in a way, because you have the impression they are in the middle of the ocean and they are going to die. . . . But they were not that far from the coast, and it was possible for them to swim."

    The picture was taken in 2004 by marine biologist Amanda Byrd, who refused to draw any conclusions, positive or negative, regarding the welfare of the bears. She was pissed, though, that her photograph was used without her permission.

  • Climatic Heresy: 3

    Red Hot Lies book cover

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    In the 1990s an attorney named Christopher Horner was appropriately disconcerted when Enron, his employer at the time, told him to lobby in favor of restrictions on carbon emissions during negotiations relating to the Kyoto treaty. Enron liked the idea of regulations that would raise the operating costs of coal-fired power stations, because it wanted to make more money from its pipelines supplying gas. (Natural gas creates about half as much CO2 as coal per unit of energy released, according to DoE figures.)

    Thus one of the most despised corporations in history shared the interests of environmental activists. In fact, according to Horner, Enron donated almost a million dollars to the Nature Conservancy. Meanwhile some provisions of the Kyoto treaty were endorsed by BP (which owns companies that manufacture solar power systems) and General Electric (which has a substantial interest in wind power).

    Massive government programs always create a feeding frenzy among large corporations. If we fight a war against climate change, how many new Halliburtons will profit from it? How many are exaggerating the consequences of warming right now, simply to further their own interests?

    Christopher Horner's recent book, Red Hot Lies, is an angry denunciation of “green” lobbyists who have a vested interest in subsidies for alternative energy. High on his list is Al Gore. He wants to know how Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection came up with $300 million for a public education campaign, and what the donors of this huge sum may be hoping to gain in return. During a 60 Minutes episode, Gore refused to reveal their names.

    According to an estimate by Bloomberg News, Gore was worth about $2 million when he left office; but Fast Company reported that after pursuing his new career as an environmental activist for a few years, his net worth had grown to more than $100 million. He is a partner in Kleiner Perkins, which is putting $1.2 billion into “green” technologies that are unlikely to be profitable unless they receive government subsidies. He has put $35 million of his own money into Capricorn Investment Group LLC, a hedge fund that invests in eco-friendly products. During a speech at a TED conference, Gore stated that he also owns stock in numerous startups developing solar power, geothermal power, and fuel cells. (My source for these statements is here). Therefore, apparently he will be enriched by legislation favoring alternate energy. While we may respect his sincere belief in anthropogenic global warming, we may also note that he has a huge conflict of interest.

    The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me—causing me to draw a chart suggesting some of the financial relationships that may exist (see below).

    Christopher Horner's book uses an in-your-face style that I find abrasive, and his uncompromising attitude has caused Greenpeace to label him a “Climate Criminal.” Still, the questions he raises are significant.

    Al Gore conflict of interest chart

  • Climatic Heresy: 2

    Sea-surface temperatures

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    The graph above shows surface temperatures in the Sargasso Sea, a 2 million square mile region of the Atlantic Ocean, with time resolution of 50 to 100 years, ending in 1975, as determined by isotope ratios of marine organism remains in sediment at the bottom of the sea. I copy-pasted this from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Note that ocean areas are in some ways a better guide to planetary temperature than land areas, since urban sprawl creates localized hot spots, and scientists don't agree on how much allowance should be made for this.

    Skepticism about human-caused climate change has been expressed by more than 30,000 people in the sciences, all of whom have signed a document which you can find at www.petitionproject.org. It states in part that “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.” More than 9,000 of the signatories state that they have PhDs. The petitions have been trivialized and ridiculed, but if you actually visit the site, you will find that it takes pains to answer the various allegations.

    Here's a quote from Robert Carter, an Australian palaeontologist, stratigrapher, marine geologist, and environmental scientist:

    “Is there an established Theory of Climate? Answer: no. Do we understand fully how climate works? No. Is carbon dioxide demonstrated to be a dangerous atmospheric pollutant? No. Can deterministic computer models predict future climate? Another no. Is there a consensus amongst qualified scientists that dangerous, human-caused climate change is upon us? Absolutely not. Did late 20th century temperature rise at a dangerous rate, or to a dangerous level? No, in either case. Is global temperature currently rising? Surprisingly, no.”

    The full paper, published May 2007, is here and makes interesting reading.

    Journalists should be skeptical by nature, yet they have embraced climate change uncritically, perhaps because it is a story that sells newspapers. Consequently most people are not even aware that credentialled opposition to global-warming theories exists.

    A Senate report, “The Minority Report by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee” (released December 11th, 2008 and available online here), should have been a very important news story, since it cited 650 credentialled scientists who dispute aspects of anthropogenic global warming. Most major news sources didn't even mention the report. In their worldview, apparently, credentialled skepticism no longer exists.

  • Climatic Heresy: 1

    Lawrence Solomon book cover

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    At the risk of stimulating outrage, I'm going to ask some questions about climate. No one disputes that planetary warming occurred during the second half of the twentieth century; the question is whether it was primarily anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human beings). The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the debate on this issue is over. I'm not so sure anymore.

    I'll begin with The Deniers by Lawrence Solomon, which I regard as the most important book that I read in 2008.

    Solomon is an old-school environmental activist who dislikes nuclear power, wants to save rainforests, yet started to doubt the environmental party line on climate change after he made contact with a series of highly credentialled scientists, all of whom have been labelled with the pejorative term deniers. They accept that warming has occurred, but don't believe it's as simple as the IPCC makes it seem to be.

    Several are convinced that our lack of knowledge about factors affecting cloud formation in the upper atmosphere makes an accurate warming model impossible. Many feel that recent warming is just a cyclical recovery from a “little ice age” and may have little to do with human activity. Some conjecture that we are already starting to descend into a new cooling period which will be far more difficult to deal with than warming. Whether they're right or wrong is debatable; the point is that a debate does exist, and those on the skeptical side should not be ignored, ridiculed, smeared, or threatened with career damage.

    The book presents a variety of data. I lack space here to explain why each item is supported by at least some evidence.

    —CO2 levels may have been as high 11,000 years ago as they are today.

    —Air bubbles in preindustrial Antarctic ice indicate that CO2 levels in the 1890s were almost as high as in the 1950s.

    —Sea levels have been rising naturally for 16,000 years and have probably fluctuated by up to two meters during the past 1,000 years alone.

    —While portions of the Antarctic are melting (and have attracted publicity), other portions are gathering ice (and have been ignored by the media). The overall loss of ice is probably minuscule. As for the Arctic, since it consists of floating ice, it would not cause sea levels to rise even if it melted completely.

    —The planet Mars has been experiencing its own global warming, in sync with ours, unprompted by any human activity.

    —The greenhouse effect is a logarithmic function; in other words, each linear increment in the volume of carbon dioxide causes a progressively smaller increase in temperature. We have already reached the point of diminishing returns.

    —Many measurements of global temperature have flattened out during the last decade. The planet is probably cooler now than when George W. Bush took office.

    —The so-called “hockey stick” curve, showing temperature suddenly increasing at an exponential rate after a long period of stability, has been discredited by some statisticians to the point where even the IPCC has backed away from using it.

    Human activity may indeed be affecting the climate, but after reading the calm, methodical statements by the “deniers,” I'm no longer willing to believe that anyone has a complete model of the complex, chaotic systems that determine global temperature, and I regret that the simplistic fear-metaphors used by people such as Al Gore have tended to demonize those who simply feel that the evidence, at this point, is still inconclusive.

  • Arizona continued

    Titan missile in silo

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    The Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona offers the only opportunity you'll ever have to inspect a Titan II missile close-up. It's an astonishing memorial to the paranoid insanity of the Cold War years. The control room and its systems are protected inside a giant concrete pod with walls three feet thick, located entirely underground and mounted on giant springs so that (in theory) the vintage electronics could survive shock waves of a first strike and would still be able to launch a retaliatory salvo.

    My favorite souvenier from the installation is The Titan Missile Pantry Cook Book, containing recipes to make life more enjoyable underground during long waiting periods before, and perhaps after, armageddon.

    Check the museum web site for tour dates—and take note of an exciting opportunity for younger visitors: “Complete the games and activities in the Junior Missileer Booklet, and when you're done, you'll receive a Junior Missileer Badge and a Certificate that certifies your qualification as a Junior Missileer. It's fun, and you'll learn a lot too.”

    Even now, fifty years after the Cold War, something about nuclear weapons encourages text that reads like a parody of itself. This of course was Stanley Kubrick's great discovery, when he realized that Dr. Strangelove should be written as a comedy.

  • Homage to Arizona: Continued

    Orange vegetation - 1

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    In April 2005, while driving with my significant other on Arizona back roads near the California border, we noticed some clumps of strange orange stuff, like candy floss, tangled in normal vegetation. Some kind of fungus? A parasitic plant? A toxic byproduct of industrial waste? An alien life form scattered by black helicopters? We never did figure it out. It was fibrous, like string, and seemed to have no root system of its own. It appeared within a matter of days and was gone by the end of the summer. During ten years of traveling around, Arizona, I've never seen anything like it.

    Orange vegetation - 2

  • Driving on the Railroad

    Railroad motorcar

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    The North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) is an affinity group for people who own railroad motorcars (such as the one above) and like to drive them on a railroad once in a while. These antique vehicles were once used by railroad companies for track inspection but are now obsolete, having been superseded by Hyrail vehicles, which are everyday trucks with additional railroad wheels that can be lowered on demand.

    The deluxe customized model above was advertised for $35,000 at the club web site, but generally you can buy a working model for $10,000. Most are sold with trailers so that you can haul them behind your pickup truck when you journey around the country to NARCOA meets.

    Here's an excerpt from the club's FAQ:

    “With permission of the railroads, members operate their motorcars on excursions ranging from one day to over a week in almost all parts of the U.S. and Canada. Many of these excursions are in remote and very scenic areas that are impossible to see from the highway and thus provide an experience not available by other means of transportation. . . . We rent the tracks for our outings from the many small railroad companies which have taken over former branch lines of the major carriers (as well as some large railroads in the U.S. and Canada). Often smaller railroads operate trains only on weekdays, so a group of motorcars on a Saturday or Sunday does not cause the coordination problems the larger lines would have.”

    However, if you want to try before you buy, there's a problem. NARCOA doesn't allow paying passengers. You'll need to ingratiate yourself with an existing member in the hope of hitching a ride.

    I found out about NARCOA when I dropped in at a free Christmas turkey lunch at the Holiday Inn in Williams, Arizona and sat at a table with a bearded gentleman named Bob, who was wearing a cap with railroad badges all over it, and a T-shirt with a picture of a locomotive on the front.

    Railroad motorcars can reach speeds of up to 35 mph, but during group excursions, an average of 20 is more typical. Retirees make up a significant percentage of NARCOA members.

  • Yesterday's Tomorrow

    Ready to explore the stratosphere

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Two of my favorite books are titled Modern Inventions and Our Wonderful World of Tomorrow, both written during the 1930s by A. M. Low, a British eccentric who was what we would now describe as a “futurist.” Low made some fairly good guesses, but of course he couldn't imagine the consequences of quantum leaps in technology such as the transistor or the jet engine. This led him to make failed predictions such as floating islands at intervals across the major oceans, where piston-engined passenger aircraft would land to refuel while winging their way around the globe. I would love to have seen those islands.

    My father, who was an automotive engineer, used to know A. M. Low, and received strange and wonderful Christmas cards from him each year. The most memorable one enclosed a transparent acrylic rod. When you placed the rod against some lines of text printed in the greeting card, the rod acted as a lens, turning text upside down. Strangely, however, every other line in the card was not turned upside-down. I was about 12 years old at a time, and was utterly fascinated by this mystery.

    In retrospect I can guess at one possible answer. Maybe Low managed to write a poem in which alternating lines contained letters B C D E H I K O and X (which look the same when upside-down) and letters A F G J L M N P Q R S T U V W Y and Z (which don't). This of course would represent a significant amount of misplaced ingenuity, but in the days before YouTube, Nintendo, and cable TV, people had time for that kind of thing.

    I just made a stab at some blank verse in which all the letters in odd-numbered lines are vertically asymmetrical, while those in even-numbered lines look the same upside-down. The best I can come up with, after 15 minutes of thought, is something cryptic and wholly inappropriate such as





    Maybe someone else can do better. The letter “I” in lines 1 and 3 is a cheat, but since all the other letters in those lines are vertically asymmetrical, maybe a legible “I” here and there wouldn't be noticed.

    Incidentally, the guy sitting on a wooden chair in the photograph seems well equipped to ride to the edges of the atmosphere, with lace-up gauntlets and boots constricting his extremities to protect him from low air pressure. But I think he would have been more likely to make his adventure in a balloon than in the airplane behind him.

  • Life at Wal-Mart

    Charles Platt working at Wal-Mart

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    As I begin my second week here as a guest blogger, I'm going to risk venturing into a couple of contentious political areas. My aim is not to provoke dissent; I simply feel that some stories are not being told.

    The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world's largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?

    It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn't ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.

    Getting in was not easy, as more than 100 applicants were competing for fewer than 10 job openings. Still, I made it through a very clever screening quiz, then through a series of three interviews, followed by two days of training. I felt ambivalent about taking advantage of the company's resources in this way, but I was certainly willing to do my part by working hard at the store, at least for a limited period.

    The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

    My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart's success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn't, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

    Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.

    Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.

    As for all those Wal-Mart horror stories—when I went home and checked the web sites that attack the company, I found that many of them are subsidized with union money. walmartwatch.com, for instance, is partnered with the Service Employees International Union; wakeupwalmart.com is copyright by United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Why are unions so obsessed with Wal-Mart? I'm guessing that if the more-than-a-million Wal-Mart employees could be unionized, they would be compelled to contribute at least half a billion dollars per year in union dues.

    Subsequently I considered writing about my brief experience, but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience, and the writer tends to be dismissed as either hopelessly naive or bribed by corporate America.

    Similar factors result in someone such as Adam Shepard remaining relatively obscure.

    If you haven't heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable book Scratch Beginnings, now being promoted through www.scratchbeginnings.com, describes how he went through an experience far more gruelling than my brief flirtation with low-paying work. He placed himself in a homeless shelter with $25 in his pocket, found a job as a day laborer, then worked for a moving company, and after 10 months had a pickup truck, an apartment, and $2,500 in savings. His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.

    Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

  • Communication with Cats

    Cat on a shelf in a car

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    When I owned a pickup truck, my cat Eddie used to enjoy sitting on top of the instrument panel, under the windshield, where he watched the highway while I drove. I was commuting to a regular job at that time, and if I altered my everyday route even slightly, Eddie would look at me and meow, indicating that he had noticed the change in our routine—although whether he approved or disapproved was hard to determine.

    After some vandals stole the pickup truck and urinated into the gas tank before abandoning it, I bought a car. Its more steeply raked windshield allowed insufficient room for Eddie to sit under it, so, I made a shelf for him which hooked onto the hardware associated with the sun visor, and I stapled a piece of doormat to the shelf so that Eddie could dig in his claws. I suspect that a primary reason why many cats dislike riding in cars is that they don't feel entirely secure on a moving object if they cannot use their claws effectively.

    The next time we went for a drive, Eddie located himself on the shelf without any prompting. He seemed to understand its purpose immediately. This photo was taken outside my Florida house when he was waiting for our morning commute to begin.

    In my experience, if you treat a cat as “just an animal,” that's how he will behave. He will sense that you are not really trying to understand him, and naturally enough, he will give up trying to communicate. The more you engage with him as an equal and try to understand his perspective on the world, the more he will respond to you, and the closer your relationship may become.

  • Artificial Life

    Artificial life screen shot

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Rudy Rucker, whose online zine Flurb is worth a look, introduced me to the fascinating world of cellular automata back in the 1980s. They're so easy to program, even I can do it. This frame, resembling a garden of virtual flora, is one of my favorites. When the program is running, the bright pieces grow up the screen. As in many cellular-automata representations, cells change color as they age, in this instance cycling from white through yellow, red, and blue, to black.

    Rudy wrote some fairly ambitious cellular software in collaboration with John Walker of Autodesk, now available for free download from www.cs.sjsu.edu/faculty/rucker/cellab.htm. For Java-enabled automata that you can watch online, try www.collidoscope.com/modernca.

    I used to sell my programs as shareware, but never got around to updating them for the Windows environment.

  • The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 4

    Desert highway in infra-red

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Just one more sample. While agreeing that infra-red photography can be a gimmick (similar to false color, oversaturation, and many Photoshop effects) I like the way it seems to reveal another world that is inherent in our own.

    The desert topography, the black sky of an infra-red photograph, and the clarity of desert air combine to create a landscape that looks like a tabletop model. This picture was taken from an overpass just west of Phoenix on Interstate 10.

  • The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 3

    Kennedy assassination site in infra-red

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    While driving through Dallas, I stopped to visit the museum in the old Texas Book Depository building from which Lee Harvey Oswald took a shot (or two, or three) at John F. Kennedy. Two X marks have been etched into the asphalt, marking the locations where the president was hit. I was fascinated to see tourists running out into the road to have their pictures taken while standing on an X.

    The Book Depository looks especially good to me in infra-red

    The ruthlessly modern, official Kennedy memorial, by architect Philip Johnson, is located just a couple of blocks away, but relatively few people seem to go there, perhaps because they are more excited by the guilty thrill of an assassination site which shamelessly admits what it is.

    Another possibility is that Johnson's memorial is shunned because it looks like a giant urinal. (Just my opinion of course. YMMV.)

  • The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 2

    Infra-red photo - 2

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    Even this very humble shack in Louisiana looks mysteriously beautiful when the visible spectrum is blocked. If we had infra-red sunglasses, the world might appear a lot more pleasant than in its more usual shades of dull-brown, muddy-green, and dirt-gray.

  • The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 1

    Infra-red photo - 1

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    My friend Richard Kadrey introduced me to infra-red photography. Sensors on digital cameras can detect infra-red, but normally are shielded from it by a protective filter that resides as a thin layer over the chip. You can hack a camera by removing the layer, but it is easier to buy a Fuji IS-1, which is infra-red-ready. If you use a lens filter that blocks the visible frequencies, the camera displays an image that consists of infra-red transposed into the visible spectrum.

    Vegetation reflects almost all light below red, and thus appears “white.” Conversely, the upper atmosphere does not refract infra-red, and thus a blue sky appears “black.” An unexpected effect is that most fabric dyes reflect infra-red, so that a crowded sidewalk appears to be populated entirely by angelic people dressed in white.

    During 2007 I drove across the country and took a bunch of infra-red photographs. The Southern states looked especially good, because they contain so much vegetation.

  • Charts: 3

    Square feet per person in various nations

    (Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

    To what extent do we feel overcrowded, as a species? I'm not talking about resources; just psychological factors.

    To create this chart I turned to the CIA Factbook, where I looked up the populations of various nations and then divided this number into their land area (excluding lakes and rivers) to get the number of square feet available per person. I represented the results in squares that are all drawn to the same scale.

    Of course if you are in Australia, where each resident has almost 4 million square feet to play with, you won't make full use of your land ration, if only because most of it is desert. On the other hand, when I was in Australia I did feel intuitively aware that the country was, so to speak, empty. As soon as I drove out of an urban area, the emptiness was right there. Conversely, in Hong Kong, where citizens have barely more than 1,600 square feet each, everyone is intensely aware of being crammed into a very crowded place.

    Personally I enjoy wilderness areas, but I wouldn't claim that open spaces are essential for my mental health. I do, after all, still have an apartment in New York City containing just 350 square feet. The apartment next to mine, identical in size, used to be a home not only to a married couple, but also their young child.

    I suspect that our romantic yearnings for “freedom to roam” may be just that: Romantic yearnings.