A New Measure of Tornado Power

Photo by Mitch Dobrowner | mitchdobrowner.com

My latest in the May 2014 issue of WIRED:

On May 20, 2013, a mass of swirling wind gouged a path of destruction across Oklahoma, killing 24 people and causing $2 billion in damage. And earlier this week a deadly cluster of tornadoes ripped through the midwest and the south, killing more than dozen people and injuring hundreds. This kind of destruction would seem to indicate that tornadoes are getting worse. But with the way we currently measure twisters, it’s nearly impossible to know. Now James Elsner, a geographer from Florida State University, has a fix.

Click here to read more.

Posted in science, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


“A smart look at how big data transforms our lives, from the microcosm of the individual to the macrocosm of the planet. Eagle’s pioneering research in data-mining human behavior is inspiring, while Greene’s insights on what it all means makes Reality Mining an indispensable book. And importantly, privacy issues are not an afterthought but interlaced throughout–as it should be.”

–Kenneth Cukier, co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

“We look at digital devices as something that are meant to serve us. In Reality Mining we are taken on a journey from individuals to countries, to illustrate the true transformative power the collective use of these digital devices brings to humanity. A fascinating trip guided by the researchers who have successfully bridged discovery with entrepreneurship!”

–Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Doge Professor of Network Science, Northeastern University; author of Linked

This is to say that the MIT Press monograph I’ve co-authored with Nathan Eagle will drop in August of this year, and some people have thoughts on it.

Posted in technology, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Boredom, A Philological Approach

I’ve written an essay on boredom and space exploration that will be published by Aeon.co this week. (You can read it here.) One section of this essay didn’t make the final cut. In it, I go into the history of the words boring and boredom, interest and interesting and some variants using the OED and Google n-gram viewer. The excised section follows.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb to bore arrived in 1000 A.D with only one meaning: to pierce or perforate. The noun bore, a hole made by boring, was first recorded in 1320. Bored appeared as an adjective in 1553, to describe something that was pierced or perforated or cylindrically hollow. Two hundred years later, the definition of bore took an unexpected turn. It was no longer just an act performed with a specialized tool to remove material from an object. It began to relate to the “malady of ennui, supposed to be specifically ‘French,’ as ‘the spleen’ was supposed to be English; a fit of ennui or sulks; a dull time.” The OED dates this usage to a 1766 letter written by the Earl of March regarding a tedious time with a Frenchman.

Two years after that letter, in 1768, English language produced the antidote to bore when interesting gained a new definition. Something interesting could suddenly have “the qualities which rouse curiosity, engage attention, or appeal to emotions.”

In David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, a novel that explores the dreariness of work for the IRS, a character, in a monolog on boredom, mentions this curious order of coinage—bore before interesting. But the OED indicates that, twenty years before interesting took its anti-bore meaning, the verb to interest meant “to affect with a feeling of concern; to stimulate to sympathetic feeling; to excite the curiosity or attention of,” which is to say that it’s best to take certain lexicographical cause-and-effect scenarios with a grain of salt.

During the nineteenth century bore continued to evolve. In 1812 it became a tiresome person. In 1823, the adjective bored appeared as “wearied and suffering from ennui.” Boring was defined in 1840 as that which annoys, wearies, or causes ennui. And finally, Boredom, as an undesirable state of being, entered the OED via Bleak House by Charles Dickens in 1853.

Be careful giving Dickens all the credit, though. If you type boredom into Google’s n-gram viewer, an online tool that allows digitally scanned texts written between 1800 and 2008 to be searched, you will see the word appears before 1853, although in which texts, Google does not say. Incidentally, you’ll also see that bore appears much more frequently over the years than the variants bored, boring, and boredom.

The widespread use of these words is generally associated with the industrial era, a time when new technologies replaced human skills and animal power, leading to general and widespread alienation. Interestingly, bore began to lose  steam in texts after 1900, but since 2000, there’s been a sharp uptick. This coincides with emergence use of the Internet, although a causal link between the two is as yet unproven.


Posted in writing | Leave a comment

Highlights from 2013

While most of last year was devoted to Mars and Mars-like adventures, I still managed to put a few other kinds of stories out into the wild. Here a few highlights.

1. For U.S. News & World Report, the most recent advances in telemedicine.

2. For The Economist, using microphones on cell phones as acoustic windows to heart, mind, and bodily health.

3. For the New Yorker Elements blog, the mystery and menace of moon dust.

And finally, after  years of toil, I’m happy to announce that my book, with co-author Nathan Eagle, will be published by MIT Press in 2014. Look for Reality Mining: Using Big Data to Engineer a Better World in the coming months.


Posted in astronomy, HI-SEAS, lasers, projects, science, Space, writing | Leave a comment

Collected Dispatches from the Red Planet

Taking some notes. Photo: Sian Proctor

It’s been a few weeks since the completion of HI-SEAS 2013. I’m now back at home in San Francisco and readjusting to life on Earth. So far it’s consisted of weddings, numerous meals and drinks with friends, ocean swims, bike rides around the city, and a couple of late nights binging on Orange is the New Black. It feels good to be back.

But my mind hasn’t completely left the fourth rock from the Sun. Right now, I’m working on a feature story for Discover magazine. It’ll be longish piece about what it was like to live a Martian life. It’ll also showcase the stunning photography from crew member Sian Proctor. Publication cycles for print magazines can run long, but I’m hopeful the story will be out in a few months.

In the meantime, you can see all 17 of my Discover dispatches here: http://discovermagazine.com/tags?tag=Mars+on+Earth

I also wrote some posts for The Economist, which you can read here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/04/correspondents-diary & here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/04/correspondents-diary-0 & here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/04/correspondents-diary-1 & here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/06/correspondents-diary & here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/08/correspondents-diary

In addition to the writing, I’ll be speaking at a few events and conferences in the near future.

Appearance #1: If you’re in Kansas City on September 18th, drop by miniBar for Nerd Nite, where I’ll give a short talk about HI-SEAS and answer all your burning questions about being a fake astronaut.

Appearance #2: Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference in San Francisco, October 10-11. I’ll talk about the difficulties of sleeping in space and the sleep study I conducted on the HI-SEAS crew.

Appearance #3: Skeptech in Minneapolis April 11-13th. I’ll be on panels talking about space and technology in general.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment