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Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

How Facebook Connects the World: A Visual

December 14, 2010 1 comment
A Stunning Visualization of Facebook Friend Connections – Click to Enlarge

This beautiful simulation was created by a Facebook intern named Paul Butler. He is an intern on Facebook’s data infrastructure engineering team.

Using a sample of 10 million friend pairs, he wanted to see how those friends were connected geographically. How did he do it?

He explains in a Facebook note, but it is a little bit technical, so I will attempt to translate for the lay reader.

First he started with his 10 million sample pairs. Then he sorted them out by adding up how many friends each city has with each other. For example, how many friends do people in New York have in Chicago? How many friends do people in Los Angeles have in Tokyo? And so on.

So then he tried plotting lines between those cities. Pairs of cities that had more friends between them would have brighter lines. But this turned out to be a bit of a problem. When he tried this,

…a big white blob appeared in the center of the map. Some of the outer edges of the blob vaguely resembled the continents, but it was clear that I had too much data to get interesting results just by drawing lines. I thought that making the lines semi-transparent would do the trick, but I quickly realized that my graphing environment couldn’t handle enough shades of color for it to work the way I wanted.

His graph simply did not have enough shades of blue to make an accurate representation of the numbers. But since he sounds like a very smart guy, he came up with a solution:

I defined weights for each pair of cities as a function of the Euclidean distance between them and the number of friends between them. Then I plotted lines between the pairs by weight, so that pairs of cities with the most friendships between them were drawn on top of the others.

So cities that were closer together got brighter lines. So the line between New York and Chicago is brighter than the line between Los Angeles and Tokyo. Next, he chose to plot lines between cities that have more friendships between them on top of other lines. So the line from New York to Chicago is plotted on top of the line from New York to Scranton.

And Voila! A really nice map of the world drawn entirely with friendships. Paul Butler had some deep thoughts on it:

It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a reaffirmation of the impact we have in connecting people, even across oceans and borders.

Facebook has gotten some bad press lately. And frankly, I was getting sick of people clogging up my News Feed with Farmville.

But damn, that picture is cool.

Behold! The Non-Browning Apple!

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s lunch time. You take a bit of your delicious apple. A colleague asks for your opinion on something, and you forgot about your apple for a few minutes.

When you return to it, you find it has become brown and gross. You throw it away out of disgust.

But its possible this may not happen again, if a new breed of genetically modified apple which doesn’t brown gets approval for growing. A biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland (OSF), based in British Columbia, Canada, has developed the apple and believes it will be a hit. Neal Carter, president of the company said

They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don’t turn brown. The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody.

He says that the new type of apple will encourage it to be packaged in salads and children’s lunches, helping lead to more healthy eating.

How does it work? Well my biology is a little rusty, but basically what happens is this:

When you pierce the skin of the apple you expose the innards to oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction to occur involving enzymes which create melanin, the same pigment in your hair and eyes, and leads to the apple turning brown.

OSF has licensed a technology from Australian researchers which stops the production of a certain enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, which causes the browning.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but it will be awhile. The approval process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent your fruit from browning. You could drizzle some lemon juice on it, as the acid helps prevent the enzymes from turning the fruit brown. Also, you could refrigerate the fruit before eating, as the cold temperature reduces the rate of the chemical reaction which produces that nasty brown colour.

Women + Science = Awesome

August 11, 2010 1 comment

My undergraduate physics class had about 30 students who got their B.Sc. at the same time as me.

Only 4 of them were women.

But dammit, they were equals every single step of the way. We studied together, we wrote tests together, and we got drunk after we wrote tests together.

I have heard of a time when women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was frowned upon. They were ignored by their peers and were not taken seriously.

Boy, how times have changed.

But unfortunately, there is still a large gender gap in the physical sciences. Although women are considered equals, enrollment numbers, particularly in Engineering, are still dominated by males. Recruiting programs have been set up to try and get more women into Engineering (although being the only girl in a class full of engineers probably has its advantages in terms of attention received). And while the number of women studying physics is climbing, it is climbing slowly.

So what is the solution? How do we get more women interested in science and technology?

I think a big part of it will be letting young girls know that its OK to like science. There are probably a huge number of girls who would rather play with chemistry sets than barbie dolls, but feel strange doing so; especially when its only the boys playing with toys like that.

While I have never been a girl myself (though I was called one repeatedly in elementary school), I imagine its not easy for girls interested in science to grow up in a culture of many girls who don’t.  Even though we have come a long way in terms of equality, I think STEM still has a stigma as being for “Boys Only”.

So how do we get the word out that science is for everybody? The internet is a great resource that, up until a decade or so ago, was not available.

For example, a dear friend of mine from University has a blog called Technolochick. This is a site written by women for women who are interested in technology. Its a great idea for a blog and you should really check it out.

Celebrity involvement never hurts either. Amy Poehler, SNL alumnus and star of ‘Parks and Recreation‘, currently helps run a website called ‘Smart Girls at the Party‘  which takes an entertaining approach to encourage girls to follow their passions in STEM.

So ladies, don’t be shy. If you love science, say so! If you want to study it, do so!

And even though I considered all those in my class as equals, if one of the girls batted her eyes at me, I was probably more likely to give her my answers to the homework problems.

So you have that going for you as well.