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Another Perspective


PTOLEMY AND SHORTER YOU

Tycho Brahe, a Danish polymath with royal blood, achieved his most impressive astronomical discoveries at a pivotal time in the history of science, the moment when stargazers began to understand that the geocentric model of the solar system, widely characterized as that of Ptolemy, would give way to the heliocentric model of Copernicus and Galileo.  Brahe had a remarkable moustache, which ultimately provided clues to his demise, and a midget stationed under his dinner table, but, sadly, not one who resembled Pippa Middleton.  Brahe's cosmology, or Ptolemy's, has recently enjoyed resurgence; its fresh embodiment lies in HTML 5.

Brahe
Tycho Brahe
Gifted Danish scientist nearly as famous
for his eccentricities as his intellect

What has made Brahe's conception of our solar system, his placement of the Earth rather than the sun in the middle of things, so timely, is the apparent agreement similarity between the universe as seen through the eyes of Catholic Church during the seventeenth century and those of the marketing visionaries at Apple, Google, and elsewhere.  The powers in old Rome felt, quite strongly, that scripture placed this planet and by implication the Church and its hierarchy at the very center of the world.  The powers in contemporary Santa Clara County might not feel the same way personally, but they seem to have found ways to garner vast amounts of money by putting people and their client devices at the center of things.  Still, behind every fortune there is a crime.  In this case, it is invasion of privacy, a misdeed vociferously denied by those who stand to enrich themselves while exploiting what they know about where you are.

Lately there has been quite a bit of press coverage surrounding the way smartphones and the tablet computers that are their cousins report, store, and use geolocation data.  The data are part and parcel of quite a few applications that people love, little programs that locate restaurants and gas stations and so forth.  It emerged that quite a bit of this data was stored on iPhones and Android phones, and also that the data had to be sent back to various server farms in the cloud to get location-based apps to work.  What happens to the data after the app has done its job remains unclear.  Do the people behind the apps throw it away even thought it might be valuable? Your guess is as good as mine.

You might think that geolocation and user tracking is something that happens only when somebody is using a smartphone or tablet with particular apps, but that's not necessarily the case.  In fact, the whole computer industry, led by the academic crowd at W3C and elsewhere, the people who define the Web page description language HTML and its related formatting technology, CSS, plus the Web page scripting language, JavaScript, has been thinking about geolocation technology for quite some time.

Ptolemeus
Ptolemy
Ancient scholar whose work strongly influenced astronomy
for more than 1500 years and still provokes thought today

What is becoming next generation of HTML and related web page stuff, HTML 5 (plus contemporary CSS and JavaScript) includes a richly defined set of geolocation technologies.  Every Web page can ask the browser displaying it for latitude, longitude, altitude, the accuracy of these measures, plus a vector with speed and direction (relevant to moving clients only, of course).  HTML 5 standards specify that the end user must be asked for permission before geolocation data is sent by an app to a server, but there is no law that forces browser coders to adhere to this standard any more than any other standard.

If you are reading this page with a Web browser that speaks HTML 5, even if it only provides partial support for the scheme, whether you are using a smartphone or a laptop or a desktop PC or an ebook reader or a server console or possibly even the console on a smart router or firewall, all the magic that provides geolocation info is baked into your experience.  Browsers that know a little about HTML 5 include IE 9 (which requires Windows 7), Firefox 3.5+, Opera 10.6+, Chrome 5.0+, Safari 5.0+, and others.  There are Web pages that explain all this and then some, and even let you try all this out.

Galileo Galilei
Galileo
Irritated Church authorities with his quest for scientific truth
as he stimulated the best minds of his own time and ours

In addition to the stuff built into HTML 5, there are add-on packages that bring geolocation (and other advanced functionality) to some older browsers such as IE 8.  And on top of that stuff, there is code that sniffs out the browser running a page and invokes the right magic, all in a way that enables web page coders to built geolocation functionality into pages that will be viewed via, for example, an aging laptop running XP and IE 8, in such a way that the end user gets an experience similar to that of somebody using the latest Win or Mac PC and one of the young browsers.

As things stand, the technology, both new and old-acting-kinda-new, is often flawed.  Tests run on the ancient (in chip years) desktop machine used in the writing of this essay show that the geolocation gets invoked correctly (with its up-to-date browser and without the need for booster code we mentioned) but misses our location by some a distance.  The reason, on this one case, is that the geolocation database invoked by the test page we used has an old table of IP numbers and their geography.  The machine used for this particular test does not have a mobile Internet connection that would hook it to nearby cell towers, nor is it talking to WiFi hotspots in known locations.  So it's not perfect, but if we used the geolocation data to help us find a Home Depot or hospital or firehouse, chances are we would be given correct contact information.  On the other hand, if the hospital or firehouse or even Home Depot had to find us from that Web page, we would be SOL.

Nikolaus Koperhikus
Copernicus
A Pole apart, he showed that the solar system is heliocentric
even though empirical proof was unavailable until Galileo's time

So, just because the geolocation stuff isn't perfect quite yet, don't consider it useless.  Tycho Brahe was able to figure out quite a bit about the way the heavens were arranged, not all of it perfectly correct, of course, with his naked eyes and without a very good nose.  (He lost a piece of his schnozzola during a dispute of some kind and wore a metal prosthetic most of his life so he wouldn't be too scary looking.) But by the time Brahe handed off his life's work to protégé Johannes Kepler, the technology that would ultimately migrate astronomers from egocentricity to heliocentricity was becoming available to others, including Galileo.

Galileo built some excellent telescopes that helped him create improved models of the solar system and the stars, but the instruments didn't enable him to see just how much trouble he would get into when he wrote down what he believed, even though his ideas were not original.  Much of what Galileo said in 1610 echoed the work of Copernicus, whose ideas were well known and well tolerated by the Catholic Church.  But for a variety of reasons, Galileo really stirred up the religious authorities of his time and they felt that the notion of a heliocentric solar system was subversive.  They preferred the universe as envisioned by Aristotle and that Egyptian, Greek-speaking Roman citizen of the first century, Ptolemy.  In any event, Galileo not only irked the big shots, he was right at hand in Florence, which was, at the time, the heart and soul of the Renaissance.

Had Brahe not died at the age of 55 in 1601, it is possible that the Dane would have come around to Galileo's point of view more or less the way Kepler did.  Brahe was quite a character, known for keeping a court in Prague, where he spent his mature years, that included Jepp the Midget, a jester who performed from under the table at big dinners and whom Brahe believed to be clairvoyant.  Jepp might have been able to warn Galileo about what was coming, censure and ultimately house arrest, although accounts of Galileo's life generally suggest that the astronomer would not have kept his science to himself under any conditions.  But we will never know, nor may be ever be sure just how Brahe died.  The most widely ascribed cause of his death was the sudden onset of a fatal uremia, but within the past year or so a forensic study of Brahe's magnificent moustache revealed a possible exposure to a very large amount of poisonous mercury.  During his life, Brahe focused on Venus more than Mercury.

At the time of his death, Brahe's model of the solar system and the one incorporated in HTML 5 shared a common characteristic.  Both put Earth at the center of things.  HTML 5 also puts a reference ellipsoid inside the Earth in order to make altitude measurements consistent (more or less) the world over.  Brahe and very possibly his midget (and maybe Pippa Middleton, too) might well appreciate technology that provides a standard measure of where you are at and just how high you are, too.

— Hesh Wiener May 2011


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