Friday, June 29, 2007

Spinning in space

This clip begins with footage from Joseph Kittinger's record 102,800 foot parachute jump on August 16, 1960 before a segue into scenes of surfing. During the fall Kittinger reached speeds exceeding 700 mph. The images are fascinating.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

3 awesome free Math programs

Recently, I stumbled on "3 awesome free Math programs" at The Math Blog. Highlighted are Scilab, Maxima and R. At this point, I've yet to try R, but I have been using both Scilab (Matlab clone) and Maxima (CSA/symbolic), and I've been quite happy with them. Many thanks to the creators.

Soft Scissors

Spent some time looking over 2007 SIGGRAPH papers...

One that interests me is Soft Scissors: An Interactive Tool for Realtime High Quality Matting. Matting is an area around which I have some experience and passion. When you're extracting an object from an image, hair always presents the biggest challenge, which is why the examples on the Soft Scissors page focus on it.

Almost 10 years ago, I created this tool. At that point in time, the problem was utterly foreign to me. The leader of the team showed me an example of a similar tool in action and asked me if I thought I could do the same thing. I told him I'd give it a try and spent a week on the problem.

I remember thinking "Let's see. They want me to separate the region of interest into two groups, because the groups are different. How do we determine if two groups are statistically different? Student's t-test is one way. So let's separate the groups at the point where the t-test says they're the most different." Later, I realized that I'd rediscovered a something similar to a common linear discriminant.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hate when that happens...

Ever wake up in the middle of the night with a headache only to find you've got a bullet in your head? I hate when that happens.

"A woman was arrested Tuesday after her husband woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible headache and later learned he had a bullet lodged in his head."


According to the story, the wife eventually admitted that she accidentally shot her husband in his sleep. Oops! (Move over, Tommy Flanagan.)


"A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you're looking down, you can't see something that's above you."

- C.S. Lewis

In the waiting line

Artist: Zero 7
Disc: Simple Things
Song: In the Waiting Line
Year: 2001

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


"Didn't anybody hear me? I'm an existentialist!" he screamed.
But as frustrating as the silence was,
It was also necessary.

The Journal of Misanthropy

Ode to Jack Handey...

If there's a journal of Misanthropy,
I bet it doesn't have a "Sign up a friend" program.
And if it does,
It probably isn't very successful.

All come true

Artist: World Party
Disc: Private Revolution
Song: All Come True
Year: 1987

Killer software

A friend of mine relayed the story once, but I was never sure if it was apocryphal. I'm a little more confident now thanks to this link.

Steve Jobs: "Well, let's say you can shave 10 seconds off of the [Mac] boot time. Multiply that by five million users and thats 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that's probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you've saved a dozen lives. That's really worth it, don't you think?"

Clearly this isn't the prevailing thought in other institutions. Coming immediately to mind are the DMV and the motion picture industry, given the DVDs they produce.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Flock of Birds

(HT to Ernie's 3D Pancakes for pointing me to cool stuff at Flight404.)

Voronoi and Magnetism
Flock of Birds

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Filling in the blanks

Several areas of research I find interesting concern themselves with various forms of signal reconstruction and synthesis as they are applied to digital images. Depending on who's doing the work, various names come into play such as texture synthesis, image inpainting, healing brushes, etc.

The problem boils down to this. Let's say your digital image contains undesirable elements or somehow lacks desirable elements. The situation may be due to a hole or scratch in the image, or perhaps you just want to remove a scar or pimple from a face.

The ideal solution paints over the undesirable image element (or completes the missing parts of a desirable element) in such a way that one can't tell the problem ever existed. Where there was once a mole, now there's only perfect skin. The scratch on the scan you made of an old photograph is nowhere to be seen--all you see is a perfect brick wall. Etc.

Not surprisingly, it's not easy to fill in the blanks. In fact, finding an algorithm that works well in all cases has proven to be a very challenging problem. Filling in solid colors is simple enough, but what about grass, sky, carpet, skin, clouds and wicker? Some elements are very orderly, some are chaotic, some repeat, others don't.

Wrestling with such problems leaves me wondering how our brains manage to fill things in so well. Our eyes have blind spots, but we're generally oblivious to these holes in our visual fields because our brains do such a wonderful job of filling in the blanks, synthesizing images that aren't really there. Can neuroscientists help us improve our algorithms?

Here's a link to a fun little tutorial on the blind spot. Try a few and see how your brain fills in the blanks in space that your eyes don't see:

Seeing more than your eye does

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Contest

All in all, I enjoyed the contest.
We were given adhesives, plastic and foil.
And then offered a challenge:
"Create a package that's hard to open.
Most difficult wins!"
I tried my best,
But I didn't even come close to winning.
The compact disc people were there.
Toy manufacturers,
And the people who package OTC medicine.
Didn't have a snowball's chance, really.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Are you going with me?

One of my favorite Metheny tunes.
A long beautiful song.

Artist: Pat Metheny
Song: Are You Going With Me?
Disc: Offramp
Year: 1981

Compressed sensing and single-pixel cameras

Until today, I didn't even know Terence Tao had a blog. Here's an interesting post on compressed sensing and single pixel cameras.

Tao: "I’ve had a number of people ask me (especially in light of some recent publicity) exactly what “compressed sensing” means, and how a “single pixel camera” could possibly work (and how it might be advantageous over traditional cameras in certain circumstances). There is a large literature on the subject, but as the field is relatively recent, there does not yet appear to be a good non-technical introduction to the subject. So here’s my stab at the topic, which should hopefully be accessible to a non-mathematical audience."


ht: Machine Learning (Theory)

Mirror Mirror

The psychology of empathy is an area of personal interest. I side with the moral sense theorists, then and now. The short answer is: rather than relentlessly searching for Platonic universals, maybe we simply need to admit we're drawn this way. This is the sort of thing that probably makes Objectivists apopletic. What can I say? I feel your pain. :)

This round, thanks to 3QD, a couple of new items.

From Science:

"Ever flinch at the sight of an actor being punched in the face? The reason is that neurons in the brain light up when we watch others suffering. Now a team of psychologists has added evidence to the theory that such mirror systems in our brains are what lie behind our ability to empathize with others. The conclusions are based on a rare group of individuals who feel a touch upon their own bodies when they see someone else being touched. Only one such case of mirror-touch synesthesia had been reported previously in the literature; University College London's Michael Banissy and Jamie Ward investigated the phenomenon in 10 other individuals."

more here

Again from Science:

"Giving feels good. The brain's reward center lights up on an MRI image when subjects give money to charity. You don't need to donate to charity to feel all warm inside. Researchers have found that even when money is taken from some people involuntarily, they feel good about the transaction, as long as the funds go to a good cause. The findings may force economists to rethink just what guides our response to taxes and other financial decisions."

more here.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Latest book: Stumbling on Happiness.

We joke that the keys to happiness are low expectations and flexibility, but it seems these sentiments are closer to the mark than I previously thought.

It's been quite a while since I've enjoyed popular science writing as much as this, and I highly recommend this excellent work on the subject of human happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

Praise list sentiments resonating most with strongly me are those of Chris Anderson for the TED Book Club:

"One of the most brilliant pieces of science writing I've ever come across. Stumbling on Happiness isn't just profound. It's also unbelievably readable and, well, funny. It's truly not fair that someone as smart as Dan also gets to write like a god, but 'tis true. I really urge you to give the book a try. It will change the way you think about yourself. "

Seth Godin says, "...Gilbert writes like a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris."

As Sedaris fan, I concur in appreciation of Gilbert's sense of humor. Also, many nods to Bacon's Idols.

Well done!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Punk Rock Girl

Sometimes it's hard to beat the classics. :)

Artist: Dead Milkmen
Song: Punk Rock Girl
Disc: Beelzebubba
Year: 1988

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Last Emperor

I'd like to post something more substantial. Summers keep me horrendously busy.

Another beautiful song. The theme to one of my favorite films, The Last Emperor. Music by the incredible Ryuichi Sakomoto.

Headlights on the Parade

One of my favorite groups: The Blue Nile.

I've a hard time thinking of many modern musical groups as impressionistic. In the first couple of albums, especially, there's a fine mix of synthetic and natural instruments, with the former offering the predictable heartbeat of the mechanized city while the later, pianos and strings, provide the unpredictable notes of human existence.

Artist: The Blue Nile
Disc: Hats
Song: Headlights on the Parade
Year: 1989

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ramblings on software evolution & inertia

A recent post at Nerdblog brought up a number of software engineering issues that interest me--the nature of software evolution, when to refactor, the phenomenon of over-abstraction and the importance of reducing dependencies.

If I had a sufficient block of time, I could write a good deal about each of these, but I only have time for a few occasional thoughts, which may be developed further in future posts.

Fred Brooks and Meir Lehman both offer valuable wisdom on the subject of the evolution of software. The bigger a software system gets, the more it suffers from its own weight. It is true.

I have a few metaphors relating to the growth of software systems. One is a boat. The bigger the boat gets, the harder it is to steer it or move it. It's much easier to steer a kayak than a ship. When a software system becomes ship-sized, it's really hard to get it going or change its direction--much more time and effort are required.

This is the reason I'm horrified by the notion of paying engineers strictly in terms of lines of code written. (I think it's in many ways analogous to paying someone to solve a Rubik's cube on a "per twist" basis.) I am hard-pressed to think of a better means of creating ship-sized software than a compensation system such as that. Ceteris paribus, choosing the succinct solution over the verbose one is crucial.

Rather than the compensating for the most lines of code written, it might make sense to compensate engineers for fewest lines of code written. This should bring an immediate guffaw, because who can't write zero lines of code? Let's clarify that by saying the fewest lines of code that gets the job done--nicely formated, with one statement per line. (In reality, there's probably no feasible way to do this, but it's still worth bringing up the point.) Often powerful, universal solutions come in small packages. When you find them, they're as good as gold.

The concept of density seems germane. It's true the best engineers write the most code, but there are plenty of lousy engineers who produce piles of code. The difference between the two is a matter of density. Those who fail to refactor anything and simply repeatedly cut, paste and tweak can generate mounds of code, but the code, especially in the aggregate, could hardly be called dense code-it's the opposite, which I guess might be called "puffy code"

more when time permits

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Loney, Dear

Every now and then, I find a disc worthy of recommendation, and when I do, I change "The Disc" section on this site. I've posted a couple of vids by Loney, Dear. After listening to the entire disc--Loney, Noir--all I can say is nice work and well done! Recommended! editorial review:

"Loney, Dear is the somewhat confusing nom de pop of Swedish 'multi-instrumentalist and audio homecooking expert Emil Svanängen.' His voice is reedy, high-pitched, and strong, so it's understandably the focal point of these quaint, home-recorded orchestral-pop numbers. Loney, Noir is technically the indie-pop ingénue's fourth full-length, but as his first three albums were originally released in Sweden as CD-Rs, it's understandable if even devotees of chamber-pop and/or the fertile Scandinavian music scene were ignorant of this genuine talent prior to this album's release. The songs tend to start simply--voice and guitar--and to snowball, slowly adding pump organs and horns and backing vocals and hand claps until they swell precipitously with sweet, contrapuntal sounds. The arrangements never get out of hand, however, and always work in harmony with these smart and achingly melodic songs." --Mike McGonigal


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Onion News Network

When did The Onion start doing video?



Saturday Waits

Another nice new track from Loney, Dear.

Song: Saturday Waits
Artist: Loney, Dear
Disc: Loney, Noir
Year: 2007

LOL Toxoplasma Gondii

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Learning from plants...

There are many questions that intrigue me with answers to which I'm thoroughly oblivious. Today, I'll post one.

The idea of learning from biology interests me. I believe nature holds keys to many engineering and optimization problems and that science is still only scratching the surface.

Plants, for example, need various resources such as nutrients and energy. Since they don't tend to move very quickly and their senses aren't very good (compared to animals), plants have evolved their own strategies for seeking nutrients and sunlight--branching at various rates in various directions, growing leaves of various shapes and sizes and spreading those leaves subject to various morphological constraints.

There are many computational problems involving similarly blind searching. In terms of optimal strategies and algorithms, can anything be learned from plants? Has any research been done? How fruitful has it been? How well do the concepts scale to higher dimensions? Etc., etc., etc.

As I said, this is a question to which I'm thoroughly oblivious.

I spent a little time searching, but there's the usual problem is finding the right disciplines, determining terminologies used in each discipline, etc. Perhaps it's a matter of looking in the wrong places, but I didn't find much. I did find quite a few references by researchers seeking to model plant structures towards the end of visual simulation and 3D graphics, but I found very little work done with an eye toward optimization (or structural engineering, for that matter).

In the process of looking, I found an interesting paper titled Morphological Evolution through Complex Domains of Fitness by Karl J. Niklas (abstract). In it, he discusses the simulation of the evolution of early plants using a six parameter model which includes branching probabilities, bifurcation angles and rotation angles. Also, an early (1986) paper on computer-simulated plant evolution (link).



Devolution, a parody of the Dove Evolution film (via kwc).

People have been talking about Microsoft's Surface, which appears to be some sort of mult-touch, table-based computing thingy.

What gets me when it comes many of today's whiz bang demos is, for example, the disheveled pile of digital photographs. It's a little amusing if you consider how much order it requires to create the visual chaos that is magically animated into order right before one's eyes. It makes me wonder if software is moving beyond solving problems into mesmerization. Up next: "Tantalizing HCI" by David Copperfield.

While you're contemplating that, why not go back to the mid 1980s and enjoy an old Big Audio Dynamite video?

In the spirit of multi-tasking, more of my "reading" is coming in the form of the audiobook, which is easier to combine with exercise than a paper book. I recently finished Dawkins' God Delusion, which I unfortunately don't have sufficient time to discuss. One fascinating part of the book is the story of Kurt Wise, which Dawkins also published in Free Inquiry a few years ago under the title Sadly, an Honest Creationist (link). It's an amazing example of what a powerful force an religious upbringing can be, and it's more than a little disconcerting in an age when fundamentalism often leads to nefarious acts.

On the audiobook front, I've been listening to some of the public domain recordings freely available at Librivox. After sampling a few, I settled on P.G. Wodehouse's My Man Jeeves, which is nicely done thanks to the effort and voice of Mark Nelson.

Simply Audiobooks is sort of a Netflix of audiobooks. I'm going to give that a whirl too. Walster Isaacson's Einstein... is at the top of the queue.

Mike Judge's Milton cartoons were the inspiration behind Office Space. In this one, the manager tells Milton he needs to move his desk back (via Edward Champion).

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Baked Beans

"Actor Hugh Grant will not face charges over claims he attacked a photographer with a tub of baked beans and kicked out at him, the Crown Prosecution Service said on Saturday." CNN

As a longtime study in the martial art of leguminous self-defense, I offer praise to Hugh for the shrewdness exercised in the choice of the alleged weapon. To the interested yet uninitiated, I offer the following nugget of advice.

Go for something with a tangy sauce (stings the eyes), bacon (slipperiness prevents quick escape), brown sugar (sticks to assailant) and high fiber (say no more).