Something in the way she moves

Can you tell gender by nothing but the sway of the walk? And if the answer is yes, how exactly do you do it? How does one dissect the gestalt of the gait? The BioMotion Lab (split between Ruhr University in Germany and Queen’s University in Ontario) is focusing research on “perception of biological motion as a major source of social information.” That’s an altogether worthy goal in itself, but check out some of the research in the lab. Meghan is studying gait and the female menstrual cycle (who knew?). Emma is interested in sexually dimorphic behaviour including courtship and mate choice. Laura, more prosaically, is simply studying head-bobbing in pigeons. Are humans really just doing one of those zany dancing grebe things?

The niftiest thing they have on their site is BioMotionLab1.6, or 15 points of gender-specific light. As they say, it

demonstrates that biologically and socially relevant information about a person is conveyed in biological motion patterns. It allows you to manipulate a number of parameters controlling the characteristics of human walking. You can interactively change biological properties, personality traits and emotional expression of a point-light walker.

Make a sad heavy nervous man and see if it reminds you of Chris Farley.

Life 2.0

Synthetic life is much in the news these days. In the last month there has been a Discover article on simulated evolution, a Popular Science article (Life Built to Order) on the synthetic life efforts of Steen Rasmussen and his colleagues in Los Alamos, and a cover story in New Scientist on artificial life. The articles are thoughtful and the work is credible. How surprised will you be if one of these teams pulls it off? What do you suppose the Vatican will have to say about it?

If, as some biologists speculate, life evolved on Earth within 50,000 years of cooling down, I don’t doubt we’ll be able to coax the same trick into happening within our lifetime.

I can have that for you next week

Why do otherwise clever people consistently underestimate how long it will take to do something, even when they really should know better? This problem is rampant in the software business. Even veteran developers, people with years of programming experience, will look you in the eye and name an insanely optimistic timeline for their next project. Science Daily (found via LifeHacker) cites some recent research on this topic:
Why Do We Overcommit? Study Suggests We Think We’ll Have More Time In The Future Than We Have Today. I like this summary.

Zauberman and Lynch continue, “People are consistently surprised to be so busy today. Lacking knowledge of what specific tasks will compete for their time in the future, they act as if new demands will not inevitably arise that are as pressing as those faced today.” In short, the future is ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.

The more I think about it, the less this result surprises me. Compared to today, there is more time in the future. That’s where all the time comes from. That’s where the time factory is, and factory outlets are always the cheapest suppliers. As a result, everything gets discounted in the future, including the price you’ll pay for being wrong. The “you” in the future is not the you of right now, and that person can take the hit for any bad prediction. It’s the same reason you’re willing to make lifestyle choices now (fatty food, no exercise) that imperil your future self: Hey! That person isn’t you. Yet.

Anthropomorphic nipperkin

The Boston Globe today included an article on Googlewhacks, the mysterious art of doing a two-word Google search that results in exactly one document: One-hit wonder. I am certain that this article will decrease workplace productivity in the Boston area for the next few days. Googlewhacking is a dangerously seductive anticyclonic mixolydian way to waste time at work. Any intemperate thaumaturg should beware its hypnotic thrall.

They’re called “rockdots”

Jon Udell’s Heavy Metal Umlaut video is being passed around a lot these days, and with good reason. He took a quirky page out of Wikipedia, coupled it with some quick and dirty video manipulation from Camtasia, and made a compelling illustration of how the Wikipedia actually works.

Here’s the current Wikipedia entry that initially tickled Udell. This odd little article started out two years ago with this inauspicious note about the spandex and umlaut circuit. Over time it morphed into a richly detailed socialogical digression. But how did that transformation come about? Udell decided to make a movie about that process: here it is.

Udell is on a roll these days, putting new and consistently interesting commentary into his InfoWorld columns and his weblog. In addition, he writes the occasional column for O’Reilly. If you’re so inclined, you can read a detailed account of how he created the umlaut video here.

Dangerous game

Go ahead. Play this game and see if I care. It’s your own damn fault if you waste an hour staring at the screen and clicking like a drooling gameboy lab-monkey.

Here, I’ll make it easy for you.
Click here. Nobody’s peeking.

(This is a seductive logic game I found on Jesse Ruderman’s site. It was written by Pavils from Latvia, who I’m sure is a very nice young man. He’s certainly clever with the Flash.)

Free as in beer

Found this at Jesse Ruderman’s Squarefree site: Beerware code in Mozilla. Open source people talk about the difference between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”. Carrying the beer idea a little bit further is coder Poul-Henning Kamp who put this comment into his Mozilla code (as subsequently discovered by Jesse Ruderman).

 * ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
 * "THE BEER-WARE LICENSE" (Revision 42):
 *  wrote this file.  As long as you retain this notice you
 * can do whatever you want with this stuff. If we meet some day, and you think
 * this stuff is worth it, you can buy me a beer in return.   Poul-Henning Kamp
 * ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Flight information at your fingertips

Last night my wife was flying back to Boston from Florida on Delta Flight 1994. I was watching the Super Bowl (Go Patriots, naturally), and could only spare a little time away from the game to see if her flight was on time. As I dashed upstairs I wondered to myself, “Do you suppose Google would understand what I meant if I just typed delta 1994?” With winklike quickness, I typed it into Dave’s Quick Search Deskbar, and sure enough, right there at the top of the page was a link to track the status of Delta Air Lines flight 1994. With 11 keystrokes and two mouse clicks I saw a diagram of exactly where her plane was (near Savannah, Georgia) along with the arrival information (13 minutes late). I was impressed. When you get a demo of this sort of thing, it’s interesting. When it magically removes a hassle from your life, it’s something altogether more thrilling.

As a postscript, the number one Google item for “delta 1994” was page from a Russian car dealer for a 1994 Daihatsu Delta. Have they done a sneaky Google boost on their ratings somehow? And if they have, do they really expect people from all over the world to buy used cars from Vladivostok? Nothing wrong with that, but the wired world is a curious place.

Open source TiVo

I like this NY Times article about various hack-your-own-TiVo-for-free solutions that are cropping up on the web: Arts > Television > Steal This Show” href=””>Steal This Show. It makes the point rather forcefully that no TV executive is going to be able to stop services like MythTV (an open source TiVo-like program) and Videora from taking off and subsequently putting the hurt on TV’s advertising revenue model. We’ve heard many predictions of TiVo’s imminent demise, and they may yet come true, but who of TiVo’s current for-pay competitors will last much longer? Whatever happens, you can be sure that the pressure from free competitors like MythTV will drive down the price whatever TiVoid commercial solution is left standing. It’s just not that hard to make a digital video recorder service, now that the pioneers have shown us how to do it.

What’s sad is that television content producers (like the NFL for example) insist that products like TiVo be less useful than customers want them to be in order to protect intellectual property. This effectively drives people to free gray-area solutions like MythTV and punishes corporations like TiVo that are trying their hardest to color inside the lines. By punishing the one they have leverage over they eventually lose leverage altogether as the game spins out of their control.

Real world Tron

Kotaku is a game site from the Gawker Media stable. A few days ago while browsing Kotaku I came across this item: GPS Tron. A guy in Germany has written software that lets two people play a real world version of the light cycle game from the movie Tron. The object of the game is to move around a two-dimensional grid leaving a trail behind you that can’t be crossed. Eventually you or your opponent will crash into the boundary wall or one of the trails left behind by your light cycles. And now through the magic of cell phones and cheap GPS receivers, you and a friend can play this game by driving around in real cars. I’m not sure how they enforce the constant speed rule, but still, it’s a pretty cool idea.