Friday, April 9, 2010

Winter project’s finished – now to enjoy the summer!

Last thanksgiving, inspired by both a friend’s adventures and an article featured on Lifehacker (original here) I had a stroke of inspiration. What I was not aware of was that this particular project would ultimately take me just about 6 months to complete, but having finished it recently I thought I’d share.

The idea behind the whole thing is to take a photograph or painting, crank down the resolution, and what you’re left with is a pixelated version, which you can then lay out as coloured tiles – in this case paint chips – and recreate the photo low-res but at large scale and without lifting a paintbrush.

n1_rect540 The inspiration

Perhaps influenced by the above picture and associated nostalgia, I thought a fedora-clad Bogart might do well. Some searching brought me to this:


Which yielded to some mile photoshopping:

Spade4  Spade40 Spade50

And then shrunk to a much smaller resolution:

SpadeFinal FinalBlowUp

With my design set, it was then a quest to get raw materials. A trip raiding the local hardware stores yielded a wide selection of paint swatches, and then began the many-month-long process of cutting out hundreds upon hundreds of squares of colour for tiles. Montreal is cold in winter. There’s no need to go outside.


Splitting the photo into three colour zones let me partition the chips, and then began the selection of tiles to fit the photo. Splitting it into zones of 10x10 helped. For example, the crown of the hat:

7 Zone7BlowUp

And laying out the patterns:


And after another long amount of time, all that was done. Laying them all out, we got:


Note the TV show on in the background. Simultaneous other activities is highly recommended.

A bit more work, and it was glued down, and the final product complete.


Yes, not every colour matches the template. I think that makes it better. Yes, there are gaps. I had to face the reality that I can’t consistently cut squares with a ruler and utility knife. I accepted it and just tried to make sure the gaps ended up randomly dispersed, which I mostly accomplished. And yes, it looks a little eerie in the camera flash, but under ambient light it really worked out well.

And now that sucker hangs on my wall. To those who say I have no artistic talent, I have this to say: only when I don’t have a template.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Science is Hella-cool

It seems the proposal has been put forward to make the SI prefix for 10 to the 27th power “hella-”

I’m a little surprised that this wasn’t named already, I had just assumed that these prefixes were already named up to and far beyond what we would ever need to use. Granted, we haven’t found much use for 10^27 yet; it’s been almost twenty years since the previous (yotta-) was named.

There’s a facebook petition to convince the overlords (Système International – you know they’re the real Illuminati, right?) to add this to their vocabulary. With the force of thousands of high-schoolers and college students, they might just have to concede to the masses.

I can already envision bait-and-switch manoeuvres to lure in unsuspecting young recruits to science.

“Hella-big ridic all-ages edutainment nite! Off the rails, yo!”

It’ll so work.

MakeHellaOfficial Headquarters:

Discover: Hella…yes!

Sign the petition here:

Friday, February 26, 2010

I have a new idol

It’s this guy

helmet_rect At almost every game I’ve seen, putting on a show each time. This guy is the man.

Go Canada Go!

Monday, February 22, 2010

“Lie to Me”, Temporary Autism and Malcolm Gladwell’s Igon Values

I just finished with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It raises some interesting points, and is certainly an entertaining enough read, but I have to say it’s got my logic gland a little bit inflamed.

logic_glandLocation of the logic gland

Blink deals with the processes that take place in our minds before we’re aware we’ve thought about them (i.e. first impressions). He discusses job interviews, market research, and police (over)reactions, among other things. I’d like to report the take-away message of it all, but to be honest I’m kind of confused what it was supposed to be.

Half the time Gladwell is describes how our first impressions are more correct than we give them credit for, and half the time that they’re terribly, terribly wrong. That’s fine, but without outlining where the distinction lies, it doesn’t help anyone better understand how they might change their thinking on first impressions. The only point that is put forward is that snap judgements are correct if you’re an expert and trained to make objective evaluations, and wrong if you’re a non-expert. Which does all of us non-experts a lot of good.

As an example, Gladwell explains how meticulous analysis of facial expressions, down to specific muscle movements, can carry crucial clues to the person’s intentions. This comes from research by Paul Ekman (Tim Roth on Lie to Me) and the meticulous system he developed, which involves recording facial expressions and breaking down expressions frame-by-frame, giving each one particular, inaccessible codenames.

Those are Action Units 89 and 104 right there, and they tell me Tim Roth had the veal parmigiana for dinner last night

Following this praise for scrutinizing small details to pick out the truth is a complete rebuttal of this methodology. Gladwell goes through how over-analysis of data cost “Blue Team” in the American Army’s Millennium Challenge 2002 war-game. They chose to carefully scrutinize their data, give everything inaccessible acronyms, and break everything down into categories. And this time, that was a bad thing.

My problem with Gladwell’s writing is the same as that recently voiced by Steven Pinker, in response to Gladwell’s most recent book, What the Dog Saw – And Other Adventures. He calls it Gladwell’s Igon value problem, after a particularly damning error (Eigen value, a term any mathematician knows, was the term Gladwell meant to use). Talking about What the Dog Saw, Pinker writes:

The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you’ll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.

Steven_PinkerWhack! Pinker-slapped!

Gladwell doesn’t get statistics. This prompted Pinker’s response for What the Dog Saw, and was the case in his earlier writings as well. While one scientist’s views, a remarkable event, or a business success story may make for interesting discussion points, it is never the be all and end all. For every example of failed market research, how many times has it been successful? For every time experts identify a forgery, how often are they fooled? A single story makes for a good anecdote, but it is not convincing that it is representative of a phenomenon. The stories he writes on are, after all, remarkable in some way, or else they wouldn’t be worth publishing.

Perhaps most frustrating was his coining of the term “temporary autism” to refer to the lack of comprehension we have of fine details in the first rapid moments of experiencing a novel situation, person, or object. I’ll try to ignore how offensive this is to those afflicted with autism and their loved ones, but seriously, I don’t complain of momentary paraplegia whenever my leg falls asleep. That’s not cool.

Malcolm_GladwellBad, Gladwell, bad!

“Temporary autism” is supposed to represent that we cannot comprehend every detail of a situation and make judgements based on only our (often misled) first impressions. He describes how we need to avoid falling into that trap where the rest of our cognitive processes supposedly shut down. I think he takes this completely the wrong way. People don’t fall into a pathological state (which, if true could be extremely legally problematic) whenever they don’t have enough information. Instead, they operate based on whatever information they have, and then once a complete picture is available, full reasoning and such can kick in. To call everyone potentially irrational and unemotional is pretty damn misanthropic.

Okay, that’s enough for now. I still plan on reading Outliers and What the Dog Saw, but needed to vent about Blink for now. If I have to say one thing, it’s take your Gladwell with a grain of salt.

p.s. If you’ve read Gladwell before (and maybe even if you haven’t), you should read this essay: I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell. Its funny, and helped ease some of my frustrations about this book.

Oh, and here’s Steven Pinker’s Review:

New York Times: Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective

Monday, January 25, 2010

The 5 Second Rule - Expanded

For every rule, there are exceptions. Even something like the 5 second rule, which has saved many a spilled college student's dinner. Check it out:

10second_rule_flowchartSource:Audrey Fukman and Andy Wright

I like to advocate a realistic approach to bacteria in the world around us; while it’s probably not the best idea to eat a pound of soil (for several reasons), contact with non-pristine surfaces doesn’t necessarily make food irreversibly spoiled. In fact, researchers have shown that food may be okay after being left as long as 30 seconds on a cafeteria floor.

There’s lots of places you wouldn’t want to eat food off the ground (hospitals, barnyards, and daycares come to mind) but its possible that we’ve become so accustomed to clean environments, and grown so afraid of all bacteria that we’ve lost perspective on the world around us. Not that long ago the closest thing to a table available was a tree stump or rock. And no one wiped those down with Lysol first.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tolkien’s Ents Just Became a Little Less Fantastical

green_sea_slugLooking something like a leaf, this sea slug (Elysia chlorotica) has just become the newest organism to breach traditional kingdom boundaries and do something scandalous – photosynthesize. All by itself. Its parents must be so ashamed.

We thought the idea of walking, talking, hobbit-toting, orc-squashing Ents was something wholly in the realm of fantasy. No more. Give it a few hundred million years and we may well see geriatric trees walking the Earth. Whoops, I mean Middle-Earth. Yes, I went there.


Wired Science: Green Sea Slug is Part Animal, Part Plant