Thursday, February 28, 2013

Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed

This is the second most-popular post on the blog. That, I assume, is because it's about an amazing and enigmatic bit of animation. Some day I'll return to it and take a deeper look. For now, I'm reposting it at the top of the blog. Enjoy.
“Pink Elephants on Parade,” from Walt Disney’s Dumbo, is one of the best known, and strangest, animated sequences that Disney, or any studio, has ever done (see clip below). It’s strange on two counts. In the first place, it doesn’t seem to advance the Dumbo story in any way. As the sequence begins Dumbo and Timothy Mouse are pleasantly drunk; when it ends they’re sleeping high in a tree. The sequence tells us nothing about how they got from one state to the other, nor does it tell us anything that’s otherwise going on in the movie. The movie is about elephants, the sequence is about elephants, pink ones; and that elephant connection seems to be all that links the sequence to the larger plot.

Putting that aside, is there any order within the sequence itself or is it just a collection of strange gags? This is the question that interests me. And my answer is that, yes, there is some order there. There is a progression.

1. Elephants from Elephants

Let’s start at the beginning. Dumbo and Timothy have drunk water that was accidentally laced with booze. They get drunk and Dumbo starts blowing rather surprising bubbles through his trunk. Timothy asks him to blow a large bubble, which he does. That bubble assumes elephant form, turns pink, and proceeds to blow a second pink elephant from its trunk. The second blows a third, and now we see four pink elephants. Their trunks become trumpet-like, playing a fanfare which we hear on the sound-track. They merge their trunks

pink elephants 3 four in one

and the merged bell expands, bursts, and becomes a portal for a parade of marching elephants.

pink elephants 4 parade from one

Each elephant in the parade is playing a musical instrument, which is a deformed part of its body.

There are three things to note so far. 1) The parade of elephants has now become effectively detached from Dumbo. He blew the first bubble, but it became an elephant on its own. The rest followed from that. 2) The purely instrumental music we’re hearing is, in effect, being created by the elephants themselves. 3) At various points in this opening segment we see reactions from both Dumbo and Timothy; they’re on-screen characters.

We get a series of gags emphasizing that the elephants are making the music, and then we see a parade of small elephants march around (notice Dumbo and Timothy watching them):

pink elephants 8 round it

There is no structure in the film-space itself on which those elephants are marching. They’re walking on the border of the frame. This is the sort of self-conscious gag that’s as old as animation itself – such trickery was fundamental to Winsor McCay’s work, but also to Disney’s Alice shorts. Those elephants will parade around the entire perimeter of the frame and then they’ll start expanding until they burst.

pink elephants 9 filled

2. An Elephant State of Mind

With that we move to new phase. We no longer see Dumbo or Timothy on screen; they’re out for the rest of the sequence. The elephants are no longer depicted as being the source of the music. They’re just elephants. And the music gets a vocal that comments on the rather creepy things happening on screen.

Chef Watson

IBM's Watson has graduated from Jeopardy. Yes, there's medical diagnostics, business analytics, and the like, but there's also baking.
In San Jose, I.B.M. plans to serve the assembled analysts a breakfast pastry devised by Watson, called a “Spanish crescent.” It is a collaboration of Watson’s software and James Briscione, a chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.

I.B.M. researchers have watched and talked to Mr. Briscione as he works, selecting ingredients and building out dishes. Watson has read those notes, 20,000 recipes, data on the chemistry of food ingredients, and measured ratings of flavors people like in categories like “olfactory pleasantness.”

Watson’s assignment has been to come up with recipes that are both novel and taste good. In the case of the breakfast pastry, Watson was told to come up with something inspired by Spanish cuisine, but unusual and healthy. The computer-ordered ingredients include cocoa, saffron, black pepper, almonds and honey — but no butter, Watson’s apparent nod to healthier eating.

Then, Mr. Briscione, working with those ingredients, had to adjust portions and make the pastry.

“If I could have used butter, it would have been a lot easier,” said the chef, who used vegetable oil instead.

Sympathy for the Other

Glenn Loury and Harold Pollock discuss the value of literature as a way to understand peoples lives different from your own:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

An acrobatic machine

Here's an amazing video. Two quadracopters toss a pole back and forth:

What's a quadracopter? A small flying vehicle propelled by four spinning propellers. Once one quadracopter has tossed the pole, the other one has 0.65 seconds to calculate the pole's trajectory and get itself in place to make the catch, after which it must, of course, balance the pole.

You can find an explanation HERE.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Physics is in trouble: Restart!

Microelectronics pioneer and Caltech emeritus professor Carver Mead says that physics has failed to deliver on the revolution that started early in the 20th century.
Much more work needs to be done to restart that revolution, Mead said, with the goal of explaining in an intuitive way how all matter in the universe relates to and affects all other matter, and how to explore those interrelationships in a way that isn't "buried in enormous piles of obscure mathematics."
That physics is in trouble has seemed obvious for some time. What to do about it, not so obvious. But more or the same doesn't seem sensible.
"Modern science started with an idea that was really given to us by Galileo," he said. "The idea was the isolated experiment. You took something and you very carefully sheltered from all the influences around, and then you were seeing the fundamental physics of that object."

That methodology, he said, served science well and led to tremendous advances. "But now it's holding us back from a deeper understanding of how the universe works."
Here's the passage that got my attention:
Einstein, of course, was mightily influenced by what the ex–patent clerk called Mach's Principle, which Mead explained as the proposition that "the inertia of every element of matter is due to its interaction with all the other elements of matter in the universe."

We haven't fully followed that investigative road, Mead said. "Instead what we've done is we've treated isolated objects as if all their attributes were just given us, and [we] haven't asked where they came from," he said "Things like the inertia of an object, the rest energy of an object, the velocity of light — all those things. We have a list of fundamental constants that we're not allowed to ask where they come from.".
What I'm wondering is this: Is much of the intractable strangeness of contemporary physics an artifact of the process of breaking matter into the smallest possible isolated units, as though any of them ever existed or could exist in isolation?

Music and Movement

A precis of "Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion" by Beau Sievers, Larry Polansky, Michael Casey, and Thalia Wheatley (PNAS 2013 110 (1) 70-75):
Music and movement have long been linked through metaphor, but whether they share a common structure across disparate cultures remains largely unknown. To determine how music and movement are related, Beau Sievers et al. (pp. 70–75) developed a computer program to generate simple piano melodies and an animated bouncing ball, both controlled by the same statistical model. The authors then recruited 50 US college students, separated them into two equal groups, and asked one group to vary the position of slider bars on a computer screen that controlled five piano melody–related attributes—rate, jitter, direction, step size, and consonance—to reflect different emotions, such as “angry,” “happy,” “peaceful,” “sad,” and ”scared.” The other group performed the same task, but the slider bars varied equivalent attributes of the ball’s movement in relation to the same emotions. By and large, the authors report, individuals who used music to express an emotion set the slider bars to the same positions as those who expressed the same emotion through movement, suggesting that music and movement share an expressive code. When a modified version of the experiment was run among villagers in L’ak, a culturally isolated tribe in northeastern Cambodia, the authors found that the features of emotional expression through music and movement are similar across cultures. According to the authors, unraveling the universal features of music might help researchers uncover why and how music originated. — P.N.
H/t Mark Changizi.

You can find the full article HERE (PDF) at the website for the Wheatley lab.

Friday, February 15, 2013

How It All Works and the Problem of God

Thomas Nagel has recently published a slim volume, Mind and Cosmos, that's kicking up a fuss because it apparently gives and aid comfort to creationists, though Nagel himself is an atheist. I've not read the book myself, but I've read a bit about it. Here's a few paragraphs from an article in The New York Times about the controversy:
Mr. Nagel’s depiction of a universe “gradually waking up” through the emergence of consciousness can sound oddly mystical — the atheist analytic philosopher’s version of “spiritual, not religious.” And even some readers who admire Mr. Nagel’s philosophical boldness see a very fuzzy line between his natural teleology and the creator God of theists like the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who reviewed Mr. Nagel’s book favorably in The New Republic, throwing more red meat to his detractors).

In his conclusion Mr. Nagel declares that the present “right-thinking consensus” on evolution “will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” But few of his colleagues seem to see much sign that a radical paradigm shift is imminent, let alone necessary.

“It’s perfectly fair game for philosophers to say scientists are wrong about stuff,” Mr. Sober said. “Everything depends on whether the arguments are good.”
Here's the opening paragraphs of Plantinga's review:
ACCORDING TO a semi-established consensus among the intellectual elite in the West, there is no such person as God or any other supernatural being. Life on our planet arose by way of ill-understood but completely naturalistic processes involving only the working of natural law. Given life, natural selection has taken over, and produced all the enormous variety that we find in the living world. Human beings, like the rest of the world, are material objects through and through; they have no soul or ego or self of any immaterial sort. At bottom, what there is in our world are the elementary particles described in physics, together with things composed of these particles.

I say that this is a semi-established consensus, but of course there are some people, scientists and others, who disagree. There are also agnostics, who hold no opinion one way or the other on one or another of the above theses. And there are variations on the above themes, and also halfway houses of one sort or another. Still, by and large those are the views of academics and intellectuals in America now. Call this constellation of views scientific naturalism—or don’t call it that, since there is nothing particularly scientific about it, except that those who champion it tend to wrap themselves in science like a politician in the flag. By any name, however, we could call it the orthodoxy of the academy—or if not the orthodoxy, certainly the majority opinion.
Let's push that a bit. Scientific naturalism presents us with a world view in which the existence of life and consciousness are very very unlikely converging on impossible. Yet, self-evidently both life and consciousness exist. ANY attempt to reconcile such existence with such theory is bound to be VERY strange.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Artificial Retina

From the NY Times:
The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved the first treatment to give limited vision to people who are blind, involving a technology called the “artificial retina.”

With it, people with certain types of blindness can detect crosswalks on the street, burners on a stove, the presence of people or cars, and sometimes even oversized numbers or letters.

The artificial retina is a sheet of electrodes surgically implanted in the eye. The patient is also outfitted with a pair of glasses with an attached camera and a portable video processor. These elements together allow visual signals to bypass the damaged portion of the retina and be transmitted to the brain.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Pigeon Navigation: The sound of distant waves

Pigeons live in a different world, from The Economist:
Pigeons form a far richer picture of the world than a person can manage, through three senses unavailable to humans: an instinctive ability to navigate by the sun, an ability to detect magnetic fields that provides them with an inbuilt compass, and an ability to hear infrasound. But if local conditions mean they cannot hear their destination, they are as lost as a driver whose satnav has suddenly failed.
H/t Tyler Cowen.