Saturday, August 15, 2009


I have started two blog posts this week, but I have discarded both. It turns out, you see, that I've already written them.

First was the recounting of my visits to the Cognitive Rehab Center where I conduct my research, and how emotionally taxing it is to work with impaired patients. How that human thing we do, where we sympathize with the less fortunate and imagine what it's like to be in their shoes, inevitably leads ruminations on the fragility of the human condition.

I would have written about how I need to toughen myself up, and how much stronger than me the therapists (and psychologists, and medical staff, and social workers) who do this day after day must be. But, well, I've already written that post.

And then I got interviewed by a high school kid for a school newspaper or project or something. Really not clear on what that was about, but I was asked and so I answered. In explaining my scientific contribution to her, I was reminded of how very hard it is to make science sound interesting, even when (or especially when) you find it exciting.

It occurred to me that it's very much easier to impart some pathos, or at least gravitas, to the explanation when your research is about fixing what's broken, as opposed to understanding how things work in a healthy body. The story of one's research is always more gripping when some dragon is slayed.

One of my colleagues is improving cancer research. Another is improving spinal surgery (like that guy from Lost, but without the daddy issues!). These are compelling foils for our heroes. So, while my preferred research is in elucidating the hidden layers of motor control, I usually just say that I help people regain function after stroke.

Except, crap. I already wrote that one, too.

The only thing worse than a blogger is a repetitive blogger. Although I guess a repetitive blogger whose posts are self-serving is the bottom of the barrel. So, enough of this.

Here's some new content. There was a shouting match in the Dunkin Donuts today. A customer let loose on an employee, angrily and with R-rated language. The former claimed that the latter had stared at his girlfriend's posterior, and he was more than willing to express his displeasure at this. The customer and his girlfriend stormed out, or rather the customer stormed out and his girlfriend followed.

Now, I can't decide what's funniest about this. The shouting match itself was pretty amusing, as the customer searched for words to adequately describe his outrage, most of which started with "f" and ended with "uckin'", and the employee stood behind the counter, his mouth agape with surprise.

Even better, though, was the fact that the girlfriend was objectively unattractive. Just gross. Gross enough to be ogled for non-sexual reasons. Call me uncouth, call me unenlightened and backwards, but that's the way it wa. This chick was sideshow ugly.

The best part of it all was that, ghastly aesthetics and all, the employee had totally been ogling the girlfriend. Leering at her, sexually. He's that creepy, and frankly, he totally had it coming to him.

And with that, I return to the thesis. Today's topic: Methods/Data Processing/Onset Identification.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Spotted (in the last moment) on my walk to the Dunkin Donuts

Note to self: Walk back on the other side of the road.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A send-up of things I love

There was a time, not too long ago, that I made a habit of popping in earplugs, descending into a dirty, dimly lit basement, and basking in the innard-pulsating tunes of basement rock.

Not quite punk, and not really grunge. You wouldn't call it a concert, although you generally pay to get in and stand in front of a band while they perform. It sort of defied a label, but I've heard it called "noise rock", where noise itself is an instrument. And of course you would drink beer, usually from a keg, usually in a red plastic cup, always cheap. It was beautiful.

When my basement-thriving friends moved - to Brooklyn, to Connecticut, to Milwaukee, and to Israel, because you were wondering - I lost my connection to their world. It wasn't my world, which was painfully clear at every show. But they let me know when and where the shows were, and they are good friends.

So when I was invited, by way of Facespace, to a show at the Court Tavern, I said hell yes. How could I not? Sure, I'd be missing Jay #1's birthday, but that's mostly because he hadn't picked up his phone when I dialed the wrong number. What a good friend I am.

The show was great, the triumphant return of the Milwaukee expat and an unexpected mini high school reunion. I drank, I chatted, I enjoyed. And, in my head, I blogged.

Thus and therefore, I submit to you, my esteemed readership, my thoughts on how noise rock shows and bike races are pretty much the same.

These guys were good at this whole music thing. They had clearly spent hours a day practicing, and their technique was impressive. It didn't matter if they were using knock-off Stradocasters or superfancy carbon-fiber gadgetry. Proficiency is hard-earned in this world, and cannot be bought.

Obviously, I'm excluding Time Trials from this comparison, but that's okay, because Time Trials are not at all rock and roll.

The sets were fantastic, building to a crescendo, and maybe with a softer denouement, if the band so chose. You could appreciate that, or you could enjoy the melody. Or the way the cacophony is woven into the melody. There are... nuances. Much in the same way as the rush of the pack rushing toward a prime, a team pulling their sprinter to the front, or a single rider's charge through the field are all worthy of attention. There's beauty in it, if you know what to look for.

Standing in the crowd, I looked around at a familiar sight. I saw faces I recognized, even if we'd never met, because people come and go, but the scene never really changes. Throw in some caution tape, and you'd have yourself a bike race. The crowd - mostly white, and mostly male - were sweating and happy. They were skinny, and they wore the t-shirts they'd gotten at previous events. Many had already performed earlier. As far as I could tell, nobody had wandered in... everybody knew someone who was playing, by blood or friendship, or they'd already played. They all seemed to aspire to bigger things, to hope to be discovered and turn their hobby into a profession, but none seemed to be delusional about it.

We were as close to the action as we dared stand, for fear of catching a broken drumstick or an errant guitar. We drank cheap beer. We heckled.

Which reminds me... 'cross is coming.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Side Project

Motion Capture systems cost a gazillion dollars. They have fancy infrared cameras, and lots of 'em. They have proprietary software. They are a big production, often with a kickin' soundtrack.

Screw that, says I.

Just because my lab doesn't have an expensive supersystem doesn't mean I'm not interested in a bit of motion capture. It just means that I have to put in a little bit of extra work to make it happen. And so I did, spending way too much time on the software, and then half-assing the hardware for the following demonstration.

Here is a simple video of me looking like a shmuck. Observe my incredibly slick dance moves and electric tape body markers. I am dancing. To "YMCA". By the Village People. Yes.

This video is two dimensional. So is the video that I recorded using another camera. Each point can only be located by left-right and up-down position, but we have no idea how far away it is from the camera. Using some trigonometry and some algebra, and a lot of programming, I reconstruct each point in a three dimensional space.

Each point. Every single one of them. In this video, that's 8 points at 320 frames for a grand total of 2560 points. And then I had to do it again, for the second camera. Oy.

And so here's the reconstruction, doing something that a real camera couldn't do...

If the angles look a little funky, it's because my choice of marker locations was bad, and also because I wasn't extremely precise in my marker identification. It's just a demo.

Here's another video, showing how the two cameras are used in making a 3-d stick figure. I think it looks like a dance class, like motion capture from a Richard Simmons exercise tape.

So there you have it. We've gone from two simple videos of movement to a completely digitized representation. It's nothing earth-shattering, more of a demonstration than a discovery. I'm reinventing the wheel here, but I'm doing it on the cheap, and the possibilities it allows are endless.

That was my Monday. And yes, YMCA looks RIDICULOUS, and by association, so do I.

UPDATE: Oh dear. I can create my own motion capture system, but I can't do the YMCA dance properly. Yes, I the C is backwards. Forgive me.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Carburated Beauty

A car guy has an ancient Chevy in his garage, which he fixes up on the weekends. A car guy has a subscription to automotive magazines and can compare and contrast the 2010 Mustang to the 1967 Mustang. A car guy can diagnose engine troubles by ear and changes his own oil.

I am not a car guy. But I kind of am a car guy. It's a conundrum.

In college, I took a class that started off as Kinematics and somehow became Automotive Engineering. We learned the principles of four-stroke internal combustion engines and how to design cam profiles for different performance parameters. The term project was to develop a customizable gearbox. I didn't know how to drive stick, but I could design a manual transmission from camshaft to differential. Which, in the grand scheme of things, seems pretty backwards.

Having an old car to rebuild, like in that Autozone commercial, seems wonderful... but I wouldn't have the slightest idea where to begin. And so on.

Recently, I came across an article about the 1912 Bugatti Type 18, a Grand Prix car that raced in Le Mans, the Indy 500, and up Mont Ventoux. The description of its pros and cons and of its engineering development by Ettore Bugatti himself were a good read. The pictures, though.

I mean, the modern Bugatti is a stunning machine, but its ancestor was, well...

It's like listening to a love song in another language and knowing that it would be beautiful, if only you could understand the words.