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“Parkour Cars” – real-time autonomous vehicular acrobatics

September 26, 2014 Leave a comment

Nima Keivan’s research project is incredible. It involves an autonomous toy car that navigates through an array of obstacles, including loops and enormous jumps. It uses an open-source physics engine (Bullet) to project forward in time the result of taking multiple actions and uses the results to make the optimal move (e.g. what will happen if I turn left .5 degrees, or stay straight, or turn right by .5 degrees).

Learn more on the project page or check out the PDF for more details. Thanks to Jack Morrison of Replica Labs for the link.

“Change aversion” and Amazon’s solution to the renaming problem

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

If you’re like many people, you hate it when the user interface of a site changes. You’re accustomed to one thing when suddenly it switches.

Some people in the tech industry shrug off users’ complaints about this as “change aversion”. Christina Wodtke’s article,”User’s don’t hate change. They hate you“, refutes this belief and explains why users are justified in their frustration. Here’s a choice quote:

Users don’t hate change. Users hate change that doesn’t make their life better, but makes them have to relearn everything they knew.

I urge you to read the rest of the article as well; it lays out a compelling case for restraint on the part of developers, and sets a high bar for the benefit that a change should bring.

Still, sites will keep changing and some do a better job than others at informing you. Unlike the gratuitous tours and full screen popups that the article calls out, I found Amazon’s solution tasteful. They renamed a few items in their navigation bar, but rather than making the change wholesale, they left behind the old labels underneath the new ones. This allows you to find what you’re looking for more easily. Until you become accustomed to the new label and that one changes too.  Ahh, software.

Book review: “The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models”

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The Art of LEGO Design: Creative Ways to Build Amazing Models

by Jordan Schwartz

No Starch Press

http://www.nostarch.com/legodesign

The Art of LEGO Design cover

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of the book from No Starch Press.

While there are many books that feature amazing works of art using LEGO as a medium, few delve into the techniques and thought processes used by the builders. Jordan Schwartz’s “The Art of LEGO Design” tackles this subject in a remarkably successful way. Mr. Schwartz’s background as a designer employed by LEGO make him an authority on the subject. His work has been featured in some of the books I alluded to, including Beautiful LEGO.

The book starts with the assumption that you will not be building enormous models like those featured in a LEGOLAND park, and that the standard size 2×4 bricks are far too large to use as the basis of your models. He shows how there are some tremendously versatile, smaller pieces that allow you to create amazingly intricate scenes, and illustrates the use of pieces in unconventional ways. A few examples spring to mind:

  • p. 25 (Minifigure chapter): by using a Technic ball rather than a minifigure’s head under a helmet, the head can be posed at many more angles than would otherwise be possible.
  • p. 60 (Patterns & Motifs chapter): by arranging so-called “cheese slopes” in various configurations, you can create amazing mosaics and stained glass windows using shapes and angles that are very different from the standard blocky LEGO mosaic; see for instance Katie Walker’s “Flower Petal Study”
  • p. 85 (Texture chapter): by turning rubber tires inside out, you get a much different look and feel, which in some cases is more appropriate for the era being modeled
  • p. 249 (Science fiction chapter): in “The Paradise Syndrome“, the designer Keith Goldman uses minifigure hands stuck through the holes in the plant pieces to form yellow flowers. It’s a beautiful technique and one I never would have thought of.

Another valuable section in the book is that of composition. LEGO is an interesting medium in which to work because of its dual nature. On the one hand it is a physical medium, having depth, volume, and weight. On the other hand, it is primarily presented to the audience through photography. As such you can use the tricks of photography and cinematography to create stunning scenes that wouldn’t actually work or hold up if viewed in person. There are two striking examples of this in this chapter.

The first is the use of perspective in “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us“, by Tyler Clites. The scene is built at different scales to suggest an enormous sense of depth. In the image we are looking through the legs of one figure and see a confident man ready to duel. The legs through which we view the scene are built at a large scale. The figure is a standard minifigure. A few studs behind him is a house that is rendered only three studs wide, suggesting instead that it is many hundreds of feet away. In the far distance are objects made of just a few pieces, showing mountains and other landmarks. It is a brilliant composition, and Mr. Schwartz’s analysis of the scene goes into more depth on things that aspiring builder should learn from it. I’ve since found that there are groups on Flickr devoted to this technique, such as “LEGO Forced Perspective“.

The second example is David and Goliath by Nick Vás, which positions the Goliath character closer to the camera in order to make him appear enormous compared to David. This technique was used in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the hobbits appear tiny in some scenes; see TXFilmProfessor’s video for more details.

The “Art of LEGO Design” has some great practical advice for those looking to model creatures that exist in the real world – don’t start with the head or you’ll end up making the model far too large for minifigure scale. Conversely, for fantastical creatures that could exist at any scale like dragons, he recommends starting with the head before moving on to the rest of the body. He also shows clever ways of blending fabric elements from various LEGO sets in with the plastic bricks to create intriguing textures and styles. For instance, the model of Maleficent (p.147) uses capes to form the sides of the dragon’s mouth, and some sort of fabric for the wings. It’s a technique I would not have considered before reading this book.

The book covers some topics which I haven’t seen addressed before, namely how to create realistic (or fantastical) trees and foliage. He shows how one can interlock the prefabricated leaf pieces to form much lusher and more realistic trees, and how to use non-traditional pieces like Technic connectors and levers to form realistic trunks and branches.

I found this book a pleasure to read. The prose is well written, and the illustrations are of high quality and well chosen. The topics follow a logical progression from conception through implementation to photography and publicity. The interviews with various master builders are insightful and informative. If you are a fan of LEGO and aspire to improve your building skills, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

My two new blogs – Logic Fault and Mobile Last

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve started two new blogs to highlight two particular issues that irk me.

The first is Logic Fault, which deals with the sometimes amusing failures of computer algorithms, with an emphasis on recommendation algorithms (think Netflix movie suggestions). You can find that at logicfault.tumblr.com

The second is Mobile Last, which highlights problems I encounter while living a primarily mobile computing lifestyle (in my personal life, I rarely use a laptop or desktop, preferring to use my phone or tablet). That one is at mobilelast.tumblr.com

http://mobilelast.tumblr.com/post/96619628006/this-is-the-impetus-for-starting-this-blog-in-the

 

I want to keep this blog focused on longer form content and analysis, which is why I opted for these two tumblr sites for the more image heavy content. If there is a particular point that is relevant to this blog, particularly as it relates to user interfaces, I very well might post it to both, with the long text appearing here.

Lying with bar charts

September 8, 2014 Leave a comment

I found this image in the newspaper a few months ago

The main problem with this visualization is that doubling the value doubles the height AND width of the bone, making it look like a four-fold increase.

Moral of the story? Use fixed width bars and only vary the height. Sorry USA Today et al who create these garbage charts.

Categories: data Tags: , , ,

Link: IKEA’s use of 3D rendering in its catalogs

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

This blew my mind – almost all of the imagery in IKEA catalogs is computer generated.

The main rationale for switching from traditional photography to 3D rendering:

The IKEA team didn’t feel there was anything wrong with traditional photography, quality-wise. Like any company, they just wanted to make things easier for the team to work on – to make the process simpler, cheaper and faster. With traditional photography, you need to have prototype furniture being built in different parts of the world shipped over so it can be photographed. Everything needs to be there on time and it can be logistically difficult, expensive and not that environmental. Then if there are changes everything needs to be re-shot. With CG re-creations of pieces, it removes a lot of this difficulty. However to start with, Martin says, “There was no vision initially to create entire rooms in CG, like we do now. We just wanted to create the individual pieces – the ones you see on white backgrounds on the web.”

There are some great images in the article showing how the same kitchen is rendered for different countries. You’ll notice that the faucet switches sides, the oven handle changes, and in one of the renders the refrigerator is removed completely.

The article also describes the technology stack that they use to render all of the images.
Thanks to Hacker News for the link.

Categories: link Tags: , , ,

Juking the stats – WordPress and social proof

August 28, 2014 Leave a comment
Sign that shows addition of established date to elevation to population

“Unnecessary Math” – via slaya771 on reddit http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/1d3zs9/unnecessary_math/

Everyone with a basic science education knows that you cannot add quantities whose units do not match; you cannot add population to elevation, for instance, as the picture shows.

This does not stop companies from doing something that’s arguably worse, as it’s harder to detect and call them on their BS.

Take WordPress.com. I use them as my blogging platform and I’m overall happy with them. WordPress allows you to customize your blog by inserting widgets. I have the “Follow Blog: Email Subscription” widget installed. Here is what it looks like to readers:

Email Subscription. Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. Join 220 other followers

Here is what readers who are not email subscribers saw

This number is a lie. In my stats page I can see the truth – there are really only 41 email subscribers. The rest are following me on Twitter. When I post on WordPress, it automatically sends a tweet with a link to the post.

Only 41 email subscribers, NOT 201.

Only 41 email subscribers, NOT 220.

WordPress adds my Twitter follower count to my email subscriber count, and then implies that all of them are following my blog via email. Read the wording again. “Join 220 other followers”, right above a text box for email address entry.

First, why would WordPress do this?

I see two main possibilities.

One, it’s an honest mistake. The backend system has some field for ‘followers’ which is always computed by summing up all the different follower types, and this field was inadvertently used rather than the email follower count. I tried to contact WordPress about this on Monday, August 25, 2014 but have not yet received a response.

The second possibility is that it’s deliberate. The subscriber count is a form of social proof, which lets readers gauge the quality of the site. My hypothesis is that WordPress has empirical evidence that a higher number of followers displayed in this widget leads to increased follow rate. You could imagine A/B experiments where some visitors see the true count, and the others see the value doubled, and measure the difference. Or conversely, take away the follower count from that text and see if the follow rate drops.

The second question is, why does it matter?

While it’s not as wrong as adding elevation to population, as the image that started this post shows, it’s still wrong. The units are right in the sense that you are adding counts of people to counts of people. But all followers are not created equal. People could follow me on Twitter for any number of reasons, while not caring at all about my blog. Conversely, people who choose to explicitly sign up for email notifications of new posts are showing a drastically different level of intent. To call them both followers and to insert them in a widget that purports to show email subscribers is disingenuous.

Fortunately the widget has an option to disable the follower count altogether, and from now on I am going to do just that.

Categories: data Tags: , , , ,