Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vivitar Mariner

The Feeling Negative site has an ongoing traveling camera project: people send a camera to each other in turn, and every recipient takes a roll of film with it before sending it on. It's a fun idea, if somewhat slow as each stop takes a few weeks at least and the participants are spread out over the world.

The camera stopped by here in Osaka last month. I opened the very light cardboard box to find this:

Vivitar Mariner

The Vivitar Mariner. Fifty grams of plasticky 35mm goodness.

The Travelling Camera is a film project so I thought it fitting to take this shot with film too. I used the Pentax 67 with 90mm lens; it doesn't focus very closely so I've had to crop this quite a lot. I really should get a set of extension tubes. The film is Ektar 100, a recent negative film from Kodak with strong colors and very fine grain; the results are akin to slide film, but with much better dynamic range.

Last year I tried a Fuji single-use camera on a day-trip to Kobe. It was simple and dingy but a lot of fun to use. I thought about having a camera just like it but reusable, so you wouldn't have to send it off for development just to change film. The Vivitar Mariner is exactly that camera. I'm not the only one who thinks it's a good idea, apparently, as prices for a used one - a used low-quality 35mm film camera, note - can reach 100 US dollars or more, though more normal prices seem to be around 15-30 Euro.

Early Bird

When I step out on my way to work the morning rush is already underway, and a fair a of office workers are bustling to reach the office early.

The resolution and contrast isn't exactly jumping off the page here. Compare to the medium-format shot above; cameras and lenses, and formats, really do matter a lot.

The complete Mariner has a water-proof enclosure - our one doesn't have it any more - but apart from that this is remarkably similar to the Fuji camera. There's no settable aperture or shutter speeds, and the cheap plastic lens is set at a fixed focus distance of a couple of meters. The body is a very lightweight plastic construction that doesn't exactly inspire confidence but is up to the task of keeping the film in and the light out.


Delivery trucks are still parked at the depot, waiting for the morning shift to get going.

The aperture and speed of the camera is about perfect for open shade like this when used with 400-speed film.

With a 400-speed film you get plenty of light for daylight shots. I would say it's even a little too bright, and if you want to use this on bright summer days you would probably want to try a 100-speed film instead. Of course, it's made for underwater use where the extra light makes sense. There's a flash built-in that takes a 1.5v pen battery, but I didn't try it so I have no idea what the results are like; my guess is that it's not much use beyond a meter or two.


Tosabori canal, Minami Senba, Osaka. On my way to work with just a tiny detour.

The lens is really wide, much wider than the viewfinder. On the positive side it's fun with a real wide-angle. Less positive is the distortion; the leftmost pillar here should really be straight, not bulging. Of course, the pillar wasn't even visible in the viewfinder. If you insist on decent image quality (and if you are, why are you using this camera?) you should probably crop to the viewfinder to avoid the worst distortions.

Using it is simple. You wind the film, open the front hatch and press the shutter. The film counter is only approximate, and the whole mechanism feels creaky and wobbly, but it works. The stated focal length is 28mm, but I wonder if that isn't a bit of a white lie. The finder may be 28mm, but the shot you get on film is a lot wider than what the finder was showing you. Really - I wouldn't be surprised if the focal length is closer to 21mm or something like that. A wider lens would make sense for underwater use of course. Forget using the viewfinder for precise composition, and you can stop worrying about not getting everything in your shot; even if you didn't even see it in the finder, chances are you still got it on film.

Sakaisuji Honmachi

Sakaisuji Honmachi station, Osaka.

This kind of light really is at or beyond the outer limit for this camera. It's mostly amazing that I got anything at all; at f/9 and 1/125 shutter speed the light here is about five to six stops too low.

With a lens this wide, and with absolutely no controls to set, you can use this camera completely unattended. Just point it vaguely in the general direction of the stuff you want to shoot, and you'll get it. Give it to a child and they'll be bound to more or less get what they wanted, and if it breaks it's cheap enough that it's no real loss.

Ishikiri Station

The train stops at Ishikiri station on the way to Kita Ikoma. This station always strikes me as a sunny, cheerful place for some reason. Should get off one day and take a look at the area.

You can see all the rest of the pictures from my morning commute in this set

Monday, October 25, 2010

When Life Hands You Test Tubes

So there I was, at the NEURO 2010 conference in Kobe last month. It's a really large conference, with thousands of attendees. Ten parallel seminar tracks over three days, and posters by the hundreds, on row after row of poster boards on two floors of the conference center. Two centers, really; the conference didn't fit in one building but was held at two adjacent locations.

NEURO 2010

One of the poster session rooms in early morning as I arrived to set up our poster. With multiple seminar tracks and many hundreds of posters, this kind of conference forces you to only look at the stuff that really interest you. Which means you miss out on all the non-relevant research. But it's the seemingly irrelevant stuff that tends to give you good, new ideas, that fire up your imagination, that make you try things you previously wouldn't have. I much prefer a smaller conference like SAB for precisely this reason.

With so many attendees from very lucrative medical and pharmaceutical fields, plenty of companies choose to sponsor the conference and exhibit their products. Mostly it's research-oriented stuff such as laboratory equipment, books, software and so on. There were several rows of companies touting various clinical and lab-oriented sciency stuff.

Now, disposable gloves or automated rat feeding stations aren't exactly going to set your heart racing, not when your attention is mostly on the seminars and presentations. So many companies had some small ploy to raise interest - they'd give away candy or pens, or they'd sponsor free coffee at the poster session or something like that.

One company, a manufacturer of PCR equipment and accessories, held a raffle with some decent prices; you gave them your business card in exchange for a chance to win an iPad, a Nintendo DS and other prices. And even if you didn't win a real price, you could still win a sample of their products, delivered after the conference. I didn't win any of the cool prices of course, but I did win a product sample. A friend of mine did too; I suspect most people at the raffle did.

The "sample" arrived last week. I got an email from the building management telling me I have a delivery and could I come down and pick it up?

Lottery Win! We Got Them Tubes

Two boxes of plastic test tubes for PCR use. Two large boxes. Three hundred 50ml tubes and three hundred 15ml ones. With caps. If this is a sample, I really wonder what a proper shipment looks like for this company. My friend got a similar shipment to his office in Tokyo, and one of our graduate students here got two boxes as well.

Test Tubes

A 50ml tube and an 15ml tube; for some reason the 15ml one is only marked up to 14ml. We gave away most of it to the bioscience department where they can make better use of the stuff, but I've kept one bag of each - 25 and 50 units - as a memento, and because, well, they seem too useful not to keep a few around.

So, what to do with the ones I kept? They are possibly useful for film and darkroom work I think. Could use them as fun, thematic shot glasses - any strongly colored drink would look cool. Molds for fruit jelly or home-made ice cream. Neat containers for small screws, bolts and nuts. They'd make a pretty cool spice rack, except that spices should be stored in the dark. Props, of course, whenever I want to take a sciency-looking picture. I'm open to suggestions.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Paris Aftermath: Cameras

I used three cameras while in France. I brought the Yashica Mat and my Xperia smartphone, and Ritsuko brought her Canon Demi, which I borrowed when she wasn't using it. The idea was, I'd use the Yashica for "real" pictures and the phone for throwaway snapshots.

The Yashica Mat is a consumer-grade medium-format TLR from the early 1980's. It's compact and light - good for travel - and I have taken it on trips a number of times. This this time I wish I had brought a different camera, though. First, it was always a fairly inexpensive camera so the lens is not the greatest one out there. It's prone to flare and distortion, so you'll want to avoid any direct light sources, having anything important near a corner of the image, or open the aperture beyond f/6.7 or so.

Kansai Airport

Kansai Airport departure hall. A large, airy atrium, like a huge greenhouse. I used Ilford HP5+ at iso 800 for this trip. This film, at this speed, gives a pleasing contrast without getting too grainy. As I need to stop down this lens quite a bit the speed helps a lot, and the relatively low resolution of this film is no problem since the lens isn't very high resolution either. Anyway, with this film and camera I get 20mp or so, more than enough for me.


Charles de Gaulle departure hall. Illustrates the design difference to Kansai airport quite nicely. CdG is all curvy tunnels, like an enormous digestive system ingesting passengers in one end and emitting airplanes out the other after extracting as much money as possible along the way. It's cool but I like Kansai better.

Also, the build quality of the Mat is not the greatest. One reason the camera is so light is because parts of the mechanism is made of plastic rather than metal. The film advance started to lock up intermittently last winter, and it's getting more frequent. During the Paris trip, it locked up about once every other roll. So far it's always unjammed when I jiggle and rattle the crank, then fire the shutter with the lens covered, but sooner or later it is going to seize up permanently. The frame spacing on the roll is also getting more and more erratic, with some frames almost bumping into each other. It seems the entire film winder mechanism is starting to wear out, and rebuilding it will probably be more expensive than the camera is worth.

This time I also wish I had brought a real tripod on the trip; I've lost several potential low-light images simply due to camera shake. Perhaps I should have brought the Pentax 67. Sure, it's a pain to carry in a backpack all day, but the chance of photographing in the museum would have been worth it alone. Ideally I should have some camera with the image quality of the Pentax, but fixed lens and easy to bring on trips.

This may sound like I'm trying to excuse a future camera purchase, and you may well be completely correct. I'm idly evaluating possible cameras right now, and may get a replacement travel camera next year or so.

Quartier Latin

Quartier Latin. Fuji PN400N color film. And yes, the film does make a difference. The color rendering, the grain, the amount of detail you capture all change quite a lot with the film you use. PN400 is comparatively expensive, but really - I only shoot enough film in a month to pay for a lunch and a beer at the most. I'd rather get better images than save a couple hundred yen on film.

The second camera is my Xperia X10. It's an Android smartphone by Sony Ericsson, and noted for having a not-horrible camera; that's one of the reasons I chose it. It's nominally 8mp, but as with any camera this size you can pretty much ignore the stated resolution. Just treat is as having around 2mp - you're not recording any more detail than that. The dynamic range is pretty low so you'll tend to have parts blown out or blocked up. Unfortunately the noise reduction is too heavy-handed and not adjustable, so everything takes on a too-smooth plastic appearance. Images from this camera actually improve when you add a bit of noise afterwards. If there's any one thing I wish for it's being able to set the level of noise removal myself.

But the images really are useful. For this kind of blog posts they're sufficient, if not exactly great. Small prints will look decent. In low light or scaled up the images start falling apart but that's asking a lot of such a tiny camera unit. I don't expect it to perform as well as a dedicated camera, and it does well enough in many cases.


Lunch at the Clos Luce. You can see how all detail is sort of smeared out, giving it a watercolor appearance. If S-E would only allow us to reduce the amount of noise removal this image could improve a lot. But it still looks much better than my earlier cellphone camera, and I would say it's close enough to be usable for a blog like this.

Manga Cafe

Manga cafe in Paris. When it gets dark, image quality suffers of course. But if my aim was simply to show that yes, there are manga cafes in Paris, then this shot would be more than enough.

The Canon Demi is a half-frame 35mm film camera. "Half-frame" means it records two vertical half-sized images in the same area normally used for one horizontal 35mm film frame. These cameras were popular in the 1960's and 70's, when color film became wide-spread. It was expensive to buy and develop color film at the time, so cramming two images in place of one was a way to economize. They may have been born from a sense of thrift, but some of them are still high quality cameras. The Olympus Pen F, for instance, had a lens mount instead of a fixed lens, and there were a number of high-quality lenses available for it. That one is still fairly popular, and used bodies and lenses can sell for quite respectable amounts of money.

We've been sort of led to believe that digital is leaps and bounds ahead of film, and in many ways it is true. Higher-end digital cameras sport high resolution, high-quality lenses and low-light sensitivity beyond anything normal film is capable of. But of course those are fairly big, expensive cameras, and most people use small compacts with tiny sensors and much less performance. The Canon Demi - a compact camera with a small film format - is better compared to them rather than a DSLR. And it does quite well in comparison. It's automatic, so it meters and sets shutter speed. You only need to control focus - it's scale focusing so you just guess the distance - and optionally the aperture. The meter is pretty accurate and the lens is decent, so the results are surprisingly good.

Clos Luce, restaurant

Lunchtime for the conference at the restaurant in the park of Clos Luce. Pretty good. It's film so there's plenty of dynamic range - I've increased contrast quite a bit from the original scan. Here's a larger version, and here's the size as scanned. There's a fair amount of detail in the image, and while it doesn't come anywhere near a serious camera it does about as well as a budget digital camera.

So, for travel I'd avoid the phone. It's really convenient for snapshots and it's always with me, but it's not acceptable as a single camera. It is a phone, not a camera, and it's just doesn't handle like a real one. You spend too much of your time staring at the screen controls rather than at your subject. The Yashica and the Canon are designed to be cameras from the ground up, with physical controls rather than menu items, laid out so they're easy to use without taking your eyes off the scene. The resulting image quality of the Canon Demi is also clearly better than the phone.

The Demi is fun, and it could work for travel if you're fine with lower-resolution, gritty street-life style images. You get 72 shots per roll, so you can snap away with abandon - treat it like a digital camera, really - without worrying about cost. But the lack of manual controls means you can't really use it at night, and the low resolution can make scenic images a bit disappointing.

Image quality-wise, the Yashica wins hands down. It's very pleasant to use; the controls are well laid out and I love the top-down view of the waist-level finder. It is a bit slow though, as you need to measure the light, set the shutter and aperture, use the loupe to focus, then frame the shot. It's the opposite of the Demi (or the Rollei 35) - great for contemplative shots, but too slow for fast-moving events. Still, it's the travel camera of choice for me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Summer Is Winding Down

Forget about work for a day. Have a slow, lazy Sunday barbecue, and enjoy the last of the summer sunshine.


Life at its best.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fake Evidence for Fun and Profit

In spring a year ago I wrote about a case where companies had abused the reduced postal rates intended for handicap-support organizations. They'd set up a fake disability support group to send out their advertisements, and welfare ministry officials gave them the needed certification knowing the group was fraudulent. A DPJ (then opposition) lawmaker seemed to be involved as well.

The police arrested the officials, as well as their head Atsuko Muraki, director general in the welfare ministry, last summer. Prosecutors and police claimed she was behind issuing the fake postal certificate. Testimony from her arrested subordinates supported this. So, high-level administrator abuses power to line own pockets. A nice and juicy story, and with political implications too. Of course, as MTC pointed out at the time, you do not arrest a high-ranking official unless you're really sure of your case. If you're wrong, the backlash would be absolutely fierce.

You know what's coming next, don't you: The case against Muraki came up in court, and in court the junior officials retracted their testimony. They denied that their boss had been involved in any way. During the interrogations (which, in Japan, is often not recorded and without a lawyer1) they first claimed she'd had nothing to do with it, but the prosecutors lied to them, saying the others had fingered her, and that unless their testimony agreed they'd get a much harsher sentence than the others. This kind of pressure is, needless to say, not legal. When this came to light the judge immediately discarded all suspicious testimony as evidence. Without it the case fell apart, and she was found innocent of any charges last month.

But wait - it gets better! Her acquittal not only made the Osaka Special Prosecutor unit look bad, it kicked up exactly the kind of anthill that MTC predicted last year. And amid the scurrying, one defence lawyer took a second look at a certain floppy disk with the certificate that the prosecutors had seized. This eagle-eyed lawyer realized that the date of last change of that file had been altered by the prosecutors. The date on the disk seemed to corroborate the prosecutors claims, but the original date (which had been noted in the initial documents) contradicted it; and the original date was in fact evidence of her innocence.

At this point, the excrement hit the fan. Pachyderm-scale excrement and an industrial fan, with lots of spreading power. Star prosecutor Tsunehiko Maeda admitted he had changed the date on the disk but claimed he'd done it by mistake. Later on - as the investigation proceeded - he admitted he'd done it deliberately, both to destroy unfavourable evidence that she was innocent and to create a better case for her guilt.

So, a prosecutor deliberately destroyed evidence of the accuseds innocence and faked evidence against. He even talks about this with his colleagues at one point, and four of them go to their bosses, unit chief Otsubo and his deputy Saga, in February and tell them about Maedas fake evidence. Appalled, Otsubo and Saga immediately order an internal investigation to get to the bottom of it -

Hahaha!! This is the Osaka prosecutors office - of course they didn't! What Otsubo and Saga did was order the four prosecutors to keep their mouths shut, and ordered Maeda to make up a good excuse and write an internal report, in case the tampering came to light. He had to rewrite the report a number of times, in fact, until Otsubo was satisfied the excuse was good enough. Cover up the whole thing in other words, and continue with the case pretending the evidence tampering hadn't happened and ignoring that their main suspect was innocent.

So here we have not just one rogue prosecutor, but seven, in a special investigative unit - supposedly the best of the best, handling the difficult, sensitive cases - all covering up illegal tampering with evidence. All knowing the testimonies are untrue. All of them realizing their suspect is in fact innocent, but still dead set on bringing her to trial and send her to prison for a crime she never did. All of them believing that their own careers and saving face of the Osaka prosecutor's office is worth imprisoning and destroying the life of an innocent person.

Would you believe that this is a single, isolated incident? No, me neither. And defendants in earlier cases with the same unit are already showing up, claiming they got railroaded in the same way, with witnesses pressured to change their stories to fit the prosecutors case. This piece of morbid entertainment may well go on all through next year or longer.

And neither should you expect this to be limited to Osaka. Prosecutors have a rotating system where they change workplace every few years, and the same people - and the same corrupt culture - moves between Osaka, Tokyo and the other large cities (rural districts aren't good enough for these people so the culture may well be different there). If there are no recent cases of prosecutors altering testimony and covering up evidence in Tokyo then it's probably because nobody has looked for it.

A final question is why they arrested her in the first case. It seems they never had any evidence on her, but went on a fishing expedition that came up empty. They had real suspects already, that really are guilty of the crime. They didn't need another suspect to solve the case. Again, you don't arrest people with power, money and friends in high places unless you're pretty sure of yourself; and yet, they did2.

My completely unfounded guess is that it's election related. Remember, at the time it seemed there was a connection to Muraki and to a DPJ diet member - an opposition party member - and this fraud was uncovered just as the national election campaign was heating up. An embattled LPD could really have used a juicy scandal to hang on the opposition. My guess is that some LDP member leaned on the prosecutors office - called in a few favours perhaps - to be aggressive and move very fast with this case, so that any connection to that DPJ member would be uncovered before the election. As it turned out there was no connection to find, the LDP lost the election, and the prosecutors found themselves stuck with an innocent high-level administrator they never should have arrested in the first place.

This is a disaster for the already tarnished image of the Japanese judicial system. It's worth noting that the witness tampering didn't really raise many eyebrows; that kind of misbehavior is pretty much expected already. People are already wary of reporting things or coming forward as witnesses on the fear of becoming accused of something. But the falsified evidence brings it to a different level. A trustworthy legal system - like reliable social security, defence, disaster management and medical systems - is fundamental for a stable society, and if it frays badly then everybody loses out.

#1 The heavy reliance on testimony and confessions over other forms of evidence seems to be a serious weakness of the Japanese judicial system, when you consider just how unreliable and malleable our memories are. Given enough time and pressure - and prosecutors have plenty, with suspects in jail for months at a time - you can make people believe they saw or did almost anything. This is nothing new; the conviction rate of over 99% is, let's say, improbable at best, and the unreliability of testimony is probably a major cause of that. There's a drive for mandatory recording of all interrogations in order to detect undue pressure and attempts to change statements to fit the case. The police and prosecutors are dead set against such recordings, presumably for the very same reason.

#2 Equality in the eyes of the law is an important principle and an admirable ideal. The reality - in Japan and everywhere else - is of course that we're not equal. A homeless, barely literate day labourer will not have the same treatment by the law as a high-level government official. Money buys you better lawyers and resources to do your own investigations; your web of contacts gives you access to all kinds of other resources and information (references to high-powered lawyers and other professionals for instance); and your education and professional life gives you knowledge of your rights, of the resources you can draw on, and - importantly - the social confidence to make use of all of this in the face of scolding officials. And officials, knowing all this, will be much gentler and more careful when the suspect is from the top of society rather than the bottom.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not So Social Scientists

Blogging is usually a welcome change of pace from work for me. But sometimes I need to do a lot of writing for work, and when I do, writing for fun will interfere. It becomes a distraction rather than a diversion. Don't expect a large volume of posts here for the next few weeks at least.

But there was a post recently about socially inept scientists that's pricked my interest. It's basically a good practical post about attending conferences if you're introverted or socially awkward. But one thing leapt out at me (and others commenting on this post):

A final point is to realize that scientists as a group tend to be more socially inept than other groups.

I don't think this is true, actually.

There are plenty of socially inept scientists out there of course. Insensitive bullies that trample everyone else in the pursuit of their career; desperately tongue-tied introverts that hide behind their desk in the far corner of the lab lest anyone actually approach them; oblivious monomaniacs that will drive people insane with their obsessions. People that look and act like their mom dressed them for their first day of middle school and haven't changed their style since. There are people that amaze you by being able to go through an entire workday without the guidance of an assistant or support person.

But the reason we remember these characters we meet in our labs is because they're not actually that common. They are the exception, not the rule. Most doctoral students and researchers you meet are normal, social people with a deep interest in their work. Don't confuse passion for your work with social ineptitude, by the way; it's two separate things. Inability to clearly explain your work is no sign of social clumsiness either. Explaining complex things for the non-expert is hard; that's why we need an entire separate profession - science writers and journalists - to do it well.

And consider of some other professions for a moment. Accountants. Industrial laundry workers. Payroll clerks. Chemical process engineers. Lawyers. Systems analysts. Vehicle pool maintenance personnel. Computer programmers. You will find withdrawn, introverted, awkward, rude and oblivious people in all of these jobs, and in many, many more. There's no reason to think that scientists have more people like that than any other group.

So where does this notion come from? There are a number of reasons, no doubt, but I think one reason is that science is a very social career. You collaborate with others - the lone scientist is a rare exception - and you interact with your collaborators more or less constantly. You may be teaching and mentoring students and PhD candidates, lead a team of researchers in a common project, or serve on committees and adminstrative posts. You change your workplace and coworkers often, and getting to know people and getting along with them is critical for finding people to work with and labs to work in.

And you are always, always presenting your results and yourself - in the form of journal papers, true, but also in conference presentations, seminars, workshops, meetings and informal discussions. Whenever you visit a lab, if only to meet one of their members, you're often expected to give a talk about your research. I've even heard of people mentioning where they're going on vacation, only to be roped in for a quick, informal three-hour seminar at a nearby university while they're in the neighbourhood.

Science is very social, so the scientists who aren't will tend to stick out. When you show some researcher on TV, you're asking them to take on the job of TV personality, and not everybody is up to the task. Every oddly dressed post-doc that stutters through an interview will reinforce the idea of the socially inept scientist. Accountants or meat packers are, on the other hand, very rarely asked to do any kind of public appearance. If they are introverted or socially clumsy nobody will notice. It's not that socially inept scientists are more common, but simply that they're more visible.

None of which matters of course. The image of the weird scientist will live on, together with the white coat, test tubes with multicolored liquids and all the other clichés of this profession. Oh well, it could be worse. At least I'm not an accountant:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Grunting Helps

You know how, in tennis, many players grunt or shout loudly as they hit the ball? People believe it gives the player an advantage. A couple of researchers have tested this and found that yes, it does give an advantage to the player.

Autumn Baseball

OK, so it's baseball, not tennis. I was just lucky to have any ball-hitting related picture at all.

They made a set of videos of a tennis player hitting a ball towards either side of the court. They showed them to research subjects, and asked them to decide as quickly as possible which direction the ball would go. Sometimes they played a brief noise just as the ball was hit on video, sometimes not. The results are clear: the subjects were slower to react and were wrong more often when the noise was played than when it was not. The difference was not large, but in professional sports very small advantages can make a real difference to the game.

Why would the noise make a difference? A common belief is that the noise blocks the sound of the racket hitting the ball. The racket sound would otherwise help the opposing player determine when and where the ball would arrive. Of course, most grunts really aren't loud enough to completely mask the ball-hitting sound, so a related idea is that the grunt diverts attention from the racket sound at the crucial moment.

They also tested the idea that the sound is actually diverting visual attention from the racket and ball. The grunt comes from a different place after all, and sound can certainly grab visual attention (pop a balloon behind somebody to see for yourself). They measured the eye movements of the subjects to see if the noise made any difference. But the eye movements didn't change, with or without the noise, so the sound wasn't grabbing visual attention away from the ball.

Grunts do seem to help tennis players, then, by distracting the opponent. Of course, it's possible grunting could also help the player directly, to help them focus and time their shot. People tend to grunt or scream in many sports, and we don't know if or how that helps them in those cases. The effectiveness of grunting during bathroom visits likewise remains an open question.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Paris III: The Conference

The point of this trip was the SAB conference. As I was mostly working, there wasn't much time for sightseeing. The conference was a total of five days, workshop included, from early morning until night. It was fun, certainly - it's perhaps my favourite conference - but conference rooms are not normally noted for their touristy appeal. But this conference was held at the Museum of Natural History, perhaps the coolest conference venue I've ever had the pleasure to visit. And we got free passes to all the main exhibits.

The Paris Museum of Natural History

This museum seems to explicitly allow cameras. My regret is that I didn't bring the Pentax 67 and a real tripod. Carrying it around for a week would have been a small price to pay for a better chance at scenes like this.

The SAB conference itself was good; it usually is. I attended the active sensing workshop which had a really good talk (and a related talk in the main conference) about how insects use visual flow not just for short-term navigation but also for elevation control. If insects try to keep the ground below moving at a constant speed they can regulate their speed, and start and land simply by changing the flying height, and they will automatically land if the wind grows too strong to fly in. Another good talk was about how weakly electric fish actually decide the location of obstacles based on potential changes along the electrical sense organs (here's their conference paper).

The Mosque Cafe

The coffee breaks were not at the museum, but at the Paris Mosque right next door at a restaurant and cafe. Again, it's a far cry from the usual table set up outside the conference rooms, and apparently cheaper as well.

My favourite talk at the conference was about a slime-mold inspired robot by Andrew Russell (he doesn't seem to have the robot on his website yet). It used active smell - send out a puff of alcohol, then sense the concentration around the robot - to find obstacles, and it also had a simple but ingenious way to create omnidirectional movement without having to deal with complex, expensive omnidirectional wheels. Exactly the kind of creative and slightly oddball research I hope to find at this conference.

There were a couple of fun papers on rat whiskers, how rats use them to sense their environment and how we could use them for robotics. The whiskers are not passive touch sensors; the rat constantly sweeps them about to feel not just the position and range of obstacles but also texture and other features of its environment. And the groups are of course building whisker-equipped robots to test their models in the real world. Makes me want to do the same.

The title Insectomorphic Robot Maneuvering on a Movable Ball says it all, really. If you have an insect-like robot, how can it climb onto a large ball, move about by rotating the ball with its legs, and then get off again? My reaction was, in order: "Heh. Fun." Followed by "Why on earth would you want to do this?" immediately silenced by "I would love to have a robot insect balancing on a ball! An entire robot circus! With steam-powered mechanical elephants!" But yes, there's a serious angle to this: Robots need to adapt to a dynamic world where their actions affect the world in turn, and getting onto and balancing on a large moveable ball is a neat, well-defined test problem. Still: I want my Arachnoid Acrobat Automatons!

My own talk, about our model of the early saccade generation system, was just a little abstract for this conference. We don't use a robot or any kind of real-life input yet, and the model itself is too computationally intensive to be immediately useful in robotics so we got a bit of criticism for that. Our aim is to understand the original biological system at this stage, rather than create an effective synthetic one. We were far from the only abstract paper of course, but it's the papers with tangible results that people really like in this conference. The papers I mention above are all practical in nature.

Here's the whole proceedings if you have institutional access (springer is pretty uptight about access rights). If not, there's plenty of other ways to find the papers of course.

Zamansky Tower

The workshops and the poster sessions were not at the museum, but at the Zamansky Tower in Marie Curie University. At the top floor. The view is quite breathtaking; you can see a shot from there in the first post from Paris.

Every conference gives you stuff. Not just the proceedings, but anything from notebooks to bags to pens to coffee mugs to keyrings... They come from the conference itself, from sponsors and from who-knows-where. We got the usual conference bag with a notebook, a flipbook and bookmark with all conference poster designs (most of them made by Jean Solé and really cool - see previous ones here), proceedings and data on a CD - and The Pen.


It's a pen. It's a laser pointer. It's a 2Gb USB memory. Almost everything a presenter needs.

The Pen is almost everything you need for a conference. There's never a laser pointer around when you need one, or if there is the batteries have just run out. And in case disaster strikes and you lose your laptop - could be dropped, get stolen, taken in customs, have coffee spilled all over it an so on - you need backups of your presentation1 and all your important travel information. With your data on a memory stick you can at least borrow somebody's laptop and give your talk.


The buffet at the poster sessions. Between the food and the view a lot of people had trouble focusing on the posters, and that included some of the poster presenters.

Museum of Natural History


Museum of Natural History

Whale skeleton. I think.

Clos Luce

Clos Luce, Amboise.

The last day of the conference was not in Paris but in Amboise a couple of hours away. Clos Luce is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last few years of his life, invited by some king or other. Today it's a museum and conference place. Very pleasant. We had a final session and the panel discussion at the mansion, followed by lunch.


Replica helicopter design by da Vinci. Not likely to fly anytime soon. As someone pointed out at the conference, if you want to become known as an inventor it certainly helps to be a world-famous artist first.

Les Caves Duhard

Les Caves Duhard.

We left the mansion in the afternoon for a wine cellar tour and wine tasting event at the nearby Les Caves Duhard. They're a wine wholesaler with a set of limestone tunnels to store wine. The tour is fun, and the wine tasting and dinner/snack was great. Various kinds of wines and plenty of cheeses, sausage, fruits and other stuff to enjoy with it.

Les Caves Duhard

Limestone wine cellars.

#1 A tip: save your Powerpoint or Openoffice file if you want, but also export the presentation as a PDF file. PDF viewers have a "presentation mode" that lets you show the PDF as a presentation. And since you have all graphics and all non-standard fonts and everything embedded in the file itself it is sure to work no matter what kind of computer you end up showing your presentation from. It's no fun to have half your text missing because you used a locale, font or character encoding that's not installed in the particular computer you use.

And if you have a poster, also print it out as a set of A3 or A4-sized tiles and stick in an envelope in your bag. If something happens to your poster you can still tile these on the poster board with thumb tacks. Not as neat as a real poster but much better than showing up empty-handed.