Field of Science

Point-light walkers

By far the best point-light walker demonstration I've seen is at I'm classifying this as an illusion (see post label) because, of course, point-light walkers aren't really walking people -- they are just a few white dots moving around the screen. Comparing the male and female versions is particularly fun if you've ever wondered what exactly it is that makes for a stereotypical male or female stride.

It also appears that there is an experiment you can participate in if you want to help with this kind of research.

Fair Use & FedEx

And now for something completely different:One private citizen's trials and travails trying to convince FedEx to print posters.

I have wanted a map of Hong Kong on my wall for some time. The Survey & Mapping office of the Hong Kong government helpfully provides some free maps for public use on their website. You will notice how the website helpfully includes a "free maps"logo, along with a copyright notice forbidding only commercial use of the map. Presumably they thought this was a good way of providing some publicity for the Special Administrative District.

They did not take into account FedEx Office. I put this map on a USB stick and went to the FedEx Office at Government Center to have it printed. The manager there refused to print it as I didn't have proof of copyright ownership. I showed him the website (particularly where it says "free maps"). He said the fact that the map is free for public use was irrelevant; he needed a signed document from the copyright owner (the government of Hong Kong) stating that I, personally, had the right to print off the map.

His explanation for his refusal was simple: "I can't get between me and the copyright holder." I pointed out that he was getting between me -- who wants to print the map -- and the copyright owner -- who also wants me to print the map. He repeated that even so, he "can't get between me and the copyright holder." This was just repetition, so I pointed out again that the map is clearly labeled for public use. He said that was just "he said/she said" business; what he needed was a signed document.

I'm curious what he would do with a signed document in Chinese, and whether he would require a notarized translation. I realized as I was leaving that at the beginning when the manager was trying to establish whether I had the right to print the map, he had asked me if I was a member of the organization that made the map -- that is the Hong Kong government. I'm curious what would have happened if I had said yes.

The "copyright waiver"

This is not the 1st time that I've had a run-in with the copyright police at FedEx. Last year the Palo Alto FedEx refused to print a poster that I was supposed to present at a conference at Stanford. I study story comprehension in small children, and a common practice is to use stories about familiar characters. In this case, I had stories about Dora the Explorer and a few other cartoon characters. Because my poster showed an example of one of the pictures that we had drawn to go with the stories, FedEx initially refused to print the poster, saying that it violated copyright.

After a long discussion about fair use and noncommercial uses, one of the employees remembered that they have a “copyright release” form that they can use in these circumstances. Unfortunately, they couldn't find any blank copies. One enterprising employee simply wrote the words “copyright release” on a piece of paper and asked me to sign that piece of paper.

I wasn't sure about the wisdom of signing and essentially blank piece of paper (you can see a photo of it on the right), so they came up with another plan, which was to whiteout all the writing on a previously filled out form, which they then copied (not waiting for the whiteout to dry and getting white out all over their copier in the process) and which I signed. Then they printed my poster and I went on to have an otherwise successful conference.

Copyright and FedEx

Clearly somebody has instilled the Fear of the Lord into the  employees at FedEx with regards to copyright infringement. FedEx is understandably concerned about their liability, since unlike me, they have actual assets. I also realize that FedEx may not have the resources to have somebody on staff who has been adequately trained to deal with copyright issues ... but in that case, it suggests that maybe they do not have the resources to run a print shop. After all, it is not like they are not making determinations now. They are just doing it randomly and incorrectly.

Are you a Red Sox or Yankees fan?

If so, a colleague has a short survey for you. It seems she is trying to get together as much data as possible for a talk next week. Apparently there is also an opportunity to win a $50 gift card, though my motivation for participating was in order to help out with some interesting research.


Many people are familiar with Zeno's paradox, though probably not in the form presented by XKCD:

(If you aren't familiar with it or need a refresher, just follow the link above.)

Perhaps this is widely known, but I only recently discovered what the point of Zeno's paradox was: he was trying to prove that motion is impossible. Nothing ever moves and nothing ever changes.

This probably sounds absurd, but it was the basis of a philosophical school of which Zeno was part. Zeno created a number of paradoxes, all of which were meant to demonstrate that if the idea that nothing ever moves or changes is absurd, well then it is no more absurd than the idea that things do move and do change. If motion was possible, you would end up, for instance, with Zeno's never-ending race.

This is just another demonstration that many famous philosophical ideas are often remembered now for reasons very different from the reason for which they were first put forth.

(Insight gleaned from Anthony Gottlieb's excellent The Dream of Reason).

Color illusion -- too cool to believe

By far the most striking visual illusion I've ever seen. A little bit of color after-effect turns a black-and-white photograph into a vivid color photograph. You may have to do it a few times to convince yourself it is real.

Results: Replication in Psychology

My paper with Adena Schachner on replication in psychology is now published. The paper contains 3 main sections: a reasonably thorough literature review on replication rates in psychology, a proposal as to how to improve replication rates (primarily through tracking replication rates), and the results of a survey of psychologists on replication practices (many thanks to all who participated). The results of the survey was that while not nearly enough replications are attempted, there are actually more being attempted than we had guessed (or than many of our colleagues that we discussed this project with had guessed).
This paper is part of a larger collection of papers on reimagining the publication and review process, and is more of those papers are printed, I plan to discuss at least some of them.

Pilot data

I am back from a long semi-silence.I have been trying to finish up a number of projects, which gives me less time to write. Speaking of…

One of the focuses of my work is figuring out how children learn the meaning of verbs. This is made more complicated by the fact that we don't actually have completely solid and uncontroversial definitions of verbs. If we don't know what verbs mean, how can we tell when a child has successfully learned them?

I am working on a large scale project to get better definitions of verbs. We are developing many different tasks, each of which gets at one specific aspect of meaning that is thought to be important for at least some verbs. The traditional method would be to have skilled linguists go through verbs one at a time and consult their own intuitions, and in fact a lot of very good work has been done this way (e.g., Jackendoff's Semantic Structures, among many others). However, there are certain advantages to having this work done by a larger number of people who are naïve to linguistic theory, not the least of which is that there are a very large number of verbs, and one person can't get through them all in any reasonable speed. The one disadvantage of working with naïve participants is that they do not understand linguistic 
terminology, so you have to find some other way to explain the task.

I have been developing some such tasks, and I could really use some pilot data to see how well they are working. If you have a little time to spare, I would really appreciate the help. There are 3 in particular I am currently working on:

There is a comments box at the end where you can leave any feedback and mention anything you noticed or which you found confusing. I do need data on all three, so please don't everyone just do the first one. 

Fair warning: These tasks take a bit longer than the ones on my website. My guess is that they will take 20-30 minutes each, but that is a wild guess. If somebody does one and wants to leave a comment about how long it took, that would be helpful for me and also for others who might want to do it.

Many thanks.