Thursday, April 28, 2016

PAX East 2016

This year's PAX East experience was not as stellar as our previous ones, because 1) we had to constantly supervise our toddler, 2) hubby was not in top gaming form and couldn't crush all opponents as he usually does, and 3) I got sick.

That said, on Saturday we did get Junior a sitter, and we settled down at Tabletop HQ for a few hours of board game time. We played a zombie game (forgot the title, but not recommended) and Istanbul, which was loads of fun! I think hubby got one for us at home.

Here are some photos:

Junior poses on his throne of horror, conveniently located right at the entrance of the event space

His subjects kneel before him in terror

Hubby gets to meet the YouTube stars he admires, as Junior practices his dead-eyed stare

We're supposed to hashtag this pic and post it to Instagram, but I forgot

This one made it to Ars Technica! 


As ever, the costumes were impressive, the crowds were insane, and the food was overpriced and unhealthy!

The unusual thing that happened this year was hubby threw a hissy fit and walked out of a D&D session that he signed up for, because apparently they mess up the logistics every year and this year he'd had enough. He received some sort of rare pin as an apology later on from the session planners.

Anyway, now that I've done this for three years in a row, I can confidently share the following:

PAX pro tip 1: Bring your own drinks and food!
PAX pro tip 2: Wear comfortable shoes for all the walking!
PAX pro tip 3: Make friends! This is a safe space for nerds and geeks!

TL;DR: PAX East is always a recommended experience for game enthusiasts!

This post brought to you by the high-protein, low-carb diet recommended by Tim Ferris! It works, but are you prepared for the foul farts?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Language Development Study at Harvard

Fig.1: Recruitment poster for study
ABSTRACT

Background: Last week, Junior and I participated in a Language Development Study. The study's goal: to check for the correlation between vocabulary and speed of learning new words. The study's subjects: babies ages 16 months to 2 years old, and their parental unit/s.

Methods: The study was divided into three parts: a game between the research assistant (RA) and the subject; the parent reading a story and teaching a new word to the subject; and the subject watching videos and identifying the correct object via voice prompts. The primary endpoint was the subject's ability to accurately learn new words.

Results: Junior learned the new words, but only after two or three errors.

Conclusions: We got a First 100 Words book out of the deal, so now he'll learn even more words! Also, a baby's having a large vocabulary (i.e. 30+ single words) may be predictive of the ability to quickly learn new words.

INTRODUCTION

Junior has been contributing to science from a very young age. So far, he has been a very obliging control infant in a longitudinal allergy study at Healing Peanuts, Inc., and a grumpy and unwilling one for a baby MEG (magnetoencephalography) study, also at HPI. His latest adventure took him across the river, to my old stomping grounds of Harvard Square. This study promised to be more interactive, if less remunerative.

The Language Development Study is conducted by the Rowe Lab, which focuses on "the role of social interactions in children’s cognitive development, primarily language and literacy development from birth to age five." (source: Rowe Lab website) Their offices are large and equipped with child toys and furniture, and the RAs who worked with us were clearly very experienced at working with kids. I had to stop Junior several times from wandering off to follow one of the RAs or from checking out all the toys stashed in various offices.

METHODS

Patient population

Babies ages 16-24 months are recruited for the study. They must be from households that speak English at least 50% of the time. 

Study Management

At the beginning of the study, parents complete a 10-minute questionnaire about demographic information, words known by their baby, and an intriguing set of questions about which quality they valued more in children (e.g. independence versus respect for elders, being considerate versus being well-behaved). During this time, the RAs establish rapport with the baby by pointing out objects in the room such as the animal stickers on the wall -- testing the subject's vocabulary in the process.

Then the study proper begins, composed of three parts. Part 1A consists of a game between an RA and the child. The RA hides a sticker under one of three different-colored cups, and the subject must choose the correct cup to retrieve the prize. In Part 1B, the RA literally adds another layer to the game by covering the cups in a scarf, then taking it off before asking the subject to select the right cup. Meanwhile, the other RA records the proceedings in another room.

During Part 2, the RA leaves after giving the parent a book with instructions to read it to the baby ("In English, please, so we understand," I was told), and to teach the little one a new word. It's a made-up word attached to a picture of Jigglypuff, although it would have been extremely entertaining to teach Junior how to say the Pokemon's actual name. I suspect "jee-puh" is what would have resulted.

Anyway, Part 2 takes 8 minutes, the book has no words so the parent has to explain the story on the fly, and the whole thing is also recorded.

In Part 3A, the dyad is taken to another room with a chair and a wall TV mounted with a webcam. The parent puts on shades so as not to lead the baby's gaze with his/her own. The baby, on the parent's lap, looks at the screen and is shown two objects. A voice prompts the baby to look at one of the objects, and accuracy is tracked using eye movements.

After 5 minutes of video, Part 3B begins. Both RAs come in to introduce two new objects to the subject using oddly-shaped stuffed toys. One is "Pimo" and the other is "Moku," and both come out of a box one at a time. After several repeated showings of each object, a long board with five stuffed toys velcroed to it -- including a Pimo and a Moku -- is shown to the subject, who is asked to pick out one of the new objects s/he has just been taught about, and to hand it to the RA. This continues until the baby consistently matches the object and the name.

Part 3C is the same as 3A, but with Pimo and Moku added to the video. This last part only takes 2 minutes.

Statistical Analysis

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

RESULTS

In Part 1A, Junior was able to find the sticker 2 times out of 4 (50%). In Part 1B, the sticker was also found twice during 4 attempts (50%).

In Part 2, Junior demonstrated his learning of the new word by speaking it after prompting from the RA.

Quantitative results for Parts 3A and C are unavailable at this time (since I had my eyes covered), but both RAs were very impressed by Junior's ability to sit still during the entire run of both videos.

For Part 3B, Junior was able to pick out Pimo and Moku after 2 failed attempts.

DISCUSSION

Junior came into the study with a large vocabulary, which I deduced from the initial questionnaire that asked me to check the boxes next to words he already knew. He was able to learn new words after a few errors, which seems indicative of a positive correlation between size of vocabulary and speed at learning new words.

More importantly, both RAs gushed that Junior was the absolute best participant they've had so far, and could he please come back, which morally obligated me to take some of their fliers and post it in my building to help their recruitment efforts.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This work was supported in part by the MBTA, which took us to the test site and this time did not subject us to elevators that smelled of pee.

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES

None.

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TL;DR: Junior and I had a lot of fun at the Language Development Study!

This post brought to you by perfect spring weather!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Movie review: Zootopia (2016)

Zootopia is a gorgeously-animated, well-written story about Judy Hopps, a bunny determined to fulfill her dream of being a cop in the big city. The excellent voice acting, larger thematic elements, and the freaking adorable animals make this a great movie to watch with or without your kiddies.

In brief, the peaceful coexistence of predator and prey animals in Zootopia is shaken by a rash of predator disappearances. Thanks to the mayor’s Inclusivity Initiative, Judy – the city’s first bunny cop – gets a chance (eventually) to participate in the search. It’s easy to see why the force doesn’t have any bunnies: most of the officers are enormous rhinos and similar large beasts, while the chief is an intimidating water buffalo. Meanwhile, Zootopia citizens run the gamut from giraffes to lemmings – all land animals. WE’RE MISSING SEA CREATURES IS WHAT I’M SAYING, WHERE MY TURTLES AT.

Oh, Finding Dory? Got it. I'll wait.

The best part about this film, apart from my correctly identifying Idris Elba and Shakira by voice alone (not that hard, true), is Jason Bateman’s portrayal of Nick Wilde, the fox. Nick is a smooth operator, unperturbed by anything, and neither his voice nor his face betrays any hint of anything he doesn’t wish to express. But he’s also not obnoxious or smug when he drops truth bombs to the naïve Judy. I admire a fox like that.

Actually, I lied. The best part about Zootopia is the scene at the DMV (RMV for Massachusetts folks). Every grownup in the theater was dying of laughter. Same for the Godfather tribute – we were in tears. I can’t decide which scene won my heart harder. I could watch clips of either one on a loop all day.

The sprawling city of Zootopia itself is stunning, with its multiple climate zones (e.g. desert, jungle, tundra) – much of which got showcased briefly or went unexplored entirely. I smell a se~quel!

Finally, every good hero deserves an equally good villain, and here Judy's enemy does not disappoint. Like Judy, the antagonist is more clever than you think.

TL;DR: Sweet and smart, like its lead. Recommended for all ages! 

This post brought to you by Junior sleeping until 6am this morning! It's a spring miracle!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Movie Review: The Boss (2016)

The Boss is an uneven comedy that coasts on the enormous goodwill earned by its star, Melissa McCarthy. It’s about the fall and rise of Michelle Darnell, a wealthy businesswoman with no family or personal connections. She's like a Tony Stark-Suze Orman combo minus the tech genius and philanthropy. Thanks to her former assistant Claire, played capably by Kristen Bell, Darnell gets back on her feet, overcomes her most persistent rival (Tyrion Lannister), and realizes the importance of family and friendship blah blah blah

Let's get right to it: the writing relies too heavily on McCarthy’s comedy powers, which are strong enough to distract on first viewing. Darnell is a broadly sketched-out stereotype of a business mogul, disdainful of the ordinary and hungry for profits. She drives the plot by persuading Claire, an excellent baker, to be her partner for her new brownie empire. For her brownie salespeople, she recruits girls through Claire’s daughter Rachel.

These are the best comedic segments of the movie, with a standout performance by Annie Mumolo (who co-wrote Bridesmaids) as Helen, the uptight mom who objects to Darnell’s…very existence, I think. The girls who play Darnell’s Darlings are adorable, even the fearsome giant Chrystal (Eva Peterson).

Another cute part of the film is the romance between Claire and her coworker Mike (Tyler Labine), a late addition to the party who helps make it funnier. The movie also makes it clear that being a single mom is tough, and a nursing bra (!) is among the things that bring that point across.

Finally, the bits between Darnell and the women who were there for her – Sister Aluminata (Margo Martindale) in her youth and Ida Marquette (Kathy Bates) who served as her mentor in business – are touching and help underline how and why Darnell became so successful in her work but not her personal life.

That said, The Boss has a lot of weaknesses. What don’t work are: 1) Peter Dinklage’s weird antagonist character Renault/Ron and his equally odd assistant – the villain needs to equal the hero, and Ron is just a lunatic; 2) Cecily Strong as Claire’s new boss – I’m a fan of the woman, but so far only Kristen Wiig has successfully pulled off Super Awkward Awful Person at Work (see Knocked Up); 3) the teeth whitening sketch – cut it in half and then later let us know why Tito bailed! I love Tito!

Overall, it’s an okay movie that could’ve used better writing rather than letting its star do the heavy lifting. I was hoping for something as awesome as Spy, but hey, Ghostbusters is coming up, and I’m sure that’ll deliver!

Bonus: Here's a Google Autosearch interview of Bell and McCarthy. You're welcome!

TL;DR: Rent it or just watch the trailers for all the funny bits. 

 This post brought to you by April showers!

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)