Mars spacecraft… squared by Google

I recently discovered Google Squared, an interesting combination of web search and automated information extraction. Actually, it reminds me strongly of the strictly formatted report we had to write in 6th grade English class on frogs. You had to draw a square chart and then label the rows with different kinds of information about frogs, like how they reproduce, what kind of food they eat, and where they live. You then labeled the columns with different information sources, like “Encyclopedia Britannica”, and then you filled in each square with what source X reported about property Y. You then used this chart to write the report itself. This was supposed to teach you how to do research, in the “look up information” sense of the word.

With Google Squared, though, the system figures out what the rows should be (different examples of the category you searched on) and what the columns should be (different properties of each of the examples). It’s fascinating, although you immediately run up against the limitations of current state-of-the-art IE (Information Extraction) technology.

Exhibit A: mars spacecraft

This produces a nice collection of Mars spacecraft, with columns for “mass”, “launch vehicle”, and “launch date.” The first thing I wanted to do was sort by launch date. Unfortunately, the columns aren’t sortable. You can however add your own columns, so I tried “cost”. This looked mostly reasonable, except that “Phoenix” was cited as $350M, “Mars Phoenix Lander” was $420M, Mariner was $2.6 (dollars?), and the Spirit rover was $10,000 (if only!). However, a really neat feature is that each factoid reports its source if you hover over it, and you can click to see other candidate values as well as a confidence rating. All of the values under “cost” were rated low-confidence, even the ones that looked accurate to me.

Exhibit B: science fiction authors

This yielded a combination of books and authors, with the auto-chosen columns being “publisher”, “language”, and “Australia” (?!). Specifying “science fiction author” yields the same list of items, but with different columns: “publisher”, “ISBN”, and “language”.

Exhibit C: ballroom dance

This yielded an excellent list of ballroom dances. Unfortunately, the columns (“typical instrument”, “mainstream popular” (?), and “stylistic origins”) were almost entirely unpopulated with data. I tried to add “tempo”, but this yielded a result for tango only (33 mpm). That one could definitely use work!

In summary, I’d say it’s a very cool idea (and fun to play with), but still definitely at the beta level. Doing a good job of information extraction from unrestricted text (the Web) is a really hard task. Keep at it, Google!

The Reverse Corte in Waltz

This step recently came up in a waltz class I am taking with the Caltech Ballroom Dance Club. It’s a really lovely and simple step that ends in the unusual position (for waltz) of the follower outside partner.

  1. Leader (backing): right foot back, begin to turn to the left
    Follower: left foot forward, turning to the left
  2. Leader: close left foot to right, continuing to complete 3/8 turn to the left
    Follower: right foot to side, continuing to turn and rise
  3. Leader: shift weight to right, lowering at the end of the beat
    Follower: close right foot to left, lowering at the end of the beat (outside partner)

(More nitty-gritty details for those so inclined.)
Other than in step one, there isn’t very much actual motion. (In fact, it’s almost more of a hesitation with turn, in my opinion.) But that lack of progression leaves a lot of room for some beautiful swaying and shaping. The first step can have some contra-body movement, in which the couple’s upper bodies turn slightly to the left (against the natural slight motion to the right otherwise implied by this step). Then steps 2 and 3 can be stretched out, with a slow, lovely rotation (of the upper bodies) to the left as the couple floats upward and then settles (late) on the end of 3.

It turns out that this step is part of the Bronze syllabus for International Waltz. Despite, well, fifteen years of dancing, I don’t consciously remember ever encountering it before. I’m very glad to add it to my repertoire!

Note: in my opinion, while following this step is a breeze (and great fun!), leading it is significantly more difficult. The leader’s first step backward and then closing while rotating 3/8 and leading the follower’s rotation is a challenge to both balance and coordination. However, it’s a beautiful, compact yet (optionally) showy step, and it flows very nicely into a back whisk. Enjoy!

P.S. Art by Parviz Yashar.

How to connect with your partner (properly)

This is basic stuff. Really basic stuff. Something I’ve probably heard a hundred times, phrased in different ways. But today, in my weekly Intermediate Foxtrot class at Caltech, I think I finally learned something about correct posture and connection, in the sense of converting the words into body stance and body memory. Here’s the idea:

When dancing a Standard dance like foxtrot (or waltz or quickstep), you have connection through your arms (frame), but more importantly, you connect with your torsos, slightly offset so that the right sides of the fronts of your torsos are touching. Because it is difficult (at first) to try to move with another person that close to you, it is common for the follower to arch her back, trying to maintain the ribcage-to-ribcage connection while still getting her legs out of the way as the leader moves forward. I’d been told by one dance instructor to imagine that my body hinged at the breastbone, and that my legs were long extensions behind me — I think this just encouraged me to arch my back more, to maintain that rib-high connection. But in my current class, the instructor showed me that a better connection point is a bit lower, which permits you to keep your pelvis straight (not rolled forward as you arch your back) and permits your upper body to achieve that gorgeous lean-out — ironically, by arching the back less, you create the illusion of it arching more. This also takes a lot of pressure off of your back. She also emphasizes a lot of extension upwards, maintaining a strong straight line up through your spine.

The picture at right (from was the best example I could find by googling (too bad it’s low-res). But looking at it now, it seems obvious; her pelvis is totally straight, and it’s just her shoulders and her head that are titled back. Not that this is easy to do (the head is heavier than you expect!), but at least it doesn’t hurt your back!

I have been working on this for the past few classes, and today it actually seemed to be working. I left class in the usual overwhelmingly positive mood it gives me, and with the added bonus that my lower back didn’t ache at all. I’ve gotten used to it being a little achey after a good bit of Standard dancing, mainly because I couldn’t figure out how to dance without arching my back. But today I must have finally done it!