A question of balance, part 4

So here’s where all of this has been leading. When we look at how humans balance physically, we see at least four completely separate systems, all working together. Only one, the vestibular system. seems primarily focused on balance itself. The others — vision, proprioception and foot sensation — are used for other important purposes. But they got pulled in because balance is so important in a biped.

Given the importance of emotional balance, I’ll bet there are multiple subsystems at work, all contributing to our ability to concentrate, to focus, to remain on an even keel, to not react rashly in difficult or dangerous situations.

So maybe, if we start to look at it this way, we can eventually find separate mental subsystems, each with its own unique mechanism, that work together to help us maintain our mental balance.

If we can identify them, and understand better how each one works, then maybe we can strengthen them better, just as understanding the nature of vision or proprioception can help us find ways to improve or exercise those senses.

A question of balance, part 3

For centuries many cultures have studied variations on what is sometimes referred to as “mindfulness”. There are many forms of meditation and ritual practices which aim to increase our ability to, as Ram Das put it so eloquently, “Be here now”.

When we are tired, distracted, overwhelmed, our mind tends to go around in circles, darting from one place to the next, obsessing over what some person said to us last week, or that email we never returned, or a bill we haven’t payed. Lots of negative energy, buzzing around in our head like a swarm of locusts.

Practices that aim to increase mindfulness work to replace those useless and self-defeating thoughts with a calm focus on the present — on being here in this moment, breathing, aware, alive to the present.

As with any form of exercise, results appear only gradually over time. But exercise is not the same as knowledge. After all, we can become physically fit without knowing much about anatomy or biology.

So rather than talk about how to do such exercises, suppose we talk instead about how they work. What is the mechanism in our mind that we are training when we engage in mindful meditation? What psychic muscle, precisely, is becoming stronger?

To be continued…

A question of balance, part 2

Have you ever had one of those moments when you got mad and hit your limit, crossed over the line, completely lost it?

Maybe you were having a discussion that turned unexpectedly into an argument, maybe somebody made a remark and you suddenly felt defensive. Maybe some passive-aggressive person just managed to push your buttons.

In any case, the result is the same — blowing one’s stack, flipping one’s lid, going postal. In the calm reflection of hindsight, we usually wish we had not had such an extreme reaction, whatever the provocation. Of course by then it is too late.

In some sense such reactions are a result of losing one’s psychic balance. Your emotional center has suddenly been yanked in some unexpected direction, and you find yourself flailing, the niceties of civilized discourse abandoned as you grab wildly at anything you can in your struggle to regain control.

This sounds a lot like losing your physical balance, doesn’t it? Hmm. More tomorrow.

A question of balance, part 1

We have plans to use that pressure sensitive mat I wrote about in a recent post to help people who may have trouble with balance.

Because of this, I’ve been learning a lot about how people balance on their feet — and why we don’t just fall over. It turns out there are at least four distinct sensing systems we use for this.

Our eyes give us continual feedback about which direction is up. Meanwhile, our inner ear (the vestibular system) gives us inertial feedback. Our sense of proprioception (roughly speaking, knowing the positions of your arms, legs, torso, etc., without needing to look) helps us to know whether our body is in balance. And finally, we use touch sensations in our toes and the bottoms of our soles to know how our weight is distributed over our feet.

These are completely separate biological systems, which function through wildly different mechanisms. And yet they all operate in concert to help us stay upright. Nature is very good at being redundant when it’s important.

As you get older, each of these systems starts to work less well. Yet because of all this redundancy, you have a good chance of keeping your balance at even a quite advanced age, if you exercise properly (but not if you don’t exercise properly).

I’ve been thinking about this question of how we balance, and I think it generalizes to other aspects of the human condition. More tomorrow.

Movie 43, revisited

I finally got around to seeing Movie 43, the puerile and unsettling sketch format comedy that opened last year to nearly universal hatred and condemnation (it scored 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, out of a possible 100%).

One thing that makes this unique film intriguing is its cast, which includes Anna Faris, Bobby Cannavale, Chloë Grace Moretz, Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Banks, Emma Stone, Greg Kinnear, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Kate Winslet, Kieran Culkin, Kristen Bell, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Richard Gere, Seann William Scott, Seth MacFarlane, Stephen Merchant and Uma Thurman, among others.

I found the movie to be deeply offensive, highly disturbing, and completely wonderful. On the surface it seems to be a study in tastelessness, pure and simple. But if you scratch that surface, it’s not simple at all.

The movie has as its real target our American concept of ourselves as a culture of freedom and personal empowerment. In nearly every sketch, the spotlight is turned to the lie behind that presumption. We are actually — like most cultures — highly constrained by rigidly defined social conventions.

Yet unlike, say, the British, in America we like to pretend that we do not have a culture of envy, of obsessive one-upmanship, of petty acquisitiveness, of defining ourselves against a rigorously defined norm. In short, we are hypocrites.

This film punctures those hypocrisies one at a time, with a knife that is simultaneously blunt and deadly sharp. Given the ugly and weirdly self-righteous “burn the witch” mania I witnessed in the last week or so against Brian Williams, it’s refreshing to see a movie pointing out what should be obvious: We are all liars, and we are all fools. Our culture demands it — no, requires it.

How could such a film not be universally hated?

Happy Valentine’s Day. 🙂

Precambrian Steampunk

Today I’ve been happily designing creatures for an alternate universe, to be experienced by people in shared virtual reality. This world is populated by mysterious mechanical creatures — possibly vehicles or robots — that are eerily reminiscent of the exotic denizens of our own world’s Precambrian explosion.

It just seemed to me that it might be a good idea to mash-up the visual tropes of Steampunk and the Precambrian era, both of which speak to our collective fascination with time and alternate worlds.

Below is a screen capture of an animated creature I made today. I call her Diana.

The room is broken

My friend Ken Birdwell at Valve Software told me the other day about the results of an experiment in which they mapped their VR system to the Valve offices. In VR, you could be in the same room you were actually in.

Which seems kind of pointless until you add the power-ups. For example, they added a zooming feature. Using this, you could zoom out, and the entire building would shrink around you. Then you could zoom into some other part of the building. This was also the basic mode of travel in our Pad zoomable user interface, a paradigm which has in recent years been borrowed by certain on-line maps.

Ken told me that he thought this was a neat effect, but that he didn’t give it much thought until sometime after he had emerged from the VR experience. He was sitting across the table from a colleague later that day, and they were discussing something that was happening elsewhere in the building.

Ken says that without really thinking about it, he tried to zoom out, so he could then zoom into the place they were talking about. When this did not work, his very first thought was “Oh no, the room is broken”.

Unique option for image search

When I do a search on Google for, say, a painting of a girl with a book (search words: painting girl book), I get a lot of duplicates.

By “duplicates” I don’t mean the same photo, but rather different photos of the same painting.

Why is there no search mode that shows one representative photo of each unique subject? After all, people are rarely searching for a particular photograph of something. They are much more likely to be looking for a particular thing, rather than a particular image of that thing.

I don’t think this would be very difficult to implement. For many items, including paintings, answering the question “Do these two images represent the same thing?” seems well within today’s technology. It’s a task that, for example, David Lowe’s SIFT transform could easily handle.

The future of travel

In response to yesterday’s post, J. Peterson raised the interesting question of whether we will all start to travel to other places via Virtual Reality, rather than with our physical bodies.

Speaking as somebody who just flew back from the West Coast (and had my flight unexpectedly delayed till the next day due to weather), I can certainly sympathize with anyone who would like to figure out how to avoid air travel.

As it happens, on my flight out to Seattle I was sitting next to someone who had never tried VR. So I took out my GearVR and gave her a brief virtual tour of Venice. Sitting there in her airplane seat, she started looking all around as she traveled on a virtual gondola, at the beautiful buildings, the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, and all the other wondrous sites of old Venezia.

It was kind of funny when you think about it: I was watching someone go on a virtual journey in the middle of a real one.

We then got into a discussion about whether VR will lead to more physical travel or less. I argued that it will lead to more travel, based on the following observation: If you think back to the 1960s, before our modern information revolution, there was significantly less air travel (per capita) than there is now. Travel on an jet plane was sort of a special thing.

Now it is part of everyday life for millions of people. I think the argument can be made that this change was at least partly caused by the information revolution. People are now much more connected to each other across great distances, and know far more about other places, and so we all have much greater reason to travel.

Virtual dystopia, part 2

The government of the People’s Republic of China recently cracked down on the various internet back-channels that people had been using to get around governmental blocking of many web sites. Until quite recently, the government had looked the other way as people went about their business — sharing Google docs, watching Western TV shows, participating in chat rooms around the world.

But no longer, it seems. If your business in China had been depending on access to a shared Google doc, you may just be out of luck. Fortunately, this black-out only affects your on-line existence.

But in the hypothetical VR future we’ve been discussing, everything is on-line. Looking out at the world through your own eyes will require accessing the Cloud. Of course you are going to get a huge power-up from this access, and young people born into a world that gives such power to individuals will be unable to imagine having it any other way.

But it will also mean that a government that is trying to protect us from ourselves can simply make some things invisible. Even people can become invisible. If your actions or opinions make you too inconvenient, you might simply be “disappeared” — quite literally, nobody will be able to see you.

Entire buildings could similarly be disappeared from view.

Of course being invisible could also be a form of power. The government operative who wishes to pass by unnoticed can simply choose to go “off the grid”. That individual will be able to enter a room with perfect stealth — nobody will be aware of his or her presence.

Again, I’m not saying that these things will happen. I’m just saying that eventually they will become technologically feasible, which means we should probably be thinking about these issues now, rather than waiting until they are already upon us.