The first five seconds, revisited

I found Rhema’s comment on yesterday’s post very insightful. It seems quite plausible that it is the virtuous loop of instant high bandwidth feedback when meeting somebody in person that allows our brains to function at higher capacity, as we feel each other out in real time.

Which suggests a more refined version of my original question: Could we systematically add and subtract various aspects of “being there” to figure out which elements of meeting in person are the most important?

For example, perhaps we can separate people by a pane of glass, or have them interact through video of varying latency or resolution, or with varying sound fidelity, or with/without stereo depth, etc.

At some point we might discover a decisive dimension which holds the key, more than other dimensions, to the sense of “being there” when meeting somebody.

Of course, we still need to come up with an objective criterion: What question shall we ask, to understand how much our two participants were fully “present” in their mutual encounter?

I am open to suggestions!

The first five seconds

I attended a talk today at the AnthroTech MeetUp — a MeetUp that combines Anthropology and Technology — where the speakers were discussing the phenomenon of on-line dating. My favorite question from the audience was about the disparity between the profile someone presents on-line, and what happens when you meet them in person.

His very words, I believe, were “You often know what somebody is like in the first five seconds after you meet them in person.”

I then asked a follow-up question, which I posed as a research problem: “Would it be possible for an on-line experience to convey the information we somehow manage to absorb about a person in the first five seconds that we meet them in person?”

I think it’s an interesting research problem not only because it might produce a useful practical result, but because I am genuinely unsure whether such a thing would be possible. After all, we don’t really understand all of the factors that go into our ability to size up a person in just a few seconds. Is it some subtlety in their voice, their body language, their scent, the way their eyes move when we look at them?

Is it all of these things together, somehow processed by our brains below the level of consciousness, or is it something else that science has not yet identified?

I really have no idea. But wouldn’t it be interesting to try to figure it out?

The timeline of self

We all have a memory of our past. I’m sure you can summon up, after a little thought, a host of recollections on the order of “On this year/month/birthday here I was, and this is what I was doing.”

Of course the person we see in our memories is not exactly who we are now, but rather a somewhat related entity. If I were to meet my younger self from years ago, I suspect I might be startled by how much my earlier incarnation and I disagree about various things, as well as ways in which our tastes differ.

At some point it will be possible, through advanced computer technology, to create an ongoing in-depth map of the current state of one’s personality. As such techniques mature, it will be possible to measure and to chart the personality drift of a given person over the different times of their life.

I suspect that some people will turn out to have changed radically over time, whereas other will be seen to exhibit a remarkable lack of change through the years.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out which would be better.

Rules of decorum

For the last two days I have been subscribed to a discussion forum, something I generally don’t do. It wasn’t quite intentional — I wanted to attend a meeting of this professional community, so I joined up, and the default state is to receive an email whenever somebody posts.

I doubt I will stay in this forum, because I am getting far more emails than I am interested in getting, but meanwhile it is intriguing to witness the mechanics by which a community continually sorts itself out. Everybody who posts means well, but there are quite a few clashes between well-meaning newbies and indignant old pros.

I suspect some of these old pros don’t realize just how mean they sound, as they castigate some unfortunate newbie for breaking some rule of decorum or other. Apparently “Don’t be gratuitously insulting to well intentioned newcomers who don’t know any better” is not one of those rules of decorum.

Imagine a world where such a rule was built into every community. I wouldn’t mind living in that world for a while. 🙂

Much Ado about Something

My friend and I saw the new production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing” at the Duke Theater yesterday evening. Very nice production — you could tell that everyone in the cast was having loads of fun with the many puns, double entendres and plot reversals, which is the way it should be with this wonderful play.

One thing that made me very happy was the presence of lots of young people. It seemed that nearly half of the audience were in their twenties, and one entire section was filled with teenage girls, who laughed with delight at every clever joke and plot twist.

Shakespeare can be an odd mix of the perfectly modern and the nearly incomprehensible. His characters may say things that sound eerily up-to-date one moment, and then the very next moment use some turn of phrase that has been out of fashion for four centuries.

Without studying the play beforehand, these incomprehensible moments can feel a bit like hearing a joke in an unknown foreign language. An audience needs to be willing to go with things, to let such passages flow over them gracefully as they give in to the enthusiasm of the cast.

There was something absolutely thrilling about seeing a delighted audience of young people do exactly that, and about knowing that Shakespeare is always going to relevant.


A friend from out of town wanted to go to a Burlesque show — something I had never done. To my surprise there are quite a few of them in New York City. And the one she and I ended up going to was great fun.

The general idea of these things is to be a kind of post-modern reboot of the Burlesque form. Unlike the seedy and somewhat exploitive original from an earlier time, this show was all about female empowerment and sly fun, with a young and very hip audience in attendance.

The comedian/MC made it very clear that he was just pretending to be the MC of a Burlesque show, with lots of shout-outs to the absurdity of this pretense. Extravagant underlining of this pretense wasn’t just part of his act, it was pretty much the point of his act. The message was clear: This is not Burlesque, this is “Burlesque”.

Interestingly, several of the performers come from the world of circus. In fact, the physical feats of grace and skill by the aerial silk performer were so stunning and beautiful that I found myself slightly disappointed when the obligatory moment came for her to remove some clothing.

I was so delighted by her amazing acrobatics that in that moment I didn’t wanted to be reminded that I was in some hip reboot of American Burlesque — I just wanted to revel in the feeling of being a little kid at the circus.

One great scene

There is one moment in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” when it all comes together. This is the scene where he trains the camera in close on Anne Hathaway’s face, and she proceeds to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” with such power, tragedy and utter conviction that Susan Boyle is probably still feeling the sonic boom.

Unfortunately this scene raises the bar so impossibly high that much of the rest of the two hours and thirty seven minutes just seemed silly and gimmicky. Listening to Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe trying to tackle their songs, I could hear the originals in my head — the beautiful melodies that I had first heard in the extraordinary voices of top Broadway professionals.

Alas, those well-remembered soaring melodies were playing only in my head. If I hadn’t already known that these were supposed to be great songs, I wouldn’t have suspected as much from what I heard in the movie theatre.

Of course the experience of seeing a movie is subjective, and if you watch Hooper’s “Les Miserables” you might think the whole thing was wonderful.

But accepting my premise for a moment, I wonder how often it happens that a film has just one transcendent scene, stuck inside what was otherwise either uninspired or a downright misfire. It would be interesting to compile a list.


Today I went to the supermarket to pick up just one item — a bottle of household cleaner. Alas, when I got to the checkout line I found myself behind several people who were clearly doing their weekly household shopping, as their shopping carts were all laden high with many items.

The woman at the end of the line saw that I was holding only one item in my hand, pulled her cart back to make a space, and told me I should go in front of her. I thanked her profusely.

The checkout clerk was just finishing up with a customer, so there was now only one heavy shopper in front of me. She too noticed the single item I was holding, and also saw that I was taking out some singles. “You’ve got only one item,” she said, “and you’re paying with cash, so why don’t you go ahead of me?” I thanked her profusely as well, then handed some money to the checkout clerk, got my change, and was all done.

From the time I had gotten on the back of the line, to the time I was ready to walk out the door with my purchase in hand, perhaps one minute had elapsed. And it had been a very pleasant minute.

Who says New Yorkers aren’t nice people?