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Presented at CHI 2012, Touché is a capacitive system for pervasive, continuous sensing. Among other amazing capabilities, it can accurately sense gestures a user makes on his own body. “It is conceivable that one day mobile devices could have no screens or buttons, and rely exclusively on the body as the input surface.” Touché.

Noticing that many of the same sensors, silicon, and batteries used in smartphones are being used to create smarter artificial limbs, Fast Company draws the conclusion that the market for smartphones is driving technology development useful for bionics. While interesting enough, the article doesn’t continue to the next logical and far more interesting possibility: that phones themselves are becoming parts of our bodies. To what extent are smartphones already bionic organs, and how could we tell if they were? I’m actively researching design in this area – stay tuned for more about the body-incorporated phone.

A study provides evidence that talking into a person’s right ear can affect behavior more effectively than talking into the left.

One of the best known asymmetries in humans is the right ear dominance for listening to verbal stimuli, which is believed to reflect the brain’s left hemisphere superiority for processing verbal information.

I heavily prefer my left ear for phone calls. So much so that I have trouble understanding people on the phone when I use my right ear. Should I be concerned that my brain seems to be inverted?

Read on and it becomes clear that going beyond perceptual psychology, the scientists are terrifically shrewd:

Tommasi and Marzoli’s three studies specifically observed ear preference during social interactions in noisy night club environments. In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking, with loud music in the background. In total, 72 percent of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener. These results are consistent with the right ear preference found in both laboratory studies and questionnaires and they demonstrate that the side bias is spontaneously displayed outside the laboratory.

In the second study, the researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left of their right ear. They then asked them for a cigarette. Overall, 58 percent offered their right ear for listening and 42 percent their left. Only women showed a consistent right-ear preference. In this study, there was no link between the number of cigarettes obtained and the ear receiving the request.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette. They obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

I’m picturing the scientists using their grant money to pay cover at dance clubs and try to obtain as many cigarettes as possible – carefully collecting, then smoking, their data – with the added bonus that their experiment happens to require striking up conversation with clubbers of the opposite sex who are dancing alone. One assumes that, if the test subject happened to be attractive, once the cigarette was obtained (or not) the subject was invited out onto the terrace so the scientist could explain the experiment and his interesting line of work. Well played!

Another MRI study, this time investigating how we learn parts of speech:

The test consisted of working out the meaning of a new term based on the context provided in two sentences. For example, in the phrase “The girl got a jat for Christmas” and “The best man was so nervous he forgot the jat,” the noun jat means “ring.” Similarly, with “The student is nising noodles for breakfast” and “The man nised a delicious meal for her” the hidden verb is “cook.”

“This task simulates, at an experimental level, how we acquire part of our vocabulary over the course of our lives, by discovering the meaning of new words in written contexts,” explains Rodríguez-Fornells. “This kind of vocabulary acquisition based on verbal contexts is one of the most important mechanisms for learning new words during childhood and later as adults, because we are constantly learning new terms.”

The participants had to learn 80 new nouns and 80 new verbs. By doing this, the brain imaging showed that new nouns primarily activate the left fusiform gyrus (the underside of the temporal lobe associated with visual and object processing), while the new verbs activated part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus (associated with semantic and conceptual aspects) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (involved in processing grammar).

This last bit was unexpected, at first. I would have guessed that verbs would be learned in regions of the brain associated with motor action. But according to this study, verbs seem to be learned only as grammatical concepts. In other words, knowledge of what it means to run is quite different than knowing how to run. Which makes sense if verb meaning is accessed by representational memory rather than declarative memory.

Researchers at the University of Tampere in Finland found that,

Interfaces that vibrate soon after we click a virtual button (on the order of tens of milliseconds) and whose vibrations have short durations are preferred. This combination simulates a button with a “light touch” – one that depresses right after we touch it and offers little resistance.

Users also liked virtual buttons that vibrated after a longer delay and then for a longer subsequent duration. These buttons behaved like ones that require more force to depress.

This is very interesting. When we think of multimodal feedback needing to make cognitive sense, synchronization first comes to mind. But there are many more synesthesias in our experience that can only be uncovered through careful reflection. To make an interface feel real, we must first examine reality.

Researchers at the Army Research Office developed a vibrating belt with eight mini actuators — “tactors” — that signify all the cardinal directions. The belt is hooked up to a GPS navigation system, a digital compass and an accelerometer, so the system knows which way a soldier is headed even if he’s lying on his side or on his back.

The tactors vibrate at 250 hertz, which equates to a gentle nudge around the middle. Researchers developed a sort of tactile morse code to signify each direction, helping a soldier determine which way to go, New Scientist explains. A soldier moving in the right direction will feel the proper pattern across the front of his torso. A buzz from the front, side and back tactors means “halt,” a pulsating movement from back to front means “move out,” and so on.

A t-shirt design by Derek Eads.

Recent research reveals some fun facts about aural-tactile synesthesia:

Both hearing and touch, the scientists pointed out, rely on nerves set atwitter by vibration. A cell phone set to vibrate can be sensed by the skin of the hand, and the phone’s ring tone generates sound waves — vibrations of air — that move the eardrum…

A vibration that has a higher or lower frequency than a sound… tends to skew pitch perception up or down. Sounds can also bias whether a vibration is perceived.

The ability of skin and ears to confuse each other also extends to volume… A car radio may sound louder to a driver than his passengers because of the shaking of the steering wheel. “As you make a vibration more intense, what people hear seems louder,” says Yau. Sound, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to change how intense vibrations feel.

Max Mathews, electronic music pioneer, has died.

Though computer music is at the edge of the avant-garde today, its roots go back to 1957, when Mathews wrote the first version of “Music,” a program that allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition. He quickly realized, as he put it in a 1963 article in Science, “There are no theoretical limits to the performance of the computer as a source of musical sounds.”

Rest in peace, Max.

UPDATE: I haven’t updated this blog in a while, and I realized after posting this that my previous post was about the 2010 Modulations concert. Max Mathews played at Modulations too, and that was the last time I saw him.

I finally got around to recording and mastering the set I played at the CCRMA Modulations show a few months back. Though I’ve been a drum and bass fan for many years, this year’s Modulations was the first time I’d mixed it for others. Hope you like it!

Modulations 2010
Drum & Bass | 40:00 | May 2010

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1. Excision — System Check
2. Randomer — Synth Geek
3. Noisia — Deception
4. Bassnectar — Teleport Massive (Bassnectar Remix)
5. Moving Fusion, Shimon, Ant Miles — Underbelly
6. Brookes Brothers — Crackdown
7. The Ian Carey Project — Get Shaky (Matrix & Futurebound’s Nip & Tuck Mix)
8. Netsky — Eyes Closed
9. Camo & Krooked — Time Is Ticking Away feat. Shaz Sparks

Over the last few days this video has been so much bombshell to many of my music-prone friends.

It’s called the Multi-Touch Light Table and it was created by East Bay-based artist/fidget-house DJ Gregory Kaufman. The video is beautifully put together, highlighting the importance of presentation when documenting new ideas.

I really like some of the interaction ideas presented in the video. Others, I’m not so sure about. But that’s all right: the significance of the MTLT is that it’s the first surface-based DJ tool that systematically accounts for the needs of an expert user.

Interestingly, even though it looks futuristic and expensive to us, interfaces like this will eventually be the most accessible artistic tools. Once multi-touch surface are ubiquitous, the easiest way to gain some capability will be to use inexpensive or open-source software. The physical interfaces created for DJing, such as Technics 1200s, are prosthetic objects (as are musical instruments), and will remain more expensive because mechanical contraptions will always be. Now, that isn’t to say that in the future our interfaces won’t evolve to become digital, networked, and multi-touch sensitive, or even that their physicality will be replaced with a digital haptic display. But one of the initial draws of the MTLT—the fact of its perfectly flat, clean interactive surface—seems exotic to us right now, and in the near future it will be default.

Check out this flexible interface called impress. Flexible displays just look so organic and, well impressive. One day these kinds of surface materials will become viable displays and they’ll mark a milestone in touch computing.

It’s natural to stop dancing between songs. The beat changes, the sub-rhythms reorient themselves, a new hook is presented and a new statement is made. But stopping dancing between songs is undesirable. We wish to lose ourselves in as many consecutive moments as possible. The art of mixing music is to fulfill our desire to dance along to continuous excellent music, uninterrupted for many minutes (or, in the best case, many hours) at a time. (Even if we don’t explicitly move our bodies to the music, when we listen our minds are dancing; the same rules apply.)

I don’t remember what prompted me to take that note, but it was probably not that the mixing was especially smooth.

A tomato hailing from Capay, California.

LHCSound is a site where you can listen to sonified data from the Large Hadron Collider. Some thoughts:

  • That’s one untidy heap of a website. Is this how it feels to be inside the mind of a brilliant physicist?
  • The name “LHCSound” refers to “Csound”, a programming language for audio synthesis and music composition. But how many of their readers will make the connection?
  • If they are expecting their readers to know what Csound is, then their explanation of the process they used for sonification falls way short. I want to know the details of how they mapped their data to synthesis parameters.
  • What great sampling material this will make. I wonder how long before we hear electronic music incorporating these sounds.

The Immersive Pinball demo I created for Fortune’s Brainstorm:Tech conference was featured in a BBC special on haptics.

I keep watching the HTC Sense unveiling video from Mobile World Congress 2010. The content is pretty cool, but I’m more fascinated by the presentation itself. Chief marketing officer John Wang gives a simply electrifying performance. It almost feels like an Apple keynote.

The iFeel_IM haptic interface has been making rounds on the internet lately. I tried it at CHI 2010 a few weeks ago and liked it a lot. Affective (emotional haptic) interfaces are full of potential. IFeel_IM mashes together three separate innovations:

  • Touch feedback in several different places on the body: spine, tummy, waist.
  • Touch effects that are generated from emotional language.
  • Synchronization to visuals from Second Life

All are very interesting. The spine haptics seemed a stretch to me, but the butterfly-in-the-tummy was surprisingly effective. The hug was good, but a bit sterile. Hug interfaces need nuance to bring them to the next level of realism.

The fact that the feedback is generated from the emotional language of another person seemed to be one of the major challenges—the software is built to extract emotionally-charged sentences using linguistic models. For example, if someone writes “I love you” to you, your the haptic device on your tummy will react by creating a butterflies-like sensation. As an enaction devotee I would rather actuate a hug with a hug sensor. Something about the translation of words to haptics is difficult for me to accept. But it could certainly be a lot of fun in some scenarios!

I’ve re-recorded my techno mix Awake with significantly higher sound quality. So if you downloaded a copy be sure to replace it with the new file!


Techno | 46:01 | October 2009

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1. District One (a.k.a. Bart Skils & Anton Pieete) — Dubcrystal
2. Saeed Younan — Kumbalha (Sergio Fernandez Remix)
3. Pete Grove — I Don’t Buy It
4. DBN — Asteroidz featuring Madita (D-Unity Remix)
5. Wehbba & Ryo Peres — El Masnou
6. Broombeck — The Clapper
7. Luca & Paul — Dinamicro (Karotte by Gregor Tresher Remix)
8. Martin Worner — Full Tilt
9. Joris Voorn — The Deep

I recently started using Eclipse on OS X and it was so unresponsive, it was almost unusable. Switching tabs was slow, switching perspectives was hella slow. I searched around the web for a solid hour for how to make it faster and finally found the solution. Maybe someone can use it.

My machine is running OS X 10.5, and I have 2 GB of RAM. (This is important because the solution requires messing with how Eclipse handles memory. If you have a different amount of RAM, these numbers may not work and you’ll need to fiddle with them.)

  • Save your work and quit Eclipse.
  • Open the Eclipse application package by right-clicking (or Control-clicking) on and select “Show Package Contents.”
  • Navigate to Contents→MacOS→, and open “eclipse.ini” in your favorite text editor.
  • Edit the line that starts with -”XX:MaxPermSize” to say “-XX:MaxPermSize=128m”.
  • Before that line, add a line that says “-XX:PermSize=64m”.
  • Edit the line that starts with “-Xms” to say “-Xms40m”.
  • Edit the line that starts ith “-Xmx” to say “-Xmx768m”.
  • Save & relaunch Eclipse.

Worked like a charm for me.

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In outreach

By Dave

Science Channel special

On 01, Mar 2010 | 2 Comments | In outreach | By Dave

High Fidelity Haptics, a demonstration I created that was shown at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Tech conference, was also featured on the Science Channel. In this clip, High-Fidelity Haptics appears at 3’58.

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In space

By Dave

Visualizing everything (part one)

On 25, Feb 2010 | No Comments | In space, visualization | By Dave

Not “everything” as in one-at-a-time, but as in everything at once. Macro. Meta. Big.

This first picture is a visualization of the entire history of the universe, recently produced by the WMAP space probe. WMAP’s mission is to listen to the faint reverberation that is still bouncing around since the Big Bang. Analysis of the WMAP data gives us a information not only about the size of the universe, but also its size over time. Here’s what it found.

Time moves along the horizontal axis, and the size of the universe surrounds the vertical axis. It’s interesting to note that to express the size of the universe, you only need a single up-slanting line (the top edge of the cone), but in this image the line is wrapped around the horizontal axis to generate the cone structure you see. It associates the linear measurement of “size” with our idea of three-dimensional “space”. I think this visualization device works well to make the calculated size of the universe seem more tangible and real.

Now we have some idea of what the universe looks like over time. But if you disregard time and ask, what does the very largest superstructure of the visible universe look like?

Our best science says it looks like a giant morsel of luminescent bread.

It also looks strangely like a neural network, as my friend Aram pointed out. The spindles you see are billions of galaxies clumped and stretched together, called “filaments.” The dark spots are empty spaces containing nothing, called “voids,” and they have diameters of many bajillions of bajillions of whatever unit of distance you like. (Why the cube? I searched for a while and couldn’t find an explanation.)

Here’s a similar image, with map labels.

If you zoom in far enough to see (incomprehensibly giant) galaxies as single pixels, this is what you get.

How did mere humans come up with these images? They took Wittgenstein’s timeless advice: “Don’t think, look!”

Now we can visualize—we can appreciate—the magnitude of the two familiar dimensions of experience, space and time. The result is profound awe; there is really no other reaction one can have to the above images. On the other hand, these images don’t speak to the phenomenology of experience. They don’t depict the thoughts and processes that comprise our mental lives. For that we are going to need visual philosophy, which I’ll post about soon.

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In music

By Dave

A Live One

On 21, Feb 2010 | One Comment | In music | By Dave

I’ve posted a new mix to my Music page. Download it there, or below.

A Live One
House | 45:17 | February 2010

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1. Rico Tubbs — Hip Rave Anthem
2. Sawgood — Ctl Ur Brain (Calvertron’s Jedi Mind Trick Mix)
3. The Body Snatchers — Call Me feat. Sporty-O & Yolanda (Lee Mortimer’s Troll Under The Bridge Mix)
4. Les Petits Pilous — Wake Up
5. Wolfgang Gartner — Fire Power
6. Santiago & Bushido, Colette — Make Me Feel
7. Carbon Community, Burufunk — Community Funk (Deadmau5 Remix)
8. Neelix — Disco Decay (Felguk Mix)
9. Gooseflesh — Blow Up
10. PNAU — Embrace feat. Ladyhawke (Fred Falke & Miami Horror Remix)

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In perception

By Dave

Hand amputees have distorted vision

On 26, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In perception | By Dave

The space immediately surrounding the hands, where objects are grasped, touched, and manipulated, is called “action space” by psychologists. It is distinct from the wider spatial field because there is evidence that visual perception of an object is affected by the object’s proximity to the hands—i.e., its ability to be touched.

A new study has shown that hand amputees have distorted visual perception in the action space:

The space within reach of our hands—where actions such as grasping and touching occur—is known as the “action space.” Research has shown that visual information in this area is organized in hand-centered coordinates—in other words, the representation of objects in the human brain depends on their physical location with respect to the hand. According to new research in Psychological Science amputation of the hand results in distorted visuospatial perception (i.e., figuring out where in space objects are located) of the action space….

Volunteers were instructed to look at a central cross on a screen as two white squares were briefly shown to the left and right side of the cross. The volunteers had to indicate which of the squares was further away from the cross. The results reveal that hand amputations affect visuospatial perception. When the right square was slightly further away from the center, participants with right-hand amputations tended to perceive it as being at the same distance from the center as the left square; this suggests that these volunteers underestimated the distance of the right square relative to the left. Conversely, when the left square was further away, participants with left-hand amputations perceived both squares as being equally far away from the center—these participants underestimated the left side of near space. Interestingly, when the volunteers were seated farther away from the screen, they were more accurate in judging the distances, indicating that hand amputations may only affect perception of the space close to the body.

The findings suggest that losing a hand may shrink the action space on the amputated side, leading to permanent distortions in spatial perception. According to the researchers, “This shows that the possibility for action in near space shapes our perception—the space near our hands is really special, and our ability to move in that space affects how we perceive it.

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In sociology

By Dave

Among journalists, technology breeds fear of obsolescence, corporations

On 24, Jan 2010 | One Comment | In sociology, tactility | By Dave

Another NYT article about technology anxiety, this one by Brad Stone. Some excerpts:

I’ve begun to think that my daughter’s generation will also be utterly unlike those that preceded it.

Well, it’s better to begin to think than to never start. There’s plenty of room for more people to contemplate and write about the future of technology. We are a friendly bunch! Let me be the first to welcome you, Mr. Stone.

But the newest batch of Internet users and cellphone owners will find these geo-intelligent tools to be entirely second nature, and may even come to expect all software and hardware to operate in this way. Here is where corporations can start licking their chops. My daughter and her peers will never be “off the grid.” And they may come to expect that stores will emanate discounts as they walk by them, and that friends can be tracked down anywhere.

I see, so even though technology will lift people out of poverty and make life longer and more enriching, technology is really just a vehicle for capitalist oppression. And like mad, salivating dogs, corporations will lick their chops. Right.

But the children, teenagers and young adults who are passing through this cauldron of technological change will also have a lot in common. They’ll think nothing of sharing the minutiae of their lives online, staying connected to their friends at all times, buying virtual goods, and owning one über-device that does it all. They will believe the Kindle is the same as a book. And they will all think their parents are hopelessly out of touch.

Of all the mind blowing changes that technology will bring to our society, the real thought-provoker is that those crazy young’uns will think a Kindle is the same as a book!

Mr. Stone: elevate your perspective. If you need help, read my blog, and read what I link to. Anticipate the future. Integrate it. Do develop a grounded, holistic understanding of where we’re going as a technological society. Don’t develop sociological theories based on your marvel at incremental steps like the Kindle. It won’t help you see the big picture.

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In art

By Dave


On 23, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In art, photography | By Dave

It’s what we do.

Kenneth Josephson

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In robotics

By Dave

Living With Robots

On 22, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In robotics | By Dave

I’m very excited for this film. Asimo looks fantastic in it!

I think we’re on the verge of seeing a lot more examination of the relationship between humans and robots.

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In art

By Dave

Midnight snack

On 16, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In art | By Dave

Francis Bacon
One of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
c. 1944

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In music

By Dave

Old School vs. New School

On 14, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In music, robotics | By Dave

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In medical

By Dave

Perceptual chauvinism

On 11, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In medical, music, perception | By Dave

I read two articles in a row today that use unnecessary quotation marks, which expose that strange discomfort with writing about touch I have written about before. As humans we hold our feelings dear, so we don’t like to say that any other beings can feel. Especially plants, for chrissake:

Plants are incredibly temperature sensitive and can perceive changes of as little as one degree Celsius. Now, a report shows how they not only “feel” the temperature rise, but also coordinate an appropriate response—activating hundreds of genes and deactivating others; it turns out it’s all about the way that their DNA is packaged.

The author can’t simply say that plants can feel, so instead he writes “feel,” indicating a figurative sense of the word. Why? Because the word ‘feel’ implies some amount of consciousness. (In fact I have argued that ‘feeling’ signifies a baseline for the existence of a subject.) Only the animal kingdom gets feeling privileges.

And then, in another article posted on Science Daily, we have a similar example, but this one is even more baffling. The context is that research has shown that playing Mozart to premature infants can have measurable positive effects on development:

A new study… has found that pre-term infants exposed to thirty minutes of Mozart’s music in one session, once per day expend less energy—and therefore need fewer calories to grow rapidly—than when they are not “listening” to the music

In the study, Dr. Mandel and Dr. Lubetzky and their team measured the physiological effects of music by Mozart played to pre-term newborns for 30 minutes. After the music was played, the researchers measured infants’ energy expenditure again, and compared it to the amount of energy expended when the baby was at rest. After “hearing” the music, the infant expended less energy, a process that can lead to faster weight gain.

Not allowing plants to feel is one thing. And I can even understand the discomfort with writing that newborns are listening to music, because that may imply they are attending to it, which is questionable. But why can’t human babies be said to hear music? This is the strangest case of perceptual chauvinism I have yet come across.

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In art

By Dave

Sudden breakthrough

On 08, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In art, photography | By Dave

Lucas Samaras
November 22, 1973

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In interfaces

By Dave


On 06, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In interfaces, transhumanism | By Dave

Neuroscientists at the Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, Florida, have demonstrated how brain waves can be used to type alphanumerical characters on a computer screen. By merely focusing on the “q” in a matrix of letters, for example, that “q” appears on the monitor.

This is a welcome incremental step towards brain-controlled text input. The other interesting about this experiment is that it was done on people who already had electrodes implanted in their brain to monitor and study their epilepsy. The scientists thought that the electrodes’ output might be able to be controlled with thought, and it turns out it can.

This is very different than the typical brain-computer interface, which uses electroencephalography (EEG). Basically, an EEG is a helmet that oozes tricolor pasta:


But an eletrocorticograph (ECoG, pronounced “eecog”), like the one used for this experiment, sits on the brain itself, like this:

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Fingerprint ridge width is coupled to Pacinian resonance

On 05, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In perception, physiology, robotics | By Dave

French scientist Georges Debregeas has published a finding that the width of the ridges of our fingerprints just happens to be optimized for maximally vibrating our nerve endings:

The latest evidence suggests that fingerprints process vibrations in the skin to make them easier for nerves to pick up. They may seem little more than digital decoration, but biomechanics have long known that fingerprints have at least one use: they increase friction, thereby improving grip…

In fact the role that fingerprints play in touch is far more important and subtle than anyone imagined.

…Biologists have known for some time that Pacinian corpuscles are most sensitive to vibrations at 250Hz. So how do fingers generate this kind vibration? Biologists have always assumed that humans can control the frequency of vibrations in the skin by changing the speed at which a finger moves across a surface. But there’s little evidence that people actually do this and the Paris team’s discovery should make this view obsolete.

…They say that fingerprints resonate at certain frequencies and so tend to filter mechanical vibrations. It turns out that their resonant frequency is around 250 Hz. What an astonishing coincidence!

That means that fingerprints act like signal processors, conditioning the mechanical vibrations so that the Pacinian corpuscles can best interpret them…

The article also notes that in robotics this is called morphological computation; that is, computation through interactions of physical form.

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In transhumanism

By Dave

“We’re stimulating areas of the retina that are downstream from the rod and cone cells… [to] directly send impulses to the brain.”

On 03, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In transhumanism | By Dave

Watch this beautiful video by National Geographic about Jo Ann Lewis, the 17th recipient of a bionic eye implant. The video shows the surgery itself, so it may be unsettling to some. Because I know the surgeon is making a blind woman see, the gore a non-issue for me. From a technical standpoint, it’s a rare and fascinating close-up of a procedure to wire up a sensor to a human nerve.

The name of the surgeon is Rand Spencer, M.D., and we need many more like him.

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Skin receptors may contribute to emotion

On 02, Jan 2010 | No Comments | In language, neuroscience, perception, physiology | By Dave

Interoception, the perception of internal feelings, is a funny thing. From our point of view as feeling beings, it seems entirely distinct from exteroceptive channels (sight, hearing, and so on). Interoception is also thought to be how we feel emotions, in addition to bodily functions. When you feel either hungry or lovesick, you are perceiving the state of your internal body, organs, and metabolism. A few years ago it was discovered that there are neural pathways for interoception distinct from ones used to perceive the outside world.

Interesting new research suggests that mechanical skin disturbances caused by pulsating blood vessels may significantly contribute to your perception of your own heartbeat. This is important because it means that skin may play a larger role in emotion than has been previously thought.

The researchers found that, in addition to a pathway involving the insular cortex of the brain — the target of most recent research on interoception — an additional pathway contributing to feeling your own heartbeat exists. The second pathway goes from fibers in the skin to most likely the somatosensory cortex, a part of the brain involved in mapping the outside of the body and the sense of posture.

This sounds surprising at first, but it makes perfect sense. There have been other instances where the functionality of perceptual systems overlap. For example, it’s been found that skin receptors contribute to kinesthesia: as the joints bend, sensations of skin stretch are used to perceive of joint angles. This was also somewhat surprising at the time, because it was thought that perception of one’s joint angles arose out of the receptors in the joints themselves, exclusively. The same phenomenon, of skin movement being incidentally involved in some other primary action, is at work here. We might be able to say that any time the skin is moved perceptibly, cutaneous signals are bound up with the percept itself.

In fact, I think this may be a good object lesson in how words about feelings can be very confusing. A few years ago, before the recent considerable progress in mapping the neural signature of interoception, the word ‘interoception’ was used to describe a class of perceptions—ones whose object was the perceiver. Interoception meant the perception of bodily processes: heartbeat, metabolic functioning, and so on. When scientists discovered a neural pathway that serves only this purpose, the word suddenly began to refer not to the perceptual modality, but exclusively to that neural pathway. Now that multiple pathways have been identified, the word will go back to its original meaning: a class of percepts, rather than a particular neural conduit.

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In space

By Dave

2009 in review: A solar system awash in hope

On 31, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In space | By Dave

2009 is probably not very high on anyone’s list of Totally Awesome Years. Our society has been set on a track toward painful socioeconomic changes, and there has been a worrisome deepening of geopolitical rifts. But as the halfwits in the media class clucked and squabbled amongst themselves, they missed the biggest story of all: in 2009 the long-term prospects for the human experiment became considerably brighter. In fact, we have just lived through a banner year for the human species, because this was the year that we learned that leaving our mother planet to live elsewhere is a tangible possibility.

In recent months, several lines of scientific investigation converged and the result seems to be that humankind has gained the ability to prospect for water on other worlds. Most significantly, the LCROSS lunar impactor shot straight into a crater at 1.5 miles per second. It was literally a bombshell, but its impact on history will be no less great—the colossal smash sent giant chunks of ice from our moon flying into space.

A few weeks before, an analysis of the light bouncing off the moon had indicated that lunar dirt contains trace amounts of water all across its surface. Extracting this water would be more difficult than mining the plentiful ice in the craters, but it could be done.

By the beginning of this year, the Phoenix Mars Lander had already detected—in fact, stepped on—ice near the Martian south pole. But now a camera orbiting Mars has snapped pictures of 99% pure ice near the equator, which has an environment far more hospitable to humans and our technology than the poles do.

If this year’s discovery of additional evidence that Mars was once covered in oceans had been discovered a short while ago, it would again have been interpreted by the green movement as an ominous warning of what was in store for Earth. Instead, in the context of this year’s water discoveries, Mars has become a friendlier place. We now know that we could survive there using today’s technology, if it were important enough to do so.

In the media, and our culture generally, a dearth of imagination has prevented the long-term implications of all this from being noticed, and it’s terribly disheartening to see. The water discoveries should have been celebrated, if not with fanfare, at least with rapturous conversation around every dinner table in the world. “Have you heard? If a global catastrophe makes Earth uninhabitable, there’s a place we can go!” But unless you follow space news, you probably weren’t even aware that these discoveries had fundamentally changed the calculus of our society’s future and even the destiny of our species.

Lunar ice means that large scale colonization of the moon is now possible decades earlier than it would have been had the moon been barren. That saved time could make all the difference in a pinch. Imagine that a few decades after a robust lunar colony is established, an asteroid, epidemic, or nuclear war ravages our home planet. We will have lunar water (and the fact that we knew about it) to thank for the preservation of human culture and knowledge.

Importantly, this increased access to the moon has put it within reach of privately funded excursions. It is now likely that individual and corporate homesteaders could establish and defend lunar property rights before governments mobilize to prevent them, promoting the cause of liberty and spreading Karl Popper’s Open Society into the cosmos.

The transition from an Earth-bound civilization to a space-faring one will start with the moon, making Mars colonization an incremental step rather than a giant leap. Relatively soon after a lunar colony is established, the skills and technologies developed to extract lunar water for drinking, breathing, and fuel-making will be further developed to do the same tasks on Mars. People will become experienced with the four-day journey between Earth and the moon, which will greatly simplify the logistics of moving personnel and cargo to the Red Planet.

Another important discovery was made in 2009 that made Mars more accessible: it became half as far away. Ion engines have already proved themselves on deep space probe missions, but this year a redesigned engine called VASIMIR was announced that greatly extends the thrust and efficiency of ion drives. With these new engines, set to be tested in 2010 aboard the International Space Station, Mars could conceivably be reached in only 39 days—almost exactly half the time it took Columbus to reach the New World.

Stephen Hawking is right when he says that if we don’t colonize other worlds in the near future our species will become extinct sooner rather than later. This year’s discoveries of water on the moon and Mars is a profound gift—one that might extend the longevity of the human species by an order of magnitude. Despite all the headaches and misadventures this year, 2009 may not have been a washout after all.

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In art

By Dave

“And reaching up my hand to try, I screamed to feel it touch the sky.”

On 22, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In art, language, tactility | By Dave

Check out this beautiful kinetic typography piece by Heebok Lee:

It’s based on an excerpt of the poem “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

1. the revival of something that has been dormant.
2. another term for ‘renaissance.’
(Oxford English Dictionary)

Millay, who wrote the poem when she was only 20 years old, originally called it “Renaissance.” It’s interesting that the two words are so close in meaning and are pronounced almost the same way, but they’re not considered alternate spellings of the same word.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna on a terrace.

Click below to read the poem in its entirety. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
Read more…

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In sociology

By Dave

What can gardens teach us about digitality?

On 20, Dec 2009 | One Comment | In sociology, tactility | By Dave

The Washington Post has an intriguing piece about a book dealing with gardens (of all things) and digitality. The author, Robert Harrison, argues that gardens immerse us in place and time, and that digital devices do not. The article jumps all over the place, talking about mobile communication, cultural anthropology, and evolution, but it makes several important points.

To start, attending to digital devices is said to preclude being present:

“You know you have crossed the river into Cyberland when the guy coming your way has his head buried in the hand-held screen. He will knock into you unless you get out of his way, and don’t expect an apology. It’s as if you aren’t there. Maybe you’re not.”

I’m very interested in language like this, because it’s a metaphor in the process of becoming a literalism. Today, saying that you’re not there because you’re looking at a device is metaphorical, but I think that the meaning of ‘being there’ is going to change to mean where you are engaged, no matter where its geographical location is in relation to you. “I’ll be right there!” he said as he plugged his brain into the internet. Moments later he was standing in the garden…

The article quotes a study that claims that the average adult spends 8.5 hours a day visually engaged with a screen. 24-hour days, split up by 8.5 hours of screen and 8 hours of sleep—the Screen Age really does deserve its own delineation. It’s a significant and unique period in human history.

And just like sleep, perhaps disturbingly so, people looking at screens can resemble dead people (or, more accurately, un-dead people):

…We have become digital zombies.

But I think the resemblance is entirely superficial. Sure, if you only go by appearances, an army of screen-starers is a frightening sight to imagine. But scratch the surface and you realize that screen-staring is a far cry from zombism. The social spaces we are constructing while we stare, the vast data stores we are integrating—these activities remind me of life. Teeming life. Our bodies may be sedentary, our eyes fixed on a single glowing rectangle, but what is going on is indisputably amazing. On the microscopic level there are billions of electrical fluctuations per moment, both in our brains and our machines, and they are actively correlating and adapting to each other. Patterns of thought are encoded in a vast network of micro-actions and reactions that span the planet. And what is it like for you when you stare at a computer or phone screen? You juggle complex, abstract symbolic information at speeds never before achieved by human brains, and you’re also inputting—emitting—hundreds of symbols with the precise motor skills of your fingers. You are recognizing pictures and signs, searching for things, finding them, figuring stuff out, adjusting your self image, and nurturing your dreams. There is no loss of dignity or life in this. But I admit that we all look like zombies while we do it, and I suppose that is pretty weird.

The article goes on to quote author Katherine Hayles, who says she thinks humans are in a state of symbiosis with their computers:

“If every computer were to crash tomorrow, it would be catastrophic,” she says. “Millions or billions of people would die. That’s the condition of being a symbiont.”

Let that sink in. At any moment a catastrophic event could fry our entire digital infrastructure in one fell swoop. Our civilization teeters on a house of cards as high as Mount Everest! To me this is the only reason the Screen Age should be frightening, but it’s very frightening indeed.

Turning now to sensation, Hayles mentions that touch and smell are suppressed by bipedalism:

“You could say when humans started to walk upright, we lost touch with the natural world. We lost an olfactory sense of the world, but obviously bipedalism paid big dividends.”

Note that bipedalism is associated with a loss of tactility, but it has also been correlated with enabling more complex manual dexterity. Maybe there is a general principle here that ambient tactile awareness is inversely correlated to prehension.

After a brief ensuing discussion of dualism and the advent of location-based services, we’re back to the gardens:

The difficulty, Harrison argues, is that we are losing something profoundly human, the capacity to connect deeply to our environments… “For the gardens to become fully visible in space, they require a temporal horizon that the age makes less and less room for.”

I like the point about a gardens’ time horizon. But it’s used to complain about the discomfort of our rushed lifestyle, which I would argue is separable from communication technology. The heads-buried-in-screens thing doesn’t really affect whether we have time for gardens.

An interesting footnote offered by Harrison is that the Czech playwright Karel Capek, who invented the word ‘robot,’ was a gardener.

Finally, this is the photo that accompanies the article:


…captioned, “Fingers on the political pulse.” The article is about looking and being present, but the picture is about hands, heatbeat, and hapticity.

(via Althouse)

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In music

By Dave


On 19, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In music | By Dave

noun. Making music by applying human bodies to cars. E.g.,

(via Autoblog)

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In unclassifiable

By Dave

Taking pictures of vibrating molecules

On 07, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In unclassifiable | By Dave

Scientists at UC Berkeley have used an advanced laser spectroscopy technique to image the vibration of a molecule as it absorbs a photon:

Femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy on GFP involves hitting the protein molecule with an approximately 80 femtosecond pulse of ultraviolet light, which excites many vibrational modes in the molecule, and then a one-two punch of picosecond red and femtosecond white light to stimulate Raman emission. The spectrum of emitted signals tells researchers the vibrational modes of various parts of the molecule. If the molecule is in the middle of a reaction, the emitted light at different time delays tells the researcher the various steps the molecule goes through during the reaction. “Now, we can get very, very high resolution structure down to 10-25 femtoseconds,” Mathies said.

That’s femtoseconds, with an ‘f’. Wild!

Image credit: Renee Frontiera & Chong Fang/UC Berkeley

Image credit: Renee Frontiera & Chong Fang/UC Berkeley

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In art

By Dave

At The Controls

On 06, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In art, music | By Dave

I recently discovered an excellent series of electronic music compilations called At The Controls. The album covers are amazing and relevant too—they are all variations on modified modifiers.

1192259244_acmcoverAgoria at the Controls-1

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