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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 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 language

By Dave

The meaning of ‘most’

On 03, Dec 2009 | No Comments | In language | By Dave

William Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about words, advised that “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” But the exact meaning of plain language isn’t always easy to find. Even simple words like “most” and “least” can vary greatly in definition and interpretation, and are difficult to put into precise numbers.

Until now.


In a groundbreaking new linguistic study, Prof. Mira Ariel of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Linguistics has quantified the meaning of the common word “most.” [The study] “is quite shocking for the linguistics world,” she says.

“I’m looking at the nature of language and communication and the boundaries that exist in our conventional linguistic codes,” says Prof. Ariel. “If I say to someone, ‘I’ve told you 100 times not to do that,’ what does ’100 times’ really mean? I intend to convey ‘a lot,’ not literally ’100 times.’ Such interpretations are contextually determined and can change over time.”

I’ve noticed that I exaggerate modally—I choose a number and run with it for a while. Currently it’s 5, as in, “I’ve told you 50 times; I had to wait for five hours.” I don’t mean some specific number, I just mean to use it as a placeholder for exaggeration purposes. There must be a term for this. Linguists?

When people use the word “most,” the study found, they don’t usually mean the whole range of 51-99%. The common interpretation is much narrower, understood as a measurement of 80 to 95% of a sample — whether that sample is of people in a room, cookies in a jar, or witnesses to an accident.

So many problems are caused when we try to communicate with words about whose meaning we think we agree when actually we don’t agree at all. But Professor Mira Ariel is helping sort it out by empirically determining what it is that we mean. Wittgenstein showed that the meaning of words cannot extend beyond how they’re used. So empirical studies like this one can help us immensely. I’m betting this kind of research will also help artificial intelligence research.

“‘Most’ as a word came to mean “majority” only recently. Before democracy, we had feudal lords, kings and tribes, and the notion of “most” referred to who had the lion’s share of a given resource — 40%, 30% or even 20%,” she explains. “Today, ‘most’ clearly has come to signify a majority — any number over 50 out of a hundred. But it wasn’t always that way. A two-party democracy could have introduced the new idea that ‘most’ is something more than 50%.”

I can’t tell from this short article whether Professor Ariel has done research to support her assertion that modern democracy really is the source for the lexical definition of “most” as meaning between 51% and 100%. But if true it’s pretty interesting because it shows that the word “most” may be political—that is, an expression of power or authority—rather than geometrical or mathematical, which is what I had always assumed.

Here’s the full article.

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In language

By David Birnbaum

The post where I coin the word “intersthesia”

On 01, Oct 2009 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Merleau-Ponty’s claim that we experience transcendent things synesthetically. As I noted in this post, he says that we experience overlapping, multimodal layers of sensations that overflow beyond our sensory limits, and that the things comprising the layers transcend us (are independent of us, do not require us in order to exist—at least, that’s our experience).

But to me, synesthesia is the wrong word to describe overlapping, multimodal sensations. Overlapping means that there are seperable sensations, with different envelopes, that may co-occur. But the way I experience synesthesia is quite different. When I hear a loud, unexpected noise, it brings the sensation of bright color. Smells have texture. Flashing lights have an auditory rhythm. These combinations aren’t the result of exploration over time, and they don’t overflow. They aren’t like a coffee cup which can be seen, smelled, and touched at the same time. Synesthesia is self-contained. Synesthesia is integrated.

It’s pretty clear to me that Merleau-Ponty’s idea of synesthesia and the widely documented neurological condition by the same name are different phenomena. Therefore I think it’s important to use a different word to refer to each. So for the phenomenon that Merleau-Ponty is identifying, I say “intersthesia” is more apt. It better implies overlapping layers of sensation that come and go continuously, in multiple dimensions. With this new word, we can say that we are all intersthetic all the time, and some of us are synesthetic some of the time.

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In art

By David Birnbaum


On 27, Sep 2009 | No Comments | In art, language | By David Birnbaum

I recently posted a review of the book Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy by Lawrence Hass. On two occasions Hass broke up a familiar word with a hyphen in order to make the word’s etymology more obvious. The first was “organ-ize,” which I posted about here. He pulled the same trick when writing “con-fusion”:

[The solution to a problem] doesn’t merely restate what is already given, but rather demands “crystallizing insight” through which some meaning-possibility suddenly “reorganizes” and “synchronizes” what was before a con-fusion of meaning, a problem to be solved. (l. 2285)

So what does it mean to be “confused”?

adj. 1a. being perplexed or disconcerted. 1b. disoriented with regard to one’s sense of time, place, or identity. 2. indistinguishable. 3. being disordered or mixed up (Merriam-Webster)

The history of the word confuse is, in a word, confused…. [The verb] confuse was derived c.1550, with the literal sense “mix or mingle things so as to render the elements indistinguishable.” In the active, figurative sense of “discomfit in mind or feeling,” confuse is only recorded from 1805. This activity could have been expressed before that by native constructions like dumbfound and flabbergast, or by confound. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

In the Wikipedia entry for Mental Confusion, someone has posted this image, in which there are indeed two distinct elements that are intermingled so as to render each one harder to distinguish:


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In cognition

By David Birnbaum


On 03, Sep 2009 | One Comment | In cognition, language, music | By David Birnbaum

I was inspired to research the words “organ” and “organized” after I read a statement made by Merleau-Ponty scholar Lawrence Hass that “perceptions are organized (organ-ized) information.” He included the hyphen to emphasize a very interesting point: it may be that our ability to organize our thoughts is rooted in a concrete aspect of embodiment. We have specialized organs and neural pathways for particular ranges of wave frequencies (light for the eyes, sound for the ears, vibration for the skin). So, it’s plausible that organization of thought may have its roots in the configuration of our sense organs. Astounding!

Here’s a typical definition of organize:

  • v. arrange in an orderly way
  • v. to make into a whole with unified and coherent relationships (

These definitions aren’t satisfying. What makes an organization orderly, unified, and coherent? The definition Hass implies is much more illuminating: to be organized is to be divided according to the sense organs of a perceiver. Now we’re getting somewhere!

But moving in a slightly different direction, what the hell are we doing playing a musical instrument called an “organ”? And what does all this mean for Edgard Varèse’s famous definition of music as “organized sound”?


  • n. from the Greek organon meaning “implement”, “musical instrument”, “organ of the body”, literally, “that with which one works” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
  • n. an instrument or means, as of action or performance

Substituting “organ” in Varèse’s famous definition with these, the word “music” means:

  • music is sound with which one works
  • music is sound that is a means of action or performance

For the first time I understand what Varèse meant when he said music is “organized sound.” We use the word music to mean sound that is utilized by someone to work or perform. Nothing more, nothing less.

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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 10, Aug 2009 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

n. a display of skill or adroitness (Merriam-Webster)

n. sleight of hand; hence, any artful deception or trick (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary)

n. lightness of hand, from French: léger (light, nimble) + de (of) + main (hand) (

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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 23, Apr 2009 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

n. The imitation or representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially human actions, in literature and art. (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.)

Biology. The close external resemblance of an organism, the mimic, to some different organism, the model, such that the mimic benefits from the mistaken identity, as seeming to be unpalatable or harmful. (

More from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

Basic theoretical principle in the creation of art. The word is Greek and means “imitation” (though in the sense of “re-presentation” rather than of “copying”). Plato and Aristotle spoke of mimesis as the re-presentation of nature. According to Plato, all artistic creation is a form of imitation: that which really exists (in the “world of ideas”) is a type created by God; the concrete things man perceives in his existence are shadowy representations of this ideal type. Therefore, the painter, the tragedian, and the musician are imitators of an imitation, twice removed from the truth. Aristotle, speaking of tragedy, stressed the point that it was an “imitation of an action”—that of a man falling from a higher to a lower estate. Shakespeare, in Hamlet’s speech to the actors, referred to the purpose of playing as being “…to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Thus, an artist, by skillfully selecting and presenting his material, may purposefully seek to “imitate” the action of life.

The place I recently spotted the word was in the book The Hand by Frank Wilson, which I will be posting about shortly. Wilson discusses Origins of the Modern Mind by Merlin Donald, and quotes this passage:

Mimetic skill or mimesis rests on the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated, representational acts that are intentional, but not linguistic…. Mimesis is fundamentally different from imitation and mimicry in that it involves invention of intentional representations….Mimetic skill results in the sharing of knowledge without every member of the group having to reinvent that knowledge….The primary form of mimetic expression was, and continues to be, visuomotor. The mimetic skills basic to child-rearing, toolmaking, cooperative gathering and hunting, the sharing of food and other resources, finding, constructing, and sharing shelter, and expressing social hierarchies and custom would have involved visuomotor behavior. (Donald, pp. 169-177, quoted in Wilson, p. 48)

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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 16, Apr 2009 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

n. 1. Computers. The time required to locate the first bit or character in a storage location, expressed as access time minus word time. 2. Physiology. The interval between stimulus and reaction. 3. The state of being not yet evident or active.


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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 14, Feb 2009 | No Comments | In language, medical | By David Birnbaum

n. a palpable vibration on the human body.

  • Hepatic fremitus is a vibration felt over a person’s liver. It is thought to be caused by a severely inflamed and necrotic liver rubbing up against the peritoneum.
  • Hydatid fremitus is a vibratory sensation felt on palpating a hydatid cyst.
  • Pericardial fremitus is a vibration felt on the chest wall due to the friction of the surfaces of the pericardium over each other.
  • Periodontal fremitus occurs in either of the alveolar bones when an individual sustains trauma from occlusion. It is a result of teeth exhibiting at least slight mobility rubbing against the adjacent walls of their sockets, the volume of which has been expanded ever so slightly by inflammatory responses, bone resorption or both.
  • Pleural fremitus is a palpable vibration of the wall of the thorax caused by friction between the parietal and visceral pleura of the lungs.
  • Rhonchal fremitus, also known as bronchial fremitus, is a palpable vibration produced during breathing caused by partial airway obstruction.
  • Subjective fremitus is a vibration felt by a person who hums with the mouth closed.
  • Tussive fremitus is a vibration felt on the chest when a person coughs.
  • Vocal Fremitus, also called pectoral fremitus, or tactile vocal fremitus, is a vibration felt on a person’s chest during low frequency vocalization.

(via Wikipedia)

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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 14, Nov 2008 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

n. Manual dexterity in the execution of tricks.

(via WordNet)

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In language

By David Birnbaum


On 28, Sep 2008 | No Comments | In language | By David Birnbaum

adj. 1. Tending to melt or dissolve into thin air. 2. Continuously branching ever smaller, as the limbs of a tree.

(via alphaDictionary)

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In books

By David Birnbaum

Philosopher deathmatch, and how words are like tools

On 07, Sep 2008 | No Comments | In books, language, tactility | By David Birnbaum

9780060936648I just finished reading Wittgenstein’s Poker. From the jacket:

In October 1946, philosopher Karl Popper arrived at Cambridge to lecture at a seminar hosted by his legendary colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein. It did not go well: the men began arguing, and eventually, Wittgenstein began waving a fire poker toward Popper. It lasted scarcely 10 minutes, yet the debate has turned into perhaps modern philosophy’s most contentious encounter, largely because none of the eyewitnesses could agree on what happened. Did Wittgenstein physically threaten Popper with the poker? Did Popper lie about it afterward?

The authors provide a comprehensive biographical and historical context for the incident, and use it as a springboard into the two men’s respective philosophies. It’s an enjoyable look at two self-important, short-tempered intellectuals and their rivalry.

As I mentioned in this post, I find Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language often invokes touch themes. In the following excerpt from Poker (originating from one of his lectures), Wittgenstein makes a point about a colleague’s statement, “Good is what is right to admire,” utilizing a haptic metaphor:

The definition throws no light. There are three concepts, all of them vague. Imagine three solid pieces of stone. You pick them up, fit them together and you now get a ball. What you’ve now got tells you something about the three shapes. Now consider you have three balls of soft mud or putty. Now you put the three together and mold out of them a ball. Ewing makes a soft ball out of three pieces of mud. (68)

Another example stems from Wittgenstein’s midlife change in philosophical outlook. In his first publication, the Tractatus Logicio-Philosophicus, he was preoccupied with the “picture theory of language”—the idea that sentences describe “states of affairs” that can be likened to the contents of a picture. Later, he developed a theory of language based on words as tools for conveying meaning. In my reading, he shifted from a vision-based to a haptic-based (in fact, a distinctly physical-interaction-based) understanding of how language works.

The metaphor of language as a picture is replaced by the metaphor of language as a tool. If we want to know the meaning of a term, we should not ask what it stands for: we should instead examine how it is actually used. If we do so, we will soon recognize that there is no underlying single structure. Some words, which at first glance look as if they perform similar functions, actually operate to distinct sets of rules. (229)

Here’s the relevant passage directly from Philisophical Investigations:

It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of the pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro. (PI, I, par. 12)

Words as the physical interface to meaning. Love it!

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In interfaces

By David Birnbaum

Sterile gestural interface

On 20, Jun 2008 | No Comments | In interfaces, medical | By David Birnbaum

A great example of smart interaction design: touch-free gestural interfaces for hospital displays:

“A sterile human-machine interface is of supreme importance because it is the means by which the surgeon controls medical information, avoiding patient contamination, the operating room (OR) and the other surgeons.” This could replace touch screens now used in many hospital operating rooms which must be sealed to prevent accumulation or spreading of contaminants and requires smooth surfaces that must be thoroughly cleaned after each procedure — but sometimes aren’t.

Interesting sidenote: the fact that we associate touch with contagion in our culture is encoded in the words we use. Contagion literally means “with touch.”

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