The Republic of You

Timothy Gallwey, in his book The Inner Game of Tennis, does a good job describing the strange nature of how people talk to themselves. He’s talking about tennis, but it happens all the time. Picture yourself, having just hacked an easy shot into the fence. “Keep your eye on the ball you idiot!” you grumble. “What?” says your momentarily puzzled opponent. “Just talking to myself,” you say.

Gallwey’s observation is penetrating: in this scenario, just who is talking to whom? There appears to be a talker in your head, and this talker, this chatterbox, is constantly instructing and berating a silent second self who listens and tries to obey. The talker is happy to take credit when things go well and quick to assign blame when a scapegoat is needed. But the curious thing is that, despite the evidence of this silent other quietly trying to perform as directed, it is the talker who gets all the credit for our self identity.

The thing we think of as the ego-identified self is a tiny raft awash in a sea of brain activity. But since he does all the talking, he loudly claims, and proudly accepts on his own behalf, sole ownership of the psyche. Who can contradict him? And when sudden inspiration strikes, or when an important problem is solved in a dream, we describe it as coming from somewhere else. Because this unexpected gift bewilders our vocal spokesbrain. I like to think of the silent self, a wordless savant from the right brain, dropping a beautiful idea on the front porch of the left brain and ringing the doorbell. The left brain comes out in his robe, peers into the darkness and then spots the gift. “What’s this? Why it’s lovely!” He grabs it and hustles inside, whereupon he types up a quick press release filled with outrageous lies about how he got this new idea. The mute right brain watches through window. Maybe he smiles. I picture him wanting to say “I’M RIGHT HERE, YOU DOPE! I SPENT A SOLID WEEK MAKING THAT FOR YOU.” But instead he turns, wipes his hands, and heads back into the woods to get some work done.

I was thinking about this topic recently because I happened to watch two great TED talks back-to-back that touch on the nature of our multiple selves. The first is by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert on the nature of inspiration. The second is by neuroscientist and stroke victim Jill Bolte Taylor talking about the insight that can come from watching your own brain shut down. I recommend watching both of them.

You are a republic of many entities. Quiet the voice and enjoy the view.

Bio-mimics and bio-copycats

On BotJunkie I came across this robotic fish video. The fish, from the University of Essex, is a careful model in form and behavior of a real fish. The idea is that nature has already created a great design, and we can benefit from simply copying it. According to BotJunkie, the robofish will monitor pollution levels off the coast of Spain.

Bio-mimicry is compelling, but I wonder if it’s sometimes overdone. The materials we have at our disposal are very different from those available to growing fish, and many of the constraints that operate on fish don’t apply to robots. Compare the above robotic fish with the underwater robots being built by iRobots new underwater group, beasts like the Seaglider and the Ranger. It may well be that slavish bio-mimicry isn’t a good all-purpose strategy.

Swarm coordination and the news

I read two items within a few minutes of each other, and while they initially seemed unrelated, on reflection it occurred to me that the Era of the Swarm is now well underway.

The first item has to do with coordinating the behavior of heavy machinery. As reported in Technology Review, a company called REGEN Energy is selling wireless units that can attach to machinery and modify their power consumption. What’s nice about it is there is no need for fancy top-down centralized control based on (often mythical) perfect information. Just plug the units in and they can find each other and adopt economizing behavior. A simple example of this is: don’t turn on multiple air conditioners at the same time. That’s the command-and-control version of the rule, though. The decentralized version would go like this: “Does anybody around here mind if I fire up in about ten seconds? ‘Cause I can wait if that’s going to cause a problem.” I don’t know if this particular product will take off, but insect-based reasoning is certainly on the rise.

The second item I read had to do with the behavior of young voters. The question is: how do they find their news? The answer, and the money quote from the article is: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Rather than getting information from a single all-knowing news source that has access to (often mythical) perfect information, young people are more likely to rely on a network of forwarded links from their friends, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (ahem).

I, for one, welcome our new insect overbrain.

Camera obscura in a U-Haul

One day when I was maybe nine years old, I was in the very back, what we called the “way back”, of the family station wagon. An empty box was next to me, so I put it over my head, as any bored nine year old boy might do. The day was bright, and the box had a small hole in one side, and so it was that I happened to create a pinhole camera (or camera obscura) by accident. It was one of the most magical discoveries of my life. Projected on the dark inside of that box was a blurry upside-down color image of the moving world outside. If you’ve never seen a pinhole camera in action, it really is amazing to behold, mostly because it is so utterly unexpected. All the more so when you’re a nine year old boy with no notion of why this should be.

If you want to see what it looks like, here’s the story of an artist who built a camera obscura on wheels.

You see this and you start to understand why the word “camera” comes from the Latin for “room”. To think that a big box with a hole in the side makes a passable real-time video monitor is so wonderfully strange. The basic principle of photography seems so simple when you start here.

Happy Pi Day

Question: What is the value of pi?

Answer: For a fair approximation of pi, first look at the Google trends search for pi and detect when the annual spikes occur. Call this SpikeDay. Then take SpikeDaymonth + SpikeDayday/100.

Question: How many polygon sides would you need to get this accurate with the approximation used by Archimedes?

Answer: 96 (more or less).

Question: What do you call a 96-sided polygon?

Answer: Round (more or less).

Question: What do you call the period between Square Root of Christmas on March 5th (the square root of 1225 is 35) and Pi Day on March 14th?

Answer: Nerdigras, of course.


(Pi ice cubes spotted on Inspire Me Now)

Robot pictures

When I was in grad school, I spent a lot of time in an aerospace robotics lab. People were doing research on things like robotic astronauts that juggle satellites and arm wrestle in space. Actually, they were pretty primitive things back then, and it was all we could do to keep them from damaging themselves and anything or anyone nearby. The motors were powerful, and if the software failed for some reason, you could very quickly have a big heavy robot arm whipping around like the bottom of a blender. That’s why there was a tape outline of just how far each robot arm are could reach. And that’s why there was always a prominent big red button that said STOP next to every robot. And that’s why I find pictures like this terrifying.


That’s German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the right there along with Arnold and the CEO of Intel. One bad gain in the controller for that arm and WHACK! you’d have a news-making photo op there. I hope the robot was unplugged. But then again, robots have come a long way, so maybe my instincts are old-fashioned by now. The photo above was culled from this Boston Globe Big Picture photo essay on robots. Lots of fun stuff and good variety too. There’s a baby seal robot for soothing hospital patients that has a brilliant touch: you recharge it by putting a plug shaped like a pacifier into its mouth. Predictably, there’s a Japanese robotic Tyrannosaurus, but if you ask me, this is a much cheaper (and safer) way to invite a T. rex over to your museum.

Fish shows the value of keeping a clear head

There are many species of cave fish that, after millennia in utter darkness, have either lost their eyelids or lost their eyes entirely. You might think that losing your eyelids is a way station on a one-way trip to blindness. But the barreleye fish (for its tubular, or barrel-shaped, eyes) lost its eyelids even as its eyes were bulking up and becoming more powerful. Barreleyes live in the deep sea where there is still just enough light filtering down from the surface to silhouette a snack, provided you are looking straight up and have the necessary light-gathering equipment.

So, let’s say you are Mother Nature and you are presented with this puzzle: giant tubular light-collecting eyes and no eyelids. Hmmm… what to do? I know! Why not evolve a transparent head?

Look at this picture.


The things that look like eyes are actually nose-like things called nares. The head itself is clear, and the eyes are those giant green things lodged deep in the head jelly. In fact, the green things are the lenses on top of cylindrical eyes, and they point straight up, perpendicular to the body axis, like a twin telescopes in a sheltering observatory dome.

Now, look at the picture again and read the last paragraph again. It may help to mutter to yourself those are not eyes… those ARE eyes. It takes a while to sink in.

I don’t blame you if you don’t want to take my word for it. Read more about it here: MBARI News Release – Researchers solve mystery of deep-sea fish with tubular eyes and transparent head. That Mother Nature… where does she get her material?

Thanks to Greg Wilson for the tweet on this one.

Greek to you, Chinese to me

Strange Maps had a lovely map of mutual incomprehension among languages last week: Greek To Me. It’s reminiscent of the old X-is-the-new-Y diagram I wrote about a while back.

Read the commentary under the map. There’s some good stuff in there. Most poignant to me is the Esperanto taunt Estas Volapuk al mi! (“It’s Volapük to me!”). Volapük is another made-up language, and it’s so uncool that even the Esperanto speakers make fun of it. Man, if you can’t sit at the same lunch table with the Esperanto speakers, you are one sad wanker.