The Media Lab

In one of the slower periods at the lab, I browsed through the mini library we have here and began flipping through The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT by Stewart Brand. It was absolutely fascinating reading – not because the Media Lab is an interesting place, but because the book is fifteen years old.

The book was written a little after the opening of the Media Lab, which is essentially a technology laboratory looking at the cutting edge of ‘neat computer things’ (my term). It’s amusing to consider that if you stripped the book of dates and numbers, then you’d have both a good description of the current state of technology, and also a good overview of the research the Media Lab is still conducting.

For example, there is talk of electronic books – and we’re now at the stage where they could conceivably be on the mass market within half a decade. There’s talk of interactive TV (which we have) and artificial intelligence natural language processors and parsers (which, yes, we still don’t have). Holography is featured quite heavily, and there are the usual predictions of 3D TV – which I really fail to see the point of.

Between them, Brand and the Media Lab get a lot of things right (e.g. Brand: “I’m inclined to believe that the ideal content for CD ROMs are those multivolume reference works and subscription services…” and MIT: “CD ROM is by definition an interactive medium.”) There’s a nice prediction for personal video recorders which almost exactly mirrors what we have with Tivo, and a discussion about the problems of bandwidth.

Of course, what I found most enjoyable were the predictions that were completely wrong, including the fear that not only might DATs (Digital Audio Tape) overtake CDs, but they could result in mass piracy. About email: “[In the US] if it happens by a provider, it’s going to happen when the banks develop a standard and decide it’s in their interest to pay the costs of getting the terminals out there.” And my favorite, half a gigabit is “effectively, infinite bandwidth.” If only it were so…

It seems to me that many of the problems that the Media Lab was looking at back then have been solved and exceeded, in the form of the Internet and innumerable consumer electronics devices. The problems that haven’t been solved reflect a misunderstanding on the Media Lab’s part of the complexities involved in, say, cheap and effective holography, or that old chestnut, AI.


Whenever I go on holiday, I always think it’d be a good idea to do something spontaneous and unusual. Most of the time though I don’t really bother since there isn’t anyone I know who’s around to watch, and in any case the ideas I have invariably involve a fair amount of risk or money. So on Saturday, after a long visit to San Diego Zoo and the nearby science center, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society performing in the park and looking for actors.

The Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society puts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday in Balboa Park, and practically all of their actors simply walk in off the street (as it were). After watching a couple of scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought it’d be fun taking part and within a few minutes I was being coached through Act IV Scene III as the Second Lord.

The scene was fairly long and the guy I was talking with mainly was pretty good. As for my own performance, I don’t know how that went – the audience didn’t throw anything at me, at least, and there was even a good bit of applause at the end. Having an English accent obviously helped.

A real problem with doing this sort of thing in the UK is that the weather is completely unreliable, and since the point of the society is to get members of the public to participate in a classical production with the minimum of effort, it really does have to be done in a public place like a park with decent weather. Of course, this is no problem for San Diego, which I have long since concluded has the best weather in the world.


About twice every year, there’ll be a newspaper story about how Heathrow or some major metropolitan airport wants to add more runways. This story will be immediately followed by complaints from nearby residents’ group organisations about noise pollution. My typical thought used to be, “Get over it. We need more transport capacity, and I’m sure the noise is nothing double-glazing can’t fix.”

And so I kept believing this blithely until I got here in San Diego, and now live in a flat that’s directly below the flight path of F-18 Hornets from the nearby Marine base. These jetfighters will periodically scream over the canyon, creating a low rumble that cannot be avoided by any measures whatsoever and worst of all, last night they prevented me from hearing the punchline of a sitcom joke that looked as if it might be good. I’m already mildly annoyed about it, and that’s with perhaps at most half a dozen flyovers every evening. I can only imagine that it’s far worse for people living near Heathrow.

Of course, there’s not much to be done about it now for current residents. Hopefully in a few decades time this will be less of an issue due to current research in developing supersonic jets that will not produce sonic booms.

American TV

Yesterday, I read an article at the Guardian about Big Brother 3 in the UK, which among other things mentioned that Channel 4’s editing of the primetime programmes results in a drastically skewed view of the contestants. I thought, “Well, obviously.”

Then last night, while watching Big Brother 2 here in the US (I see it as an ethological exercise) I found myself being driven into a frenzy by the apparent evil character of pretty much everyone on the show. During a break, I paused to ponder why there’d been such a reversal in the personalities of all the contestants who were seemingly nice the week before, and of course then I remembered the Guardian article.

It seems that Big Brother represents the ultimate in media manipulation; while many people including myself have had the misfortune of being quoted out of context in the media, if you’re careful about what you say, you can avoid too much unhappiness. However, when everything you do and say is being recorded constantly, it would take a phenomenal effort to prevent yourself from saying anything incriminating, or making any outbursts. I’m sure that if you recorded me for 24 hours a day, you’d find enough nasty stuff to fill a ten minute clip per week.

Another thing that I’ve noticed while watching US TV is the clever way in which they schedule advert breaks. Apart from being far more (and too) frequent, they’re scheduled so that the end of one programme and the start of the next are invariably not separated by a break. This happens pretty often on series where they show two episodes back to back. It’s quite a clever technique, and I imagine we’ll be seeing it in the UK before long.


Having just read three novels, I’ve come up with a theory about the quality of books. Namely, if a book withstands rereading at least once, it’s probably good. Additionally, if a book that reads well initially does not lend itself to rereading, it may not be as good as your initial impressions gave it.

I say this because the rereadability of the three novels I bought (Metaplanetary, Flashforward and The Light of Other Days) correlates very well with their actual quality. I found all three relatively entertaining while I read them, although Metaplanetary held my attention the best, followed by Flashforward. However, I discovered that I physically could not reread Flashforward. I had no favorite sections, and it struck me that for a large portion of the novel, nothing actually happened.

I could reread sections of The Light of Other Days, but it wore off after a while due to the blandness of the setting. Two weeks after I bought Metaplanetary, I still reread passages every so often; true, it’s perhaps 50% longer than the other two books, but my time spent rereading it doesn’t scale. Not only does a lot happen in it, but it’s also interesting. My past experience with good books agrees with all of this – the books I reread tend to be of a decent quality.

Of course, this doesn’t always apply. I can think of a few great books which I simply don’t feel like rereading, and I can think of a few average books which, for whatever reason, I continually reread.


Things at work are proceeding along fairly smoothly. I’ve been running the first set of subjects on my pilot experiment during the last couple of days and processing the results (too early to tell whether they’re ‘good’ or not).

Probably the most exciting thing that’s happened around here was a BBC crew interviewing the head of the lab, Prof. Ramachandran, for a series about the neural mechanisms of dance, to be aired in September on BBC 2. It was quite fun to chat with the crew and see their bizarre clothing. Anyway, they left this morning to go and cover a wedding in New York (something to do with the human posture, I’m told).

A Blog Too Far

The Guardian has just launched a competition for the ‘Best British Blog’. As far as I know, it’s the most lucrative competition of its type ever, with a £1500 prize fund. I, like many others, believe that this isn’t a good idea. It fosters an uncomfortable kind of competition in an area that doesn’t need it, and isn’t even suitable for it – how exactly do you judge what the best weblog is?

I find it similar to the type of competition ABC is trying to create with its seven figure Push, Nevada prize for the mmoe/ARG community, in other words, mildly distasteful and ultimately unproductive. If the Guardian wants to promote the visibility of weblogs and what they are, there are far better ways to do it than this.


People might be wondering what it is that I’m doing in San Diego, beyond my rather nebulous description of ‘research’. Right now I’m working in the research labs of V. S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego Center for Human Information Processing on an experiment to investigate an interesting condition called synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is basically what happens when your senses get mixed up and interconnected in strange ways. For example, when some synaesthetes read letters or digits, they’ll see them coloured (even when they don’t originally have colours). Others will associate sounds, music, shapes or even people with colours or smells. Essentially, any combination of the senses is possible, although grapheme-colour synaesthesia (a grapheme is a character) is the most common.

Estimates of the prevalence of synaesthesia vary from 1 in 200 to 1 in 20,000. The people in the lab I’m working at tend towards the former number. If that’s the case, chances are that you know someone personally who has synaesthesia – the only problem is that synaesthetes are either embarrassed about talking about their experiences, or they simply think that everyone is like them. One day the graduate student I’m working with was talking to a friend about a synaesthete who, when listening to speech, would see the words scroll along the bottom field of his vision, like subtitles. The friend said, “But doesn’t everyone have that?”

It’s generally thought that synaesthesia has a significant genetic component, and because it tends to be passed along the female line, it probably resides in the X chromosome. For a long time it was believed this couldn’t be true because Vladimir Nabokov had synaesthesia and so did his son Dmitri – so this meant that it couldn’t be in the X chromosome (sons inherit only the Y chromosome from their fathers). Of course, it turned out that Nabokov’s wife was also a synaesthete.

Why is synaethesia a big deal all of a sudden? Synaesthesia was ignored for a long time by psychologists due to the long-lasting age of behaviourism (‘don’t listen to what the subject says, just measure him’), and in any case many people simply thought synaesthetes were speaking metaphorically, e.g. “This cheese has a pretty sharp taste.” A series of pioneering experiments conducted over the last ten and twenty years have completely reversed this, showing that not only is synaesthesia a genuine phenomenon, but it’s also a perceptual one. By this, I mean that synaesthetes really see (say) colours when they see numbers. It’s not that they have an eidetic memory and can learn the sensory associations, they really experience them.

This has resulted in some interesting findings. Synaesthetes appear to have superior memory, and their ability to associate senses makes for good artists and writers. One of the things we’ll be doing in the lab is to talk to a trilingual synaesthete who experiences colours when she hears words – will the same word in the different languages elicit the same colour? Or will the phonological properties of the word – the sound of the word – matter more than the semantic meaning?

The point behind all of this is not merely to have a look at an interesting new condition. Synaesthesia also promises to shed light on some of the more profound questions about attention, perception, information processing in the brain, and consciousness. As such, it’s a very ‘sexy’ new topic and researchers are flocking towards it. It’s already been featured in a computer game, Rez (which is also very fun) and the other day I saw a mention of it in a Stephen Baxter SF novel. The main thing I’m working on here is a metacontrast experiment that’s aiming to find out exactly when the experience of colour occurs in the processing of visual information in synaesthetes. It’s a useful experience for me, especially given that many key findings about synaesthesia were made by people in the lab I’m in now.