Brief Hiatus

I’ll be having a brief hiatus from posting here for the next few days, as I’m about a thousand words into an article I’m writing on an interesting new type of multiplayer online game. I’ve been looking forward to writing it for over a month and so far it’s not looking bad, although it’s finished form will probably bear no resemblance to what I’ve written.

Unfortunately, I seem to have caught a cold from while I was in Australia. I suspect that I actually had it for some time while I was there but it lay dormant, suppressed by the copious amounts of good food and sunshine I experienced. Naturally, as soon as I returned to the incessantly gloomy and rainy UK, it surfaced in chattering glee and cursed me with a sore throat and blocked nose. While theoretically neither of these symptoms should prevent me from writing at full speed, they joined forces with my jetlag to ensure that I just didn’t feel like working until today. Although that doesn’t sound much different from usual…

I’ve just about beaten the cold and it should be on its way out tomorrow,and not a minute too soon either, otherwise how would I manage to perform on the karaoke at my birthday party on Saturday? In any case, I managed to stop blowing my nose today long enough for me to sit down and do a bit of writing. To make up for the hiatus, I’ve updated my About page so it’s a little less out of date than usual.

Of course, I make no guarantees about returning here when I get bored from writing…

Lucid

I arrived back in the UK yesterday morning after a 24 hour journey from Sydney. Predictably, it was raining.

What I tried to do during the flights back home was to time my eating and sleeping so that I could reduce any jetlag I’d have caused by the ten hour time difference. The easiest way to do this is to set your watch to your destination time zone as soon as you step on the plane and go to sleep at the appropriate time; there are other things you can do but they’re more personalised.

Resetting your time zone would probably work really well except for the fact that you also have to spend a large amount of time in a plane, which is not really the best environment for sleeping. I suspect that if we used teleporters things would be much better in this respect.

In any case, it worked reasonably well for me. I arrived back home at 7am GMT on Monday, after having been awake for about 32 hours (OK, I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep on the plane, which aren’t counted). I managed to stay up (some might say heroically) until about 3pm when I decided to have a short nap; this would be 40 hours up continuously.

Unsurprisingly, that nap went on for about eight hours. Surprisingly, it was only the second time in my life that I have (if briefly) had a lucid dream, a dream in which I knew I was dreaming.

The first time I had a lucid dream came after about a week or two of fairly diligent practice and preparation. There are a few strategies out there to help you have a lucid dream, and the majority boil down to experiencing and recognising a sign that you are dreaming, within the dream. My preparation involved checking the time on my watch a few times a day and thinking to myself, ‘My watch looks like it should, so I’m not dreaming.’ The point of this was to get into the habit of checking the time so that I would do it in my dreams as well.

Soon enough, during a dream I checked the time and noticed that the watch was doing something wacky, such as changing the time when I looked at it twice in succession, or maybe going backwards, or whatever. At that point, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this is a dream!’ and it was a rather interesting experience, like waking up (but obviously not in the literal sense). Since the point of lucid dreaming is that you get to do whatever you want in the dream, I resolved to do a bit of flying, but for some reason I got caught up in the dream and lost self-consciousness. I was a bit disappointed by this and gave up the practice. This was probably over five years ago.

Last night’s lucid dream had a different beginning. I was chatting to someone who said something completely bizarre, and then I replied, ‘Hold on a second, that’s not possible, this must be a dream!’ and once again, I woke up and it was really a wonderful sensation. Alas, after only a few subjective minutes of lucidity, during which time I freaked out a bit because I thought I might make myself wake up properly by my antics in the dream, I lost self-consciousness again.

Anyway, this experience made me think about the physiological basis of the transition between normal and lucid dreaming. In normal dreaming, you are still conscious, in a sense – you are aware that you are yourself. However, you are not aware that you are actually in a dream; this is called meta-awareness by some.

So why is it that it’s so difficult to gain meta-awareness while dreaming, and how does it occur? Is it possible to observe some kind of neural correlate of the transition, perhaps by fMRI? I have to confess that I have no good theories on the basis of lucid dreaming, but it certainly does seem to be a ripe area for investigation by cognitive neuroscientists, especially those looking at the nature of consciousness, awareness and theory of mind (some might say that this would involve all of them).

Fourth time unlucky

Four times I’ve tried to go hang-gliding in Australia:

Wednesday: good windspeed, but in the wrong direction
Thursday: too windy
Friday: too windy
Saturday: too windy

The annoying thing is that the weather was perfect when I first got here. The even more annoying thing is that hang-gliding here is almost half the price of that in the UK, and there are more interesting things to look at.

Recursive

During dinner yesterday, I mentioned to Andrew Paul and The Official Bear Of The Third Millennium that I’d recently had an MRI scan done of my brain. Someone then said how strange it must be to see the activity of your brain in real time. I was just in the middle of replying that the experiment didn’t involve subjects seeing their brain, and that in any case it wasn’t possible, when I realised that it in fact was possible.

Creating images from MRI and functional MRI scans is very computationally intensive and analysing them even moreso. Up until recently, this has meant that it wasn’t really feasible to conduct an fMRI scan and see different areas of the brain ‘lighting up’ in real time. However, last year in UC San Diego at the brain imaging centre, one of the guys there mentioned to me that there was some really cutting-edge work done at some research institute that finally allowed scientists not only to see the workings of the brain in real time, but also zoom into the specific sections and essentially fly through the brain – in 3D.

Needless to say, neuroscientists who’ve heard about this – and they are few, because the technique (as far as I know) is not in use yet – are positively wetting themselves with excitement about the possibilities. Instead of waiting days or weeks after conducting a test to see the results and then planning subsequent tests, you could alter the scan immediately to focus in on regions of interest. Perhaps even more promising is the possibility of creating dynamic tests that respond to detected activity.

On the artistic front though, this new development has given me an interesting idea – wouldn’t it be awfully cool to be able to look at a computer screen and see a 3D image of your brain working in real time? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to fly around the inside of your brain, and see your auditory centres light up as you listen to music? Forget about biofeedback using heartbeat or galvanic skin response – it doesn’t get any better than biofeedback using your brain activity. Now, all I have to do is get an Arts Council grant…

Flight

For some reason, the term ‘shuttle diplomacy’ comes to mind when I think about how I’ve been zipping between different cities on the Australian east/southeast coast, despite the fact that I haven’t been doing any diplomacy. It’s probably because it sounds so cool.

It’s all coming to an end now, unfortunately. I’m leaving Newcastle this afternoon for Sydney, which will be my final stop before I fly back home on Sunday. Before I came here, everyone told me that four weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to ‘see everything’ in Australia. That is true, but then it’s nothing to be disappointed about considering the things that I have seen, and the fact that most people in Australia haven’t seen everything there either.

Yesterday I went up to the nearby Watangong mountains for a tandem hang-gliding session. No gliding was done, alas, because the winds weren’t blowing in the right direction – perhaps my prodigous reservoirs of luck have just about dried up. I’m going to give it another try this morning though. I did find it pretty amazing to be told that hang-gliders can regularly fly hundreds of kilometers; it was always my impression that they were fairly short range vehicles.

Altitude

The woman sitting next to me on the plane was snoring. The roar of the engines drowned most of the noise out, but she was definitely snoring. It was the more common variety of snoring, with a regular rattling sound as air passed through her nose by her epiglottis, not one of the rare snorers who emit noise in a radioactive decay fashion; randomly timed and powerful bursts. A few minutes after her daughter escaped across the aisle to talk to some friends, I decided to take out my iPod and listen to some music, unaware that this would cause no small amount of hilarity on her daughter’s part.

As we were preparing to land at Sydney, the daughter announced, “You were snoring!” The woman turned to me for a second opinion.

“Was I snoring?” she asked.

Diplomatically, I said, “Well, I suppose so, but it was quiet.”

She smiled. “You should have kicked me.”

“Ah, it didn’t bother me. I snore as well,” I confessed.

“How do you know?”

“My friends tell me.”

I’ve been aware for some time that I snore, certainly before I had a long-term girlfriend who was more sensitive to these sorts of things. The fact that I snore didn’t really bother me, and I did know that I wasn’t the loudest snorer out of my friends, judging from the elephant-like sirens heard at some of the more notable sleepovers I’ve been to. But these things have a tendency of surfacing on top of your consciousness as time goes on, and occasionally when I’m sleeping in close proximity to people whose opinions I care about, I manage to catch myself snoring and then stop it. I have no idea exactly how this works, that I can detect my own snoring, maybe it’s because the unique breathing patterns of sleep begin just before the loss of consciousness. Anyway, it happens.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen every time. When I went skiing last year, I’m reliably told that my snoring penetrated through two sets of doors with ease, rather like a nuclear-pumped X-ray laser. I can only offer my abject apologies to the person who was unfortunate enough to be sleeping next to me – personally, I blame the altitude.

AFL

Today was my last full day in Melbourne. In a vain attempt to try and buy some non-tacky souvenirs, we went to Victoria Market in the city. I did actually manage to buy two souvenirs that didn’t fall into the general category of ‘koalas and other Australian miscellaneia’ although it did take some time. To be honest, one of them doesn’t even have anything to do with Australia, it just happened to be a nice present.

All of this souvenir hunting put me in a bit of a thoughtful mood. A few of my friends are currently trotting around in distant places such as Mongolia, Indonesia and Peru. While Australia is also pretty distant from the UK, it doesn’t really reach the same kind of authentic ‘untouched by civilization’ wildlife feel, which might uncharitably be seen as a lack of backpacker attractive power. Either way, it is obvious that on maybe a dozen trips abroad in the last few years, I haven’t gotten any ‘closer to nature’ than my two weeks in the desert at Utah, which was a curious mix of technology and wilderness. Certainly I could have gone to some jungle somewhere (or something similar) instead of going to all of these conferences and western cities.

The thing is, I don’t really see the attraction of getting close to nature. I’m sure it’s a wonderful experience for those who like it and I suppose that I would like it as well if I tried it. However, the fact is that the main reason I travel is to meet interesting new people; if I happen to go and see some nature while I’m at it, great, but seeing the new people is what matters. Hearing the new ideas, visiting the places they like, seeing a new face laugh.

I read a short story by the SF writer John Barnes recently. I forget what it was exactly about, but the character shares my view. In his words, he prefers to commune with people instead of communing with nature. Perhaps I’m just having an automatic backlash against the backpacker culture of continually trying to find the newest, most untouched place on Earth (as I see it). What an old cynic I am.

In concordance with all of this, I communed with 25,830 other people at the Telstra Dome this afternoon to watch a game of Australian rules Football (AFL); St. Kildas against the Kangaroos. AFL can only be described as a mix of football (soccer), rugby and some indescribable Australian component. Actually, it’s not quite indescribable; it involves a lot of swearing and disorganised running around and hitting people – but in a good-natured way.

A while ago someone said I had a very innocent-looking face. Evidently other people wrongly believe this as well, because not only did an attendant open a new gate at immigration control for me at Sydney Airport (and then promptly close it after I’d gone through) but I managed to get my cousin and myself bumped up to the best seating in the stadium without saying a word. I have to say that I expected to pay more than �5 to get two people in; it wasn’t a mistake, incidentally, the ticket-seller simply said, ‘Oh, I can get you into better seats for the same price’ without explaining anything. Not that I wanted an explanation – that would’ve spoiled the magic.

This particular game was a great introduction; St. Kildas scored 61 points in the first quarter, which was 2 off the record. They slowed down in the second, and the Kangaroos caught up in the third. For most of the third and fourth quarters, the two teams went neck and neck in scores to the utter delight of myself and the utter desperation of the rest of the supporters. In the end, St. Kildas won by five points due to a goal (worth six points) scored within the last two minutes of the game. It would’ve been a perfect game but for the two hyperactive kids sitting beside me.

Oh, having heard my cousins play the piano here in Melbourne, I’ve found myself suffused with a strange and unfamiliar drive to start playing again myself, after about a four year hiatus. Who knows, maybe I’ll go completely mad and start playing the violin again.

Here in my car

There was a lot of driving today to go and see the Penguin Parade at Phillips Island, about two hours south of Melbourne. This will hopefully explain all of the exposition on driving that I’ll make later.

On the way to the Penguin Parade, we stopped off at a little wildlife sanctuary to see some of the indigeneous Australian flora and fauna. Animals seen: kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, galahs (of the ‘bloody galah!’ variety) and koalas. Perhaps in revenge for my disturbing their sleep, the wombats took great satisfaction in slowly and methodically eating my shoelaces.

The Penguin Parade is something that occurs at sunset on a protected beach on Phillips Island. The ‘little penguins’ as they are called there (I don’t know if that’s a scientific term, but apparently they are the smallest in the world at less than a foot tall) swim to a small beach at sunset every day after a hard day’s fishing, and proceed to arrive there in nervous groups. These groups huddle together right on the shoreline and look for any danger, evidently oblivious to the several hundred humans all sitting about a dozen metres away behind a rope. If there’s no immediate danger, they make a run across the beach up to the bushes to find their burrows for the night.

It’s fun to watch the penguins make their way up the hill (hence ‘parading’) from the beach to their homes. They do it in a gradual and curious manner, as if they’re tourists trying to find a place in a foreign city but are ignorant of the exact way they should go. Often you’ll see a penguin dash forwards for a few seconds and then pause introspectively for a minute at an intersection of paths. Perhaps they’re embarrassed at their pathfinding skills and are just pretending that they really meant to stop, not that they’re lost.

On the drive back, two things were recalled into my head. The first was my idea for combatting the problem of dangerous drivers. Currently there is no way to adequately make dangerous drivers accountable for their actions (e.g. bad overtaking); there just aren’t enough police, and you wouldn’t be able to do it via surveillance cameras either because computers aren’t smart enough and there aren’t enough operators.

So, the solution is to use the drivers affected themselves. Imagine this scenario: you’re driving along a motorway and someone suddenly cuts you off; you narrowly avoid a serious accident. Immediately, you go and whack a button in the centre of your wheel. This sends a message to the various video cameras attached to your car to send the previous and next thirty seconds of cached footage across the Internet, wirelessly, to some relevant authority. This authority watches the footage, and if it decides that bad driving features in it, it punishes the offender (identified by registration plate).

You could encrypt and digitally sign the video recording to ensure authenticity, and the authorities would probably wait for a number of reports for a certain driver before taking action. Voila – you have a system that allows the entire populace to identify and bring to justice bad drivers, effectively making everyone a traffic policeman. Furthermore, there are no significant technical obstacles to making this work in the near future; high quality digital video cameras are plummeting in price and high-bandwidth wireless networks are rapidly being constructed across the country. You wouldn’t need a great deal of storage space for the video data since only thirty seconds are cached (not that storage is expensive) and there are real safety benefits for having DV cameras in cars (black boxes, for one).

There’s plenty of incentive for the government to set up the system; it would help reduce the number of car accidents by a huge amount. All that’s left is the incentive for drivers to install and use the system. Hopefully it wouldn’t cost too much to add it to a car, and in any case, the sheer satisfaction in feeling that you are helping to bring a bad driver down is probably worth it. Who knows, this thing could eliminate road rage in a stroke. Perhaps the government could send an email to you if your video helped identify a dangerous driver; maybe even a small bounty isn’t out of the question.

Sure, I can think of a couple of ways in which this system could be attacked or abused, but I don’t think they’re dealbreakers. I wonder if I should patent this idea… in any case, it’d provide a useful stopgap until the day we have driverless cars.

My other driving idea had to do with accurate GPS and mapping technology, and how this might affect road signage, but it’s not all that interesting or coherent now I think about it.

Walking Away

I did an awful lot of walking today. Whenever I travel to a foreign city, I always end up walking practically everywhere, unless I’m going somewhere over an hour away. It’s not that I have anything against public transport, it’s just that it’s more immediately convenient for me to stroll around, and of course it has the added benefit of letting me see the city properly.

I started off today at Melbourne Museum and spent the morning looking around the various exhibits there; everything was of pretty good quality and the Aboriginal exhibit was, as is usual in Australia, extremely informative. I do have to admit that I made the occasional wince when they made a lot of factual errors about the origin of the Internet (and somehow managed to omit all mention of Darpa) and implied that MRI scans operated by use of electrodes.

All of this museum wandering has made me think how fun it would be for specialist museums to be set up by enthusiastic professionals. Instead of getting any old person to make, say, the Internet section of a museum, why not get Internet experts to do it? The old ‘open source’ chestnut could be used and I’m sure there wouldn’t be any shortage of volunteers to create high quality materials and displays. Plus, it would then be possible to create museums that would have cutting-edge information and links to more in-depth resources. Of course, the main problem is that of organisation, but that’s not insurmountable. I suppose it’s another thing to add to the to-do list.

I left the museum in the afternoon, eschewing the Imax next door (I don’t think that I’ve ever seen an Imax movie in the UK, but I have seen them in about every other country I’ve visited) and wandered around the city for a couple of hours. This is actually quite a long time to be wandering, especially in a crowded city. I had the unpleasant experience of thinking that people were following me around and just waiting to nick my bag, but then I can’t have looked that much like a tourist since I got asked for directions. My initial take on Melbourne is that while it has an awful lot of shops, it doesn’t have any shops that I would want to buy anything from. What’s more, it’s damn cold. However, these are only first impressions and at least the place has good pizza.

It’s late, but there’s still one thing that needs to be said: George Mason in 24 is played by the same guy (Xander Berkeley) who did John Connor’s adoptive father in Terminator 2. Yes, I just watched T2 Director’s Cut on TV. It’s a shame that old George Mason (for how can he be known as anyone else now?) has been meeting such sticky ends.