Ipod

I recently bought an iPod when I was in America, and have been very happy with it since – it’s proved its worth on many an occasion, including long car journeys. However, when I upgraded to the latest version of the firmware, which offered various significant new features, there was a drastic drop in battery life. Before upgrading, I could expect to get around eleven hours of play. Now, I’d be lucky to get a few hours.

Unsurprisingly, no-one was happy with this on the Apple iPod discussion boards. With Apple staying characteristically tight-lipped about the unacknowledged problem (they generally don’t comment on such things until they have a solution) the users set to work trying to figure out the cause of the problem.

Through a bit of experimentation and a few dozen user reports, the current theory is that the introduction of a clock and alarm feature in the new firmware is responsible for the bad battery performance; I found that after performing a hard reset of the iPod and then turning the alarm off, my battery life was back to normal.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the clock, myself; the iPod has always had a clock, only it’s never been visible before. The alarms however are new, and if having alarms switched on requires the iPod to regularly check the current time against any alarms set (even if you have no alarms set) then it’s very possible that this is the cause of the problem. As for the hard reset, I have no idea whether this is useful or not – I only mention it because some people have turned the alarms off and they still have bad battery performance – perhaps resetting the iPod is necessary to get battery life back up again.

Malls

Something that bothers me about the malls in America is the fact that you can’t look around freely. These otherwise pleasant and interesting places have stalls set up in the centre of their ‘streets’ which are invariably populated by mobile phone companies, and if you should even glance in their general direction, they’ll call out to you and say something like, “Hey boss! Have you heard about Cingular’s new special offer?” After a while, this starts to grate since I happen to value being able to walk around malls with my thoughts to myself and not be disturbed by loud vendors.

This trend went to ridiculous extremes last weekend, when I saw a Verizon vendor call out to a guy walking past tapping on his mobile phone, “Is that a Cingular phone?” The guy replied, “Uh, yes.” I paused, fearing some sort of altercation in which the Verizon vendor would start hurling abuse at the Cingular man. As it was, he just started extolling the virtues of Verizon to the increasingly uncomfortable passerby.

As a result, I’ve taken to walking in the malls staring fiercely ahead in the direction I’m walking, making sure that I never meet the eyes of the vendors. I understand they’ve got a job to do – sell mobile phones – but is it really necessary to be so intrusive?

Change Blindness

Change Blindness is an interesting psychological phenomenon that’s attracting a lot of research these days. There are a number of theories about why it occurs, and from a quick look at the literature I’m inclined to think it’s something to do with the role of attention and something called re-entrant processing.

DC

I’ll be heading off to Washington DC on Tuesday, and I’m told that most of the museums and zoos there have free entry. Considering that I managed to spend about $35 just going to one (small) museum and one (big) zoo for an afternoon in San Diego, I’m pretty pleased.

My experience of San Diego Zoo was varied. After getting in, I was immediately immersed in a queue of indeterminate length, seeing indeterminate animals. I haven’t been to many zoos recently, but I only expect to have to queue in places with rollercoasters, not animals. Anyway, after the first queue things easied up significantly such that the further away I got from the entrance of the zoo, the fewer people there were, with the exception of the famous pandas, which I suspect I could have spent the entire day queuing to see.

Animals like the elephants, giraffes, koala bears and polar bears all had surprisingly few people watching, whereas the snake house was so packed that I just gave up (my reasoning: seen one snake, seen them all). But overall, there was a hell of a lot of people there, and I was fairly sure that most of them weren’t locals. Hmm, I thought to myself.

On getting back to the lab, people let me into the secret that in fact, no San Diego locals went to the zoo. Certainly not on weekends, anyway. I nodded my head sagely. These San Diego people are a wily bunch, what with their perfect weather and beaches.

Armchairs and onions

One of the great things about being in UCSD right now is that I get to go to any classes I want, free of charge (unlike the poor saps who have to pay hundreds of bucks for the privilege – of course, they need course credit…). So at one of the recent cognitive neuroscience classes I went to (they’re really lectures), a guest speaker was there – a philosopher-turned-neuropsychologist.

During his lecture, one of the most amazing things happened. I didn’t fall asleep. Granted, I did doze off for a few seconds during the previous speaker’s lecture, but even so. Anyway, this ex-philosopher was talking about that old chestnut, the mind body problem, and also of course qualia.

I was expecting that I wouldn’t hear anything that was particularly new to me, since this was essentially an introductory one hour lecture and I’ve read a few books by people like Dennett that cover the same sort of material. Luckily, I was wrong. The first thing that caught my attention was the speaker’s listing of two conceptions of philosophers, the armchair conception and the onion conception.

The armchair conception is what we traditionally think of philosophers as; people who seek to answer questions a priori, that is, without experience of the matters in question. This means that, surprisingly enough, they can do everything from their armchairs. Scientists on the other hand act a posteriori, by conducting experiments and looking at the world.

The problem with this, the speaker argued, is that many philosophers such as Aristotle and William James defied the armchair classification because they did conduct experiments. Aristotle, for example, had a great interest in biology and went around dissecting things to find out more about them. So to accommodate this, there’s the onion conception. In this, the area of knowledge and questions that philosophers address is continually shrinking inwards, and as it shrinks, the layers it sheds become new disciplines that are more capable of addressing those questions that philosophy alone cannot. One of the first layers to be shed would be mathematics, and then subsequently disciplines such as biology, physics and so on.

One of the latest disciplines to be shed is psychology, which didn’t even exist separately until around one hundred and fifty years ago. Psychology and the now related area of neuroscience are now thus capable of better investigating the nature of the mind body problem, qualia, consciousness and all the rest.

Another great thing about being in UCSD is seeing the heavyweights of psychology and neuroscience plan their strategies and arguments. A couple of days ago I was having coffee with Prof. Ramachandran and a few others, and we were discussing how to pin down Damasio’s somatic marker theory, which is a hot topic in psychology and is regularly taught in psychology courses across the world. It struck me then, that, wow, this is how and where science gets made.

Rez

Some good news in the lab, amidst all the unending software issues: one of the students may be bringing in Rez tomorrow (the famous self-styled ‘synaesthesia’ computer game) for the interests of ‘research’. Yeah, right. Naturally, I’ll have to demonstrate to the other lab members exactly how much research I’ve done into this important phenomenon…

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.

SemiShake

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.

Airports

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.