The muses are deaf, so speak up

Good thoughts tend to shy away from short walks with a destination. They’re kept at bay by the neuroses and instant replays that circle endlessly like tethered carrion.

Do you want to know the only way I’ve found to think while walking? Talk out loud. Loudly proudly aloud. Feel free to gesticulate. Close your eyes if traffic conditions permit. Tell yourself a story. Don’t use your normal voice.

Why would talking out loud make such a colossal difference? Perhaps because repetition feels explicitly boring out loud, so we avoid re-treading the same paths. Perhaps because full sentences flush and flesh out our half-thoughts? Perhaps because serializing our massively parallel murmur squeezes the thoughts out one at a time with greater velocity, like putting your thumb on a hose.

The effect is so striking that I’ve wondered about potential neuroscientific explanations. It could be that different neural pathways are being activated – perhaps it is only by vocalizing that we recruit speech production areas, or only by hearing our own voice we recruit speech comprehension areas. Or just that there’s less neural juice sluicing down the byways of my mind during my inner monologue, and the extra oomph required to speak gives the thoughts extra vivacity.

The explanation I favour? If I’m going to have to listen to myself, I want to be entertained.

P.S. For best results, wear a hat and learn to talk like Tom Waits.

Communal interactive jukebox

[I wrote this in 2003 - there are still pieces of this vision that haven't been realized]

why isn’t there a little wireless didgeridoo that just sits next to a cd player (stereo audio input), with a wireless network card, and maybe an ip address or a network id or something that you can initially configure easily/remotely by plugging in a computer via a usb or something, that just sits there and plays whatever your laptop running winamp tells it to by wireless???

apparently these exist already :(
but they’re pretty crap at the moment – they’re proprietary, and are only just getting up to speed with 802.11b etc.

this doesn’t exist though:
you could set a password to it, and then anyone with a laptop nearby who knew its id and had the password, could wrest control of it, e.g. at a party. better still, you could have a sort of queuing system/software for allowing different users to place requests, and people could vote whether they like what’s playing and that person’s reputation would go up – like slashdot karma – it would be a sort of communal interactive jukebox

Sssssssshhhhhhhhhhh… for now

I suppose I must really care about mobile phones ringing, since this is the third piece I’ve written about it. Maybe it’s just that I really care about auditory pollution. Or that it seems like a problem that affects billions of people and hasn’t been given enough thought.

I often want to silence my phone for an hour or so, while in a meeting or class. However, I know that I’ll forget to turn the ringer back on afterwards. This is a failure of prospective memory (‘remembering to remember’), and it’s something I feel I have almost no control over.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could set one’s phone to be silent for an hour, safe in the knowledge that soon after the meeting ended, you’d be back in business? Isn’t this what we always want?

Mobile phones should be felt but not heard

I can never hear or feel my phone when it rings, no matter how loudly or how insistently hornet-like the trilling and shrilling and buzzing and fuzzing.

For this reason, I got very excited when I heard that they now make a Bluetooth bracelet that buzzes when your phone rings.

Better still though, I’d like a sticky Bluetooth (Gluetooth?) doodad that you could affix to a watchstrap or a belt or a ring that stayed charged by dynamo from the kinetic energy of my movements – that would be much less obtrusive.

Alleviating tinnitus, and the shape of the auditory phenomenological landscape

Tinnitus is a chronic condition where you hear a ringing in your ears – for acute sufferers it can be very loud and never stops. This is tortuously unpleasant.
I wonder if this has been tried – could you alleviate the symptoms of tinnitus by playing in a kind of psychologically out-of-phase sound, to cancel the ringing sound experienced? Of course, the normal physics of waves and phases won’t hold true here, since the perceived sound isn’t ‘real’ (i.e. external, based on moving currents of air).
However, I wonder if there might be psychological rules about sounds where some external sound of the right characteristics might cause a kind of neural interference, and disrupt the perception of the tinnitus sound.
One could imagine having a tinnitus subject navigate with gradient descent through a space of auditory parameters, rating the subjective intensity of the tinnitus sounds while listening to different external sounds. Eventually, you might find a point in the auditory parameter landscape where the tinnitus wasn’t too annoying. With enough participants, you might learn something interesting about the shape of that landscape, and about the phenomenology (and neural representations) of audition.
In principle, I suppose, one could do this with non-tinnitus sufferers, but I’m assuming that the tinnitus sounds are constant and so would provide a fixed point of comparison.

UPDATE: hah! It looks like someone’s trying to do something a little akin, though it uses a more physiological than phenomenological mechanism. I wonder what made them pick a low hum? See Teen inventors fight tinnitus

Open source the Drobo data format

The Drobo is an amazing device – it allows you to pop in a handful of old hard disks, and it effectively pools them so that they show up as a single drive to your OS. It even distributes data redundantly across them to give you peace of mind with old disks. And it’s hot-swappable.
When our lab was seeking an archival solution, this sounded perfect. But unfortunately, the Data Robotics people are trying to solve a hard problem, and there are a good number of unhappy people on the internet complaining about losing swathes of data. The really unfortunate part of this is that all the data on the hard disks that you add to the Drobo unit are stored in some kind of proprietary format that presumably facilitates the distributive algorithm at the center of Drobo’s cleverness. As a result, the only way to read the data on those Drobo’d disks is with a Drobo. So if things get hosed, then there’s no recourse but to send it off to them.
So here’s my proposal. Open source the Drobo data format. Keep the hardware and the distributive algorithm proprietary. But make it very easy for other people to build apps that talk to Drobo boxes.
  • Maybe a cottage industry of hardware repair shops and that specialize in Drobo maintenance and repair will spring up. All to the good. Data Robotics’ expertise and value lies in building products, not providing services. These repair shops customers with reassuring alternatives, become evangelists for the product, and might even add value by building good third-party add-ons.
  • Likewise, encourage a developer ecosystem. Someone might even come up with their own distributive algorithm that’s better than Data Robotics’.
  • Paradoxically but importantly, by reducing the barrier to exit by making it easier for people to get their data off the Drobo, you actually reduce the barrier to entry.
The value of the Drobo is in the hardware, and maybe in the distributive algorithm, but not in the data format.

Mobile phone ringing

Everyone hates it when a mobile phone rings in a cinema, classroom or restaurant. Especially if it’s yours.

It’s so easy to forget to mute the ringer. It’s even easier to forget to turn the ringer back on at the end of the lecture. Turning ringers on and off seems beneath us, and beyond us.

Clearly, it would be better if our phone could decide when to ring for itself. This kind of ‘context-awareness’ is actually a very hard problem. Here’s one simple algorithm that might go a long way towards helping.

If my phone can pick up lots of other mobile phones in close proximity, and they’re not moving away, then assume it should be more silent. This covers most of the cases we’d want, where lots of people are sitting together, and no one wants to be disturbed. It excludes cases where we’re walking down the street surrounded by lots of other people, but none of us are sticking around.

I can think of a few cases where this might fall down. If I’m anxiously awaiting a call from the hospital about a loved one, I want the phone to ring wherever I am. If I’m sitting in a noisy coffee shop, I want it to ring loudly, and no one will be particularly disturbed.

But on balance, this seems like a good heuristic. Instead of having a manual ‘mute’ button, we might just let the phone guess, and have a manual ‘loud override’ button for the above cases.
The problem is that often, we’d rather our devices be dumb but predictable than smart but surprisingly and unpredictably tricksy.