When I am famous, I will decline interviews

Reading the 5-page staged and glossy magazine interview in a hotel room with a famous actor has always filled me with a peculiar kind of existential dread. There’s something a little horrifying about an hour of conversation in cold type, bereft of the intonation, expression, context and rapport that make anything one says out loud bearable. And at the end of it all, to be distilled, distorted, interpreted and weighed by the pen of a stranger… Who could have the strength of character to read about but not become their own caricature?

In contrast, the last page of the Sunday Times magazine features ‘a life in the day of’ a happy array of personalities and professions. I like the concreteness of a single day as a window into someone else’s micro challenges and achievements. I realize that these days are probably fictionalized composites – but fiction makes for a sweet, concentrated and memorable pill. And at the end of it, there is no distillation, no weighing – just the reality of a daily rhythm.

When I am famous, I will decline interviews.

P.S. That said, I still remember being stopped in my tracks when a fashion photographer relative asked me sweetly ‘what did you today?’ in the midst of my PhD. My day had consisted of:

  • 2 hours debugging a misplaced comma
  • so that I could finish the 3-day long project of rearchitecting my non-parametric statistics to work across-subjects
  • in order to get a better sense of whether results from the latest in a long line of experiments were actually better than chance
  • so that we could tell whether reminding people and distracting them at the same time was causing them to forget
  • to test our computational theory that half-remembering a memory actually weakens it
  • which would have deep implications for our understanding how the brain learns and self-organizes

But really, I’d been comma-hunting, and it seemed hard to fit that into a the kind of response usually expected from ‘what did you do today?’.

Eroding our minds

I said that I thought “there’s something irresponsible about making money from advertising”.

Matt Weber was right to point out that although people hate the idea of targeted ads, they can be genuinely useful. Though I don’t think a very large proportion of the available advertising real estate offers the possibility for really great targeting.

[Of course, good advertising can be an art form in itself. And by funding most of our software and reading materials, advertising adds tremendous value to our lives.]

But even on the internet, most advertising still feels as though it’s about increasing our familiarity with the brand.

Think of advertising in terms of cognitive fluency, i.e. how easy we find something to process. There are lots of ways to make something fluent – make it easy to read, easy to pronounce, write it in a simple font, or in high contrast.

Things that are fluent (easy to process) get processed faster. We tend to like fluent things better, find fluent statements more valid. We think companies with fluent names are more valuable.

Advertisers have (implicitly) known this for a long time. By incessantly dinging our minds with an advert over and over, we are gently having that brand branded upon our minds, making it easier to process, more familiar, and making us unwittingly and unjustifiedly like it more. Like the banks of a river worn smooth by the ceaseless flow, advertising erodes our minds.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

Why is it that chocolate and whisky help when I want a cigarette?

What does it mean that I can sometimes quench the belly-fire-for-fire with chocolate or whisky? Is this some kind of interchangeable appetite for the appetitive? I just want something bad for me? Or that these are all different sources of endorphins, and OD’ing on one source of pleasures drowns out the baleful vacuum of an alternative, absent pleasure?

We only use 10% of our brains?

The myth that we only use 10% of our brains is sticky and gets everywhere, much like glue-dipped belly button fluff. And just like glue-dipped belly button fluff, it’s a nuisance, and can only be combatted with the even-stickier duct tape of truth. Rather than attempting to be exhaustive, I’ll simply appeal to your intuitions to try and make sense of how it’s nonsense.

The urban legend that we only use 10% of our brains is true in the same way it’s true that we only use 10% of a piano. Have you ever seen even a concert pianist press more than ten keys at once? It wouldn’t be too hard – one could probably manage 20 or 30 by adding elbows, and maybe even more with props. But it would sound terrible – all of the informative signal that goes into making music rather than noise is in the choice and timing of the keys that get pressed. It’s the pattern of keypresses that matters.

The same is true of the brain. It may be that only (say) 10% of neurons are firing at a given moment, but that pattern of firing is what matters – the choice and timing of which neurons are active is what constitutes thought.

It is worth noting that, just like the piano, there are bits of your brain that are active more often than others – you can probably get rid of the very lowest and very highest notes without too much of a problem, though occasionally things might sound a little odd. The same is true for people and animals – you can lose a few thousand neurons heading a football or downing shots and no one will notice. But if you lose a big chunk of brain, or multiple keys in a row, then the music is going to sound pretty bad.

Email is the mind-killer

I must not email.
Email is the mind-killer.
Email is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my email.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the email has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Sensing the buzz at a conference

I go to a lot of conferences. Often, there’ll be lots of posters hanging up at the same time as workshops and presentations and it’s difficult to figure out what to go and see at a given moment. Imagine if everyone had an RFID tag in their badges (at their choice) that anonymously logged their movements. Wouldn’t it be useful to know the whereabouts of people who like the same things I do? The schedules tend to be organised in blocks of an hour or two. Feeling at a loose end, I could peer at my laptop, and have the various sessions and posters ranked for me, based on guesses about which things I’d be most likely to enjoy.

Of course, when the session switches, the system’s guesses about what I should see will be basically at chance. Within a short time though, based on the number of people and length of time spent in different places, the system can start to accumulate evidence for its recommendations. And it wouldn’t be too hard to seed its guesses based on the text from the abstracts.

Conferences certainly aren’t the only or even the best example of how to use this information. But if I was a company doing this, I’d make sure the RFID tags are entirely optional, anonymize and noisify the data to assuage privacy concerns, and provide an API to access the data for free, so that enterprising folks could easily build mashups and try out alternative algorithms. Something interesting might come out of it, and it would be a fun way of generating publicity.

Any idea how much 30,000 RFID tags would cost?