Physics & I have had a tumultous & fulfilling relationship. I was deeply enchanted by it while simultaneously struggling to be at ease with it’s mathematical form. I hated torque.
During A-Levels, when a choice came up between Physics and English, English seemed the natural choice It was also a perfect complement to French and History, my other subjects. Why I turned down Chaucer and a near certain ‘A’ grade for some of the most painful and frustrating moments I would experience those 2 years will be a rhetorical question to those whose life, relationships and work are made on similar choices. It is less about the road less traveled, and much more about alchemy. The process of transmutating our fleshy, unaware, material selves into conscious wisps of light & breath demands as its’ catalysts both fear and uncertainty. As we start to uncover, layer by layer, the shimmering translucence that we are, the addiction to the paradox is complete.
I never got good at Mechanical Physics, but Quantum Physics felt like home, a whispered secret from long ago that I had all but forgotten. Studying it was like a remembering.
I still remember the experience of hearing, no, feeling the experience of hearing that light was both a wave & a particle. It took my breath away. A normal 15 year old with no profound understanding of the sciences, this observation nevertheless shook me deeply.
Was that my first formal introduction to the paradox? Did I see in it the element that would define me above everything else? I know only that I fell deeply in love.
I return to writing after what feels like many lifetimes. I started to write so many times, but the words would peter away mid-sentence, resentful of my forced entreaties and waiting in sulken silence for me to leave them alone. I did.
I return to the wave-particle duality as the most fitting symbol of my many transmutations. In the process I learnt that I am both, Suvarchala & Aiishaa. I’ve learned also to love the pain of unresolution, the pinprick of non-choice as I undulate between two opposites. I feel textures that are invisible to me when I insist on the comfort of a singular truth. I hear magic in the unanswered question…
I’ve come a distance. The only part that matters is that I’ve loved fiercely, and with abandon, so.many.people. This is my greates accomplishment, and always will be.
For our Physical Computing final, my project partner Sajan and I decided to work on an assistive project for the visually impaired. Although we had many ideas, we realised that we really had no idea what the particular challenges and needs were that a blind person faced on a daily basis. We then set up a meeting with Walei, a young man who had gone blind much later in life. Meeting Walei put paid to a lot of our preconceptions and ideas. When we asked him to talk to us about his day to day experiences and his opinions on what could be ameliorated, his answers gave us wonderful insight into the unique ways in which he compensated for his lack of sight, including learning his way around New york by memorising it.
After talking to Walei and to Steven Landau, whose company creates aids for the blind, we decided to work on a device which would allow them to recognise the poeple in front of them or who are addressing them.
Using AR markers to act as name tags, we thought of using mobile phone cameras that would recognise the AR tags on the person in front of them and give them information back about the person via audio (using the phone itself). The tag could contain information such as the person’s name, profession and any other info that could be useful in helping the visually impaired person to understand the person in frot of the better.
My partner was also interested in working on a motorised Braille device, that would move to represent the person’s name in Braille as soon as the AR marker was read. He set out to work on this.
Having never worked with Android before, I asked for help and used the resources on the internet to figure out a way to program the phone to playback audio files and also to do image tracking. In time, and with plenty of help from Craig, I was able to program the phone to play back audio files. We also found an openGL library for the android that allowed us to do marker tracking. The phone’s camera recognised the marker and a 3D rectangle popped up.
From here, we thought it would be simple enough to change the code to make the audio files play instead of having the shape appear on recognition of the marker. However, it seems it is not quite that simple. While I can get the recorded MP3 files to upload and play separately on the phone and and also have the camera recognise the marker and give back an image, I ran into trouble with merging the two. In order to solve this I need to get deeper into the Android programming, which is where the problem lies. That is Step 2. Once that is done, technically at least, the phone will be able to read different AR markers and give audio feedback about the person wearing the specific AR tag.
I am continuing to work on the Android to get it to the point where the phone can read the markers and playback the relevant MP3 files. The concept works via Processing, where the recognition of a markers plays back the audio but without mobility, this application would be futile, so the most important step is to get it to work on Android.
This project has been the hardest and most frustrating one for both Sajan and I, but it’s also been the one we’ve gotten the most out of. Sajan struggled with the mechanics of making the motorised Braille work (more about this on his blog - http://itp.nyu.edu/~sr1971/myBlog/?cat=13). In the process, he learned a lot about different materials and their possibilities and limitations. I struggled with my lack of knowledge with the Android, but it also gave me the opportunity to start learning Android programming and get to know the most widely used mobile platform in the world. A lot of it seemed familiar because both Android and Processing have Java in common. However there are features peculiar to Android programming that I’ll be able to understand only by completely learning it. It was incredibly exciting though to be able to program something and upload it to the phone, only to see it as a feature on the phone! I can safely say I’m addicted :)
I enjoyed hearing Dan Dennett speak, though the idea he talks about is a familiar one. Memes as a powerful, shaping force have long existed, but technology has bestowed them with unprecedented power and influence. What interested me was the idea of competing memes and the lack of utility of judging certain memes as good or bad. My own ideas in this regard are influenced by Spiral Dynamics. To quote Wikipedia “Spiral Dynamics argues that human nature is not fixed: humans are able, when forced by life conditions, to adapt to their environment by constructing new, more complex, conceptual models of the world that allow them to handle the new problems. Each new model transcends and includes all previous models. According to Beck and Cowan, these conceptual models are organized around so-called vMemes: systems of core values or collective intelligences, applicable to both individuals and entire cultures.”
The ideas of Ken Wilber stress this aspect of transcending but including all previous models. This idea resonates with me because human beings are not linear. Our mental, psychological and ideological progression is rarely a straight upward graph. We spiral, and most often evolve differently in different aspects of our lives. Our professional life may belong to (to reference the Spiral Dynamic system) the Orange meme, reflecting ideas that are egalitarian and relativistic, but our personal relationships could be the authoritarian Blue.
Conflicting memes are what make our world interesting and complex, and I agree with the idea that the only way to counter a “harmful” meme is to strengthen the spread of your own self proclaimed “healthy” meme, but in this time of exploding, omnipresent information, it’s become even more crucial to become aware of what memes are “hijacking” us and to what end. Never was this more clear to me than when I was in India this summer and the country was going crazy with the anti-corruption protests. The idea, passion & anger spread quickly and virulently, which was a good thing, but as the demands of the activist spearheading the movement increased past the point where it challenged the constitution and demanded powers that needed to be questioned, the dissenting meme had little power.
Lastly, I’m beginng to realize there are no “good” or “bad” memes, just different stages of evolution. This is not to say that we have to be morally neutral. On the contrary, to have an opinion or belief and stand for it is important, but to be able to hold those beliefs lightly enough and accept that they may be challenged & changed in the course of our personal and cultural evolution opens us up to a lot more possibilities, not to mention interesting conversations. The implacable certitude of the religious fanatic is only matched by that of the immovable atheist and both conversations can be pretty short!
The appearance of Wholeness is the illusion that I’m most taken with. Our attachment to the belief that what we know, hear, see, feel and taste is the entirety or “as it really is” has to be the greatest laugh nature has on us. Awareness- the stepping out of ourselves to be the observer and acknowledging our essential unknowing would be a first interesting step for me. Also, how could we collectively interpret that unknowing so that life becomes less a conflict of vehemently defended half truths and more of a childish, silly building of mud castles, moulded with intent and joy, but held lightly enough to squeal with glee as the waves comes in and washes it away
Fig 1. Geek guide to structural-coupling
Andy Clark’s article brings to mind Francisco Varela’s approach called enactive cognitive science, borne of his dissatisfaction with both the cognitivist and connectionism views of the mind.
Enactive cognitive science is an approach to the study of mind that seeks to explain
how the structures and mechanisms of autonomous cognitive systems can arise and
participate in the generation and maintenance of viable perceiver-dependent
worlds—rather than more conventional cognitivist efforts, such as the attempt to
explain cognition in terms of the ‘recovery’ of (pre-given, timeless) features of The
(objectively-existing and accessible) World. (McGee, 2005, p. 19)
This notion of is echoed in the Gibsonian view of sensing with it’s agent-environment coupling and the ‘intimate intermingling of mind, body and world’ or as Clark puts it, ‘the sensor as an open conduit allowing environmental magnitudes to exert a constant influence on behavior’ .
What is fascinating about Varela’s approach is that it springs from the theory of autopoiesis, developed by him and Humberto Maturana. In his essay “Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Contribution to Media Ecology”, Ronan Halowell states,
“Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis demonstrates how biological entities,
through the organization of their components, self-produce the structures that define
them as living beings and how they interact with their environment through, what
they call, structural coupling”
While the early definition of autopoiesis stems from their done in cell biology, it had far reaching implications for cognition.
Mamatura’s famous experiment on the neurophysiology of the frog, entitled ” what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain” demonstrated that the frog’s brain constructed reality rather than represented it. From this they extrapolated that human brains
must behave similarly. According to Halowell, Maturana’s conclusion was that as humans with brain based language and consciousness, we do not actually experience an absolutely
objective world that is accurately re-presented to us faithfully through our cognition,
but that we bring forth observer-dependent worlds with other autopoietic unities and
our physical environment through, “a structural dance in the choreography of co-existence” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, p. 248).
What is engaging about the idea of autopoiesis and what Andy Clark is also arguing is that we’re not stagnant mechanisms, locked into a certain mode of behaviour and reaction, but that our reality, amazingly, seems to be of us, determined by our individual structure and our interaction with our environment.
The physical environment is not static. Humberto Mariotti, in his article “Autopoiesis, Culture and Society argues that living systems and the environment change in a congruent way. Environment triggers changes in the structure of systems, and systems answer by triggering changes in the environment and so on, in a circular way. When a system influences another, the influenced one answers by influencing back, that is, it develops a compensatory behavior. An autopoietic system is simultaneously, the producer and the product.
All of this supports Clark’s emphasis that we are “profoundly embodied agents”, able to recruit external aids to complement our inner workings, and in doing so, we
create a semi-permeable boundary between us and the world we co-create. While this leads to questions about our control over and role in the environment and experiences
we help create, it also points to the necessity of considering the external resources that we utilise, and that then go on to become our “transparent equipment”.
What are the nature of these aids, and what kind of behaviours do they foment? The belief that design carries within it a certain prescription of behaviour becomes
even more relevant in this context,where technology, used in a certain way has the ability to affect deep structural changes with far reaching implications.
Having said my bit for cautionary cynicism though, I mostly love the idea that this theory of us co-creating the world we inhabit, affecting our environments to behave differently, sometimes just by virtue of being in the equation, has its parallels in theories ranging from quantum physics to philosophy. The brain as computer analogy seems to fit the reductionist mode of thinking but the conception of it as a interdependent dynamic entity which co-determines the environment it inhabits allows a wider and deeper contemplation of the way we choose to live and the tools we choose to use.
What has Marlboro Lights got to do with the euphoric high of a really good kiss? In my case it turns out, everything.
As a non-smoker who detests (most) cigarette smoke, I find myself weak-kneed at the whiff of a Marlboro on a balmy evening. A warm tropical breeze combined with the heady scent of the lit cigarette careens me back to another evening almost 11 years ago, where a naive 18 year old with delusions of composure, would experience one of the best kisses of her life. The man in question smoked Marlboros.
A decade later, the heady combination continues to live up to the promise of that evening, stripping my mind of the knowledge and experiences of later life to let me relive in exquisite detail every subtle nuance; from the tightly held tension to the embarrassing over-sensitivity of my senses to the hesitant, breathless anticipation. Any attempt at control is rent futile by my rapidly regressing physiology, and I am 18 again, reduced to a quivering mass of nerves and sensations by nothing more than sea breeze and tobacco.
Proust’s words hit home. He elucidates beautifully the charged effects of a strong sense ignited memory, of it’s ability to affect dramatic changes in mood, and the oft-frustrating search for the elusive source of a certain feeling. Like him, I’ve often felt a memory rise from a touch or sound or taste, and have learnt to sit very still and to allow my mind free reign over the terrain of my history until it finds the deeply buried nugget that holds me captive.
Over the years I’ve made note of these ‘memory-igniters’ and use/avoid them at will. The smell of Jasmine and silk saris belong to the women in my family and make me feel safe and loved. Alcohol-fueled breath fills me with dread and insecurity while headlights reflected in rain-drenched roads evokes the feeling of falling in love for the first time.
I love how Proust describes the unraveling of a memory, like dormant phantoms waiting for a forgotten connection to bring them to life again. His cup of tea holds far more than just the love and kindness of an aunt; it held the memory of another time, a way of life long past, of a time when this future was not even imagined. To me, the beauty of this phenomenon lies in the fact that time ceases to be the one-way barrier we imagine it to be, and when we will it, we can fall in love for the first time over and over again.
Physical computing midterm project ‘Fake Shake’, finally working wireless-ly over Bluetooth
Jonathan Lethem’s reflections on the art of borrowing works of art (be they film, music, literature) feels more akin to a waltz than a dry b&w analysis of the balance between rights and creative license. In a beautifully crafted essay, he reiterates how some of the our most deep seated cultural memes gifted to us by the likes of Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Eliot, etc have been borrowed (and never returned) from those who came before. He talks of Dylan, pointing out that “his art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture.”
This particular thought made an impression on me. While it is easy to pass judgements on ownership and the re-use of other’s works, the rationality of such a stance precludes an understanding and appreciation for the nuanced nature of creativity and inspiration. It begets the questions: does ownership start and stop at the work itself? Is it worse if I borrowed a line from an author whose work might have defined me than if I had just been inspired by it to create a masterpiece of my own? Is not the “re-quote” a great homage? It also leads me to wonder whether after a point, the only way to preserve a classic is to reinvent it, to re-imagine it’s essence to reflect the present time. I think of Austen, and how while no T.V or film adaptation has ever been able to recreate the magic of her Elizabeth Bennett, her story and character live on, two centuries later.
Another thought that this essay inspired was the idea that what people look to recreate is not always a particular line of image, but the power that they hold, as a result of it’s ongoing cultural and generational journey. Each era then endows it with it’s own meaning and magic and passes it on to the next, to be reinterpreted but with the collective magic of the previous incarnations still within it.
While I believe in the gist of Lethem’s view, I also see the value in the thoughts that Jaron Lanier presents us with. He states that while he is happy to allow individuals to reuse his work, he seeks a connection with that individual, and that can only happen in a permission based system, however informal that system. The ideal then, maybe somewhere in the middle, where creators are not shackled by archaic and exploitative laws but there exists a way that allows for greater interactivity with the original user.