Why are writers such terrible procrastinators? Wow, footage shot on the 1987 Fisher-Price PXL-2000 camera is creepy. Here’s “The Imperial March” from Star Wars, and the “Cups” song from Pitch Perfect, scored for a cello. In 1826, Mary Shelley followed up Frankenstein by publishing The Last Man, a book about a 21st-century global pandemic. Only a few large cities are driving the US’s rising murder rate, or, “why it’s good to know the difference between median and mode”.

What can people do better than machines? The view from 1951

Image from Paul Fitts' paper on huma machine differences

What can humans do that machines can’t? The pessimistic view, in a world of advancing AI and robotics, would be “less and less every day”. While researching this today I ran into an interesting historical perspective — the view from 1951.

It’s a paper called “Human Engineering for an Effective Air Navigation and Traffic Control System,” written for the National Security Council by Paul Fitts, a psychologist known for studying human factors in technology. He was most famous for his work trying to figure out how to automate air travel to make it more safe, and that’s where this report comes in. It’s a long, elegantly-written attempt to tease out the distinctions: Which aspects of airflight could best be managed by machines, and what by humans?

The fun begins on page 6, where Fitts asks …

Callout from Paul Fitt's paper: what can man do better than machines

He argues that our “sensory functions” and “perceptual abilities” are more sensitive than machines — which is arguably less true today than it was back then, given innovations in everything from LIDAR and 3D imaging to olfaction. He also argues we meatfolk have the edge on “reasoning” — which, again, is certainly true but probably much less true than in 1951, when it was considered pretty rad to get a vacuum-tube computer to play a simple peg game.

But then Fitts points out a unique human cognitive advantage: “Flexibility”.Flexibility. Another special Capacity of the human is his extraordinary flexibility and ability to improvise. These abilities are still in completely understood by psychologists, but they represent important respects in which humans surpass machines. The amount of flexibility a machine has is fixed by the amount that was built into it. The machine will attempt as many different kinds of solutions as it's designer plan for and no more. Experiments on complex problem-solving and humans, on the other hand, show that humans may attempt many different solutions to the same problem – just think of the number of ways in which this paragraph could've been written to convey essentially the same point. Flexibility is especially important in the changing and evolving system, such as one in which new techniques are constantly coming into use. It also provides insurance against complete breakdown in emergencies. The conclusion here is that if flexibility in the system is important, it probably is a good plan to let human beings play an important role in the system.

Now, this distinction seems still very solid! AI and robotics are remarkably more advanced than in 1951, but even the most advanced machine is still pretty narrow in its function. “General” AI is still nowhere in sight, and robots are still simply terrible at navigating and manipulating the everyday human environment: Google’s Go-playing computer creamed the world’s champion at that game, but it couldn’t pick up the game pieces by itself. In any individual intellectual and physical skill, you could create (or soon create) a machine that would best us, probably. But human ability to adapt to new situations and tasks makes us the cognitive Swiss Army knife in this corner of the universe.

(We could extend Fitt’s list by adding a bunch of areas in which humans still trounce machines, by the way — like empathy and creativity. Fitts didn’t include these, possibly because he didn’t see them as related to airflight control, though I could make the case they’re necessary in that field.)

This point about flexibility reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s dictum:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

If I’d written that list I’d probably have included a bit less fighting and invasion-planning, but otherwise it’s a pretty solid CV. Of those twenty-one skills, though, I’m only confident of my ability in fifteen.

Go download that whole paper by Fitts — it’s a fun read! (That awesome image at the top of this post is from the paper, BTW.)

The odd pleasures of reading Proust on a mobile phone

The first page of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" on an iphone

A year ago I wrote an essay about reading War and Peace on my iPhone. If you missed it, why hey! You can read the whole essay here!

When people found out what I was doing, they often claimed it was aesthetically bonkers. Isn’t it uncomfortable and weird, they wondered, to read such a massive book in tiny screenfuls? You can’t fit many words on a single screen. Indeed, I tend to blow my font-size up pretty big, so there’s barely one or two hundred words on each Kindle page.

But the thing is, this made the experience oddly retro. Visually, a Kindle screen on a mobile phone harkens back to … the early days of novels.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, people often read novels that were printed in the teensy “octavo” format. It made books extremely portable, so they were, in way, much like the iphones of the premodern period: Pocketable culture. Here’s a page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:

Page from Conjectures on Original Composition, a book from 1759 by the English poet Edward Young:

Looks rather like a iphone Kindle screen, doesn’t it?

At any rate, today I discovered an essay by Sarah Boxer describing her even more Olympic feat of novel-phone-reading: The entire 1.2-million text of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. (That’s the first page, above, on my phone.)

Boxer did an even better job of describing the peculiar aesthetic delights of reading a ginormous book screen by screen. Let me quote it here at length:

Soon you will see that the smallness of your cellphone (my screen was about two by three inches) and the length of Proust’s sentences are not the shocking mismatch you might think. Your cellphone screen is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It’s a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance.

In a curious way, I think reading Proust on your cellphone brings out the fathomless something in the novel that Shattuck calls “the most oceanic—and the least read” of 20th-century classics. It makes you feel like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in his submarine, which is just right. As Benjamin Taylor notes in his biography, Proust: The Search, this is how Jean Cocteau described the writer at work in his bedroom, the cork-lined retreat on Boulevard Haussmann that Proust called “a little bottle stop” muffling the sounds of the world.

Although Proust knew exactly where he was heading when he put together his masterwork—he began with the first and last parts, then turned to the middle—the same cannot be said for his readers, no matter how they tackle his text. They are at sea. This is what makes reading the novel such hard going, particularly in the middle. It is also what makes the experience extraordinary.

Knowing where you are, physically, in a bound book keeps you from feeling this oceanic feeling quite so much. It keeps you grounded. But reading the book on your cellphone emphasizes your own smallness, your at-sea-ness, in relation to the vast ocean. There you are, moving along without any compass. How brave you are in your little dinghy, adrift and amazed.

That’s such a great metaphor: The book as an ocean, the e-reader as a tiny porthole!

It reminds me of the way I look at paintings in galleries: I zoom in as close as I can, so I can examine the tiny individual brushstrokes in as much detail as possible.

I once read a piece by an artist noting that painters experience their painting in two modes — up super-close, and from far back. A lot of the time they’re hunched over the canvas, going stroke by stroke. So, as the artist pointed out, if you want to see what that experience was like, you want to get as close as physically possible to the completed painting, and study it from barely an inch or two away. (As you can imagine, shoving my nose right up to a canvas does not make me super popular amongst art-gallery guards; I’ve nearly been tazed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, trying to get myself with microns of Tom Thomson’s The West Wind.) But as the artist went on to note in his article, painters also frequently stand back ten or twenty feet to appreciate the overall scope of what they’re doing — so you too ought to zoom out often as you’re absorbing a painting. The painter’s experience of their own painting is simultaneously a) brushstroke by brushstroke and b) twenty feet away.

It occurred to me once, while nose-close with a painting, that novels (and other forms of longform writing) have a bit of the same dual-focus aspect: The writer composes word by word, sentence by sentence — but also has the entire text in mind. We readers experience the whole book both as a single bolus of culture and a collection of individual thrilling sentences or passages.

Boxer’s lovely metaphor comes the closest I’ve seen to evoking that literary duality.

Why spaceflight might be good for your mental health


I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so the idea of going to space in a tiny can seems basically nuts.

I was thus intrigued to discover the 2012 NASA book Psychology of Space Exploration, a collection of essays about what going to space does to you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It’s freely downloadable here, and I spent tonight reading it.

One thing I learned? Going to space might be “salutogenic” — good for one’s overall well-being.

Some of reasons are what you might imagine. Hey, those spectacular views! Astronauts return aglow from the experience. There’s an phenomenon known as the “overview effect” — the feeling of whoa-dude connectedness-with-all-humanity that astronauts get from gazing at the Earth. I actually wrote a separate essay about this two years ago, but the effect is discussed in this volume too. They note how astronauts become enraptured with taking pictures of the planet: Of the 200,000 Earth pictures taken on eight missions aboard the International Space Station, 84.5% were “crew-initiated”. As Space Shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan said, “it’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is.”

But it’s deeper than that. Data suggests that after coming back from flight, astronauts are mentally healthier in the long run, because the trip made them more self-reliant (which is saying something, given that astronauts are awfully self-reliant to begin with):

Studies of the mental health of cosmonauts conducted two or three years after their return to Earth found that they had become less anxious, hypochondriacal, depressive, and aggressive. The most plausible explanation is that during their stay in tough environments, people develop coping skills, that is, ways of dealing with challenge and stress that continue to serve them well long after they have returned from their expedition.

This effect has also been observed in crew members who return from long missions to Antartica — where, as with space-station flight, they’re stuck inside tiny quarters for months. Indeed, the more obnoxiously bad the Antarctica mission, the better their long-term wellness. As one researcher found …

… a depressed mood was inversely associated with the severity of station physical environments — that is, the better the environment, the worse the depression — and that the winter-over experience was associated with reduced subsequent rates of hospital admissions. He and others have speculated that the experience of adapting to the isolation and confinement, in general, improved an individual’s self-efficacy and self-reliance and engendered coping skills that they used in other areas of life to buffer subsequent stress and resultant illnesses.

Intriguing. But Elon Musk can look elsewhere; I’m still never gonna volunteer for space flight.


Which politicians still talk about the “information superhighway”?

Erik Paulsen and Louise Slaughter

Who still uses the term “information superhighway”?

It’s the most 90s coinage ever. It was an attempt by boomer journalists — whose chief technology of teen liberation was the automobile, but who by the 90s were solidly middle-aged — to find a metaphor for digital networks that made sense to them. Hey guys! Let’s all get in our, uh, cybervehicles! We can roll down the windows and go cruisin’ on the Highway of Information.

As “the Internet” and “the web” took off, though, eventually people stopped using the “information superhighway”.

Or did they? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance analyzed Donald Trump’s fascinatingly incoherent use of “the cyber”, and along the way she noted one cohort that seems to constantly use dated digital slang: Politicians.

So it made me wonder — who’s the last politician to have uttered the phrase “information superhighway” in the Congressional Record?

Step forward, Erik Paulsen.

A reverse-chron search of the Congressional Record finds that Paulsen used the phrase on July 17, 2014, speaking in support of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.

A snippet of the Congressional Record, with Erik Paulsen speaking in praise of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act

To give Paulsen credit, it seems like he might be using the phrase specifically because of its historic echo of the 90s: “… grown the information superhighway to what it is today.”

Trivia: “Information superhighway” has been uttered 291 times in the Congressional Record. Interestingly, other recent-ish uses seem to be when politicians are talking about net neutrality — possibly because there, the highway metaphor is useful; it evokes tolls, fast lanes vs. slow lanes, etc. So maybe the phrase has got some life in it yet.

Me, I’m a fan! “Information superhighway” is much more metal than “the Internet” or “the web”, which are functional but now rather lifeless. Given my druthers, I actually prefer the full, florid coinage of “the global information superhighway”. I have been waging a dogged campaign on Twitter to revive it; I am failing.

(That photo above is from the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr feed of Rep. Louise Slaughter.)

People tell political pollsters that the economy is going down the tubes; but with  economic pollsters, they’re much cheerier. A Polish auto-body shop still uses a Commodore 64 (via boing boing). Here’s the “hello, world” example of the Google Books API, which I’m playing around with to make a potentially weird, fun toy. A hacker in Cairo makes a DIY robot for inspecting IEDs. Behold Cryptpad, a text editor where only the people collaborating on the document can see the plaintext; it’s inscrutable from any interlocuters and even the server itself. (Thanks to Nat Torkington for this latter one!)