Big Think Interview With DJ Spooky
DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is a composer, author, producer, and electronic and experimental hip-hop musician. His stage name, "That Subliminal Kid," is borrowed from the character The Subliminal Kid in the William S. Burroughs novel "Nova Express." His homepage is www.djspooky.com, and he can also be found on Facebook at facebook.com/djspooky.
DJ Spooky: The name comes from well back in university I was doing a\r\nseries of essays and writing about Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny\r\nand I was really intrigued by this idea of “The Unheimlich”. It’s an\r\nessay that Sigmund Freud wrote about E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story\r\ncalled "The Sandman" where someone mistakes an inanimate object for a\r\nliving, breathing human being. And one of the things that Sigmund Freud\r\nreally felt was that in modern life people assign qualities to objects\r\naround them that may not exist there whatsoever. So he called this "the\r\nuncanny" and he also referred to cities as well, like the idea of\r\nwalking through the city and the way the urban landscape could lead you\r\nto a sense of disorientation and to a kind of, you know, sense of\r\nrepetition. And the way a city can unfold as you walk. So stuff like\r\nthat. It was basically meant to be like when you press play and there\r\nnobody there.
Question: How is DJ Spooky different from Paul Miller?
DJ Spooky: \r\nFirst and foremost one, I was never planning on doing this as a long\r\nterm, so Spooky, I was in college... It was a fun name. I thought it\r\nwas you know just a fun thing. When you say what is the difference\r\nbetween me and my stage name the idea is that as a musician you always\r\nthink of yourself as inhabiting a certain cultural space in the kind of\r\na cultural landscape, so when I say cultural space what I mean to imply\r\nthere is that you exist within certain parameters of how people think\r\nof culture. Downtown New York, I’m within certain styles of music and\r\nI’m also within certain cultural, you know, and literary context. So DJ\r\nSpooky was meant to be a kind of ironic take on that. It was always\r\nmeant to be kind of a criticism and critique of how downtown culture\r\nwould separate genres and styles because it was ambiguous. You\r\ncouldn’t fit it into anything and that was the point. It’s like the\r\niPod playlist has killed the way we think of the normal album, so let’s\r\nthink of this as just saying you go into your record store and all\r\nthose categories and all those different ways of segregating music have\r\nbeen thrown out the window, so the difference between myself in real\r\nlife in that is that I’m the opposite. I usually am very specific\r\nabout how I engage information, how I engage people, what context I’m\r\nengaging and, above all, the research that goes into each of those. So,\r\none, that DJ Spooky is a lot you know this sort of wilder persona and\r\nthen Paul Miller is more of a nuts and bolts kind of person, meaning\r\njust making sure all these things work.
Question: How is DJ'ing an art form?
DJ Spooky: \r\nWell let’s look like back at the history of the idea of the record. In\r\nmy book "Sound Unbound" we traced the guy who actually came up with the\r\nmain concept for the graphic design of the record cover sleeve. His\r\nname is Alex Steinweiss. And one of the things in my book that we really\r\ntried to figure out was the revolution in graphic design that occurred\r\nwhen people put images on album covers. Now if you think about the\r\n20th century and the idea of visual vocabulary the album occupies a\r\nreally important space in the cultural landscape and, above all... Try this\r\nexperiment: one day go in a record store and just try and guess what\r\nthe music sounds like by looking at the album cover. You’ll get this\r\nkind of psychological relationship to the imagery of the music, but\r\nthat idea is translated to iPhone apps. It’s translated to the small,\r\nyou know, kind of icons on your computer. You name it. The idea of a\r\nvisual icon that gives you a sense of information very quickly and that\r\nyou can easily just say "That's what the style is." That is something\r\nthat I think record cover sleeves really led towards, but at the same\r\ntime the album as we know it didn’t come into being until mainly after\r\nthe Second World War because record labels realized they’d be able to\r\nmake a lot more money putting all the singles of an artist onto one\r\nalbum and selling the whole album as a kind of a concept. So by the\r\ntime the 60s rolled in that became a huge art form in its own right\r\nwith bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Hendrix doing\r\ntotal concept albums, same thing with Pink Floyd. Now if you fast\r\nforward to the 70s and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool\r\nHerc, Grandmaster Caz, all these guys that were essentially, like, the\r\nDNA of what we’re doing now. One of the main things that\r\ndifferentiates them from artists before is that they made albums based\r\non the fact that they didn’t care about the band as a thing\r\nin its own right. They cared about manipulating the recording and that\r\nbecame the album. Usually bands would make a song to record for an\r\nalbum, but what happens with the deejays you say "Well the album is\r\neverything we need. Thanks band. You can go away now." You know you\r\ndon’t really need the band or the singer/songwriter in the same way,\r\nso you look at everything as part of your palette. When you think about\r\na composer you know like Wagner or Pier Boulez or something like that\r\nmost of the issues a composer is working with are about discreet,\r\nnotated music that someone else will play. But if I take that person\r\nand play them as a record I’m becoming not only a conductor and\r\ncomposer of collage, but at the same time I’m looking at a whole layer\r\nof what goes into copyright law, who owns those memories, who owns the\r\nway that that sound gets remixed and transformed and above all how much\r\nfun it is to actually just mess with other people’s stuff. So yeah, I\r\nlike the idea of it as a trickster motif. You know like you’re kind of\r\njust messing around with people’s memories of songs.
Question: How does science fiction influence your work?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’ve tended to find that myths of the near future give people the\r\nability to really kind of explore the present, so say for example if\r\nlook at William Gibson and his book Neuromancer or if you look at J.G.\r\nBallard or Samuel Delaney those are probably three of my favorite\r\nwriters in that genre. All of them project slightly to the near future\r\nas a way of talking about the current moment and I think science\r\nfiction and sound is a really interesting thing. You might as well\r\nthink of it as sonic fiction. When you’re coming up with different\r\nways of getting old memories to transform—you’re scratching, you’re\r\ndoing all this kind of sampling—what ends up happening is that you’re\r\nbecoming a kind of writer with sound. In fact, if you look at the root\r\nword of phonograph it just means phonetics of graphology, phono-graph,\r\nwriting with sound, so graphology. You know graffiti, same root word. \r\nPhonetics, you know speech, all this kind of stuff, phonograph, simple,\r\nbut when you unpack the meaning it actually kind of expands out and\r\nthat is what I was going for in my book "Sound Unbound" was to try and\r\nget people to figure out how do we unpack some of the meanings that go\r\ninto these kinds of sonically coded landscapes. So yeah, science\r\nfiction or sonic fiction. I kind of like punning on that.
Question: What are the origins of "Terra Nova," your Antarctic symphony?
DJ Spooky: \r\nWhat I wanted to try and figure out was, okay, in contemporary 21st\r\ncentury life the alienation between the self and the land around you or\r\nthe self and even the urban landscape. You name it. Most people walk\r\naround with headphones on. They’re barely encountering or dealing with\r\ntheir fellow person, or if they’re in a car they’re in this kind of\r\ncocoon, stuck in suburban rush hour traffic or something. The\r\nlandscape of their current experience is just really compartmentalized. And what I wanted to do with Antarctica was say let’s hit the\r\nreset button on that and see what happens to your creative process. \r\nLet’s go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studio\r\nand see what music comes out of it. So I took a studio down to several\r\nof the main ice fields, and the basic idea was to give myself four weeks\r\nin these ice fields to create a new work and see what happens. And, you\r\nknow, it was really important to me to kind of think about the urban\r\nlandscape on one hand versus this hyper-abstract ice landscape\r\non the other.
Antarctica, one of the things that was so\r\nremarkable about it was that the ice itself is a kind of pure geometry,\r\nso say, for example, if I was facing someone wearing I don’t know, a Joy\r\nDivision t-shirt with the mountains on it or something like that... Seeing that as a computer abstraction versus actually going to these\r\ncontinents and seeing a 40 mile chunk of ice break off that is the size\r\nof mountains the sense of scale was just awe-inspiring. I mean just… \r\nI remember one time it took us several hours to walk out into a major\r\nglacier field off the Weddell Ice Sea Shelf, all right, so this is\r\nAntarctic summer, if you fall in the water you die in about two\r\nminutes, so you’re walking, the ice is creaking, the landscape is like\r\nsubtly you know shifting and if anyone out there has ever been in an\r\nearthquake this is like kind of a slow motion earthquake, but the land\r\nis shifting and groaning and creaking and you know if you ever walked\r\non ice and you’re like whoa, you could fall through. It really you\r\nknow puts you in that for lack of better word, very cautious\r\nmentality. So the physicality of that and the just the sheer lack of\r\nurban noise and machinery—just the wind, the water and your breath,\r\nyou know that kind of thing—it was pure poetry and you know I\r\ntreasure that. It was just… I can only wonder what astronauts must\r\nfeel like or something like that when you’re really in the space of\r\nsilence and you are feeling and breathing in a way that you’re really\r\naware of your muscle and bone and the breath and the body and the\r\nmovement and all of those things that just you take for granted in the\r\nurban landscape.
I felt like on one\r\nhand the clarity of thought was amazing, but on the other we went\r\nduring Antarctic summer, so the sun didn’t set the whole time we were\r\nthere. It was permanent afternoon. And when I say permanent afternoon,\r\nyou know, I’m talking like crystal clear, crispy blue sky. All the\r\nsudden you didn’t need to sleep as much because it just was difficult. And how that translated into my creative process I still am not quite\r\nsure, but it made my relationship to sleep a kind of abstract you know\r\nbizarre… I can't put my finger on it, but I ended up\r\ndreaming very intense dreams because I only needed about four hours of\r\nsleep. Meanwhile, we’d take you know four to eight hours hikes way out\r\ninto these you know kind of glaciers and so on you know all day and you\r\ncome back and you’d be tired and you still couldn’t sleep because the\r\nsun was up and it felt like you know it’s like two in the afternoon or\r\nsomething, even if it was midnight. So, yeah, quirky. Sleep is crucial\r\nand I tend to find when the sun is shining I find it much more\r\ndifficult to get that sense of sleep.
Question: Is the piece classical?
DJ Spooky: \r\nWhat I’m going for with the string arrangements for my Antarctic\r\nsymphony is a pun here. On one hand you have a string quartet, which\r\nis not a symphony. On the other hand is you have me sampling them and\r\nmaking it sound like there is many more people playing, so the whole\r\nnotion of, kind of, sampling applied to classical music is very\r\nintriguing to me because composers throughout history have borrowed\r\nmotifs and quotes from one another. So Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington,\r\nThelonius Monk, these are all people who would sort of rearrange or\r\ntake riffs from people. Same thing with rock, if you look at the\r\nRolling Stones doing a cover of Otis Redding or you know if you look at\r\nliterature James Joyce is pulling fragments of text from other people. So the Antarctic symphony has a geometric relationship to the\r\nlandscape. It’s saying that this landscape and the minimal kind of, you\r\nknow I’m talking like seeing ice, is visually kind of eerily minimal. But there is a complexity and layering that goes on with this kind of\r\nthing, so the music is slightly repetitive and when I say repetitive\r\nit’s in the same tradition as people like Steve Reich or Erik Satie or\r\neven WC. So what I wanted to do is kind of invoke that and then dive\r\ninto that kind of repetition as a DJ thing because DJing you\r\nhear beats, like "boom, boom, boom, bap, bap." You know hip hop, house,\r\ntechno. So how do you translate between those electronic motifs and\r\nthe motifs of the landscape itself? That is what I wanted to go for.
Question: What do you want people to get out of it?
DJ Spooky: \r\nAntarctica is one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. I\r\ndon’t think that everyone should go there. I also think that we need\r\nto respect it as a kind of a national park for the planet. It\r\nshould be you know put in parentheses. You know, in the sentence of\r\nhumanity this place needs to be a parentheses. And when I say\r\nparentheses I mean I’m talking like you go around it. Leave it alone. Let it exist. And what I want people to see with this\r\nfilm is not only a respect for this place from the bottom of my heart. \r\nI’m talking like just the beauty, but at the same time to get people to\r\nrealize that we should treasure it. Maybe visualize it, but leave it\r\nalone. And it’s… there is a sense of awe with these huge landscapes and\r\nopen spaces. Maybe someone living out in the American deep Midwest\r\ndesert can imagine the same thing, or somebody living in Namibia or the\r\nArctic is very different... but yeah, just awe of the landscape. I know\r\nthat sounds like nerdy and corny and stuff like that, but you know let\r\nit be nerdy and corny. It’s a beautiful place. I could just sit on an\r\nice glacier and just watch the land for like days, months, years.
Question: Is there a basic philosophy behind your work as a \r\nsound artist?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’d say most of my work is just trying to make sense of the\r\ndisorienting and overloaded world that we inhabit. We’re bombarded\r\nwith sound at every level. Sound... if you look at bats you know that\r\nnavigate with sonar, they’re like you know they’re very precise. They\r\ncan even see a bat head towards a building and swerve away, but you’ll\r\nsee a bird that doesn’t… you know smash right into a glass window. \r\nIt’s very funny. I mean I don’t… Anybody out there that has probably\r\nseen that is like oh, it’s terrible. Like if you’re ever in a\r\nskyscraper and you see a bird just flies right into the side of\r\nwindow. Whales, for example, also navigate with sound, but they’re now\r\nbeginning to be beached because the ocean is getting too noisy. Weird\r\nthings like that. I mean this is very real. Like, if you look at the\r\nsatellites in the sky at night you know it’s an eerie sense of we’re… \r\nYou know we’re in a planet surrounded by certain kinds of frequencies\r\nand noise. The earth’s magnetic sphere makes weird sounds. The sun\r\nyou know the heart of our solar system makes noise. Even interstellar\r\nphenomena like black holes. You know people have studied them and a\r\nblack hole can emit sound in like the range of 20,000 octaves below B\r\nflat. You know I mean that’s a lot… That’s a very low tone. So yeah,\r\nhow do I think of my environment and what happens with sound art? I\r\nlove to play with the idea of elusive and intangible things. That\r\ncould be psychological. It could be perceptual. It could be just the\r\nway your ears help you just navigate around. Try this experiment,\r\nclosing your eyes and navigating with your ears. It’s eerie because\r\nwalls, you can actually hear your footstep maybe bounce off of or you\r\ncan feel the vibration of your voice and help that… use that to\r\nnavigate. So sound art I’m always intrigued with how little we use of\r\nother senses and we just prioritize the eye and you just want to see\r\neverything and navigate. You know the art world is similar. Like I\r\nwish people would use their ears a lot more.
Question: What inspired your film Rebirth of a Nation?
DJ Spooky: \r\nMy film "Rebirth of a Nation," amusingly enough, was a component of a show\r\nI had at Paula Cooper Gallery and one of the things that really goes\r\ninto my mind when I think about contemporary art and music is how\r\nweirdly divided they are. The art world likes music sort of, but when\r\nthey do they usually go for sort of I call white bread art rock. They\r\ndon’t get… You’ll never see hip hop in normal Whitney Biennial or\r\nwhatever. I mean they don’t… The art world has problems with rhythm. \r\nNow at the same time you have really interesting electronic music and\r\nmulticultural, specifically multicultural, takes on contemporary art. \r\nMy film "Rebirth of a Nation" was a critique of the way Bush had gotten\r\ninto office playing off of racial politics and the fears that whites\r\nhave of being… becoming a minority. And I think the code words for the\r\nBush Administration and people like Karl Rove was that State’s rights\r\nand devolution of federal powers would make these kind of white… Now\r\nall the sudden you notice with the Obama Administration they’re having\r\na rise of all these white militias and stuff like that. Yeah, I mean\r\nwhite Americans feel anxiety about some of the issues and I think that\r\nthat needs to be addressed.
"Birth of a Nation," the film by\r\nD.W. Griffith is one of the most important films in American History. \r\nIt set the tone for how America views racial politics in cinema. So I\r\ngot the rights to the film. We remixed it... when I say we I guess, well,\r\nme. And the whole idea was to apply deejay technique to film in a way\r\nthat kind of self implodes the film and get people to think about as a\r\nyou know maybe something that needs to be looked at a lot more closely,\r\nso with Bush you have to remember: they played games with the black\r\nvote, they disenfranchised a large amount of people by playing those\r\ngames, and again it was a lot of it happened in the old south that were\r\nin places like Ohio. So Birth of a Nation was the first film to show a\r\nflawed election and in 1915, I mean, you know, a lot of games were being\r\nplayed with the black vote. So disenfranchisement, black face, you\r\nknow if you fast forward and update it you could easily see the same\r\nresonance with "Avatar" where most of the main characters were in blue\r\nface, those were black actors for example. Or Jar Jar Binks this\r\nannoying creature that is like a minstrel on the "Star Wars" thing. The\r\nracial politics is still very much prevalent in American film. \r\n"Terminator" or you know, what is the "Transformers" where they have the\r\nkind of minstrel robots who had this annoying black sort of almost-gay\r\nvoice or something. When I say gay I’m not… no disrespect. I’m just\r\nsaying it’s a minstrel kind of emasculated male voice where they always\r\nmake a black character like a Jar Jar Binks an annoying, “What’s up you\r\nall?” You know those kind of very annoying creature or something like\r\nthat that has a high pitched and like yeah, really annoying like you\r\nknow.
So anyway, "Birth of a Nation," what makes this Antarctic\r\nproject different than that is they’re both critiques of the nation-state's relationship to the individual. Antarctica is the only place on\r\nearth with no government. It’s the only place that really says: "You are\r\nyou." The subjectivity that goes into that I mean once you step off a\r\nboat and you’re on an ice field in the middle of nowhere you are\r\nwithout the idea of the nation-state anymore. And I think "Birth of a\r\nNation"... obviously "nation," you know, nationalism, nation, state, the\r\nenvironmental politics that go into how nations play with carbon\r\ntrading, how nations play with the idea of pollution and all these\r\nkinds of things you could say that the divisions now are even more\r\nencoded because of the North/South divide. Like the industrialized\r\nnations of the north versus the more multicultural countries of like\r\nChina, India, Russia. Well Russia is still considered European, but\r\nif you go slightly outside of... you know there is plenty of Russians that\r\nlook very Asian. So the racial politics that go into environmental\r\nissues is something that hangs like a specter over a lot of the\r\nprocess right now. So I had a big gallery show at Robert Miller\r\nGallery called "North/South." It was a pun about my "Birth of a Nation"\r\nversus Antarctica. Sense of humor in the title, but nonetheless, I’m\r\nvery concerned about the way environmental politics shapes out with\r\nindustrialized versus non-industrialized nations. It’s something that\r\nreally we have to think about.
Question: Is the proliferation of digital media threatening individuality?
DJ Spooky: \r\nYeah, I mean I think we’re really the crisis of 21st century culture is\r\nstandardization. On one hand that’s a crisis precisely because it\r\nreally flatlines and just deadens a lot of amazing stuff. But on the\r\nother hand as the next couple of years kick in you’re going to be\r\nseeing what I like to call mass customization, where everyone can have\r\nyou know their phone or their iPad or whatever—but they’re going to\r\npull it into their own orbit in their own way. And they’re pulling\r\nmaterial that is out there in the world as their own vocabulary. I\r\ndidn’t make this phone, you know, but I’ve customized and transformed\r\nit. So I’m always intrigued with saying that nothing stays the same in\r\nthis era. In the 20th century, you know, someone like, you know, Ford\r\nwould say you know what, you can have any color car you want as long as\r\nit’s black, you know. And they had the whole sense of humor about the\r\nproduction line all making the Model T Ford car there was the exact\r\nsame machine rolling off the line. Now that was amazing because it was\r\nhigh-tech at that time, but for the 21st century where we can just\r\nretrofit and reboot anything, why stick to one thing? I mean just\r\nalways transform and change everything. That’s the DJ model as\r\nwell. So by customizing and transforming it adds new life to I think\r\nthe way we function right now. When I say the way we function I’m\r\ntalking about going down the street, walking around... everyone\r\nhas a little computer, which is essentially is a cell phone. Most\r\npeople, I’m sorry. There is a class division here, but even in\r\neconomically, you know, low income and so on most people have some kind\r\nof communications device. And I think it’s transformed the way the world\r\nworks right now and this is just the beginning. So within the next five\r\nto seven years you’ll be seeing probably a massive revolution in\r\ngetting rid of sameness and just having this wildly creative and\r\ninventive era.
Question: Who are you trying to reach with your music?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’d say my audience is pretty much anyone who thinks, which is a big\r\naudience, and luckily and happily people have been very supportive of\r\nthe idea of a writer, artist and musician making conceptual music. I’m\r\nnot art rock. I mean art rock dominates in the art world. I’m a kind\r\nof insurgency, like an electronic music insurgency because I’m trying\r\nto push a lot of boundaries simultaneously. Racial politics, economic\r\npolitics and above all the psychology about how people assign criteria\r\nand value and what people say is cool or good. I love the idea that\r\nyou know your cell phone is disrupting the entire sort of consumer\r\npattern of people or I love the idea that you know what, a curator or a\r\nmuseum director or some art dealer the value isn’t for them create. \r\nIt’s the value that we, each of us, brings to something. So it’s\r\ndisruptive of all these kind of top-down hierarchies of how power forms\r\nin you know the normal corporate model of saying this artist or this\r\nbook or... so my book is turning the world of Martha Stewart\r\nand Oprah Winfrey upside down and saying you know you are the mix.
I enjoy writing and it’s one… another weird thing, a\r\nbeef I have with normal critics is that they’re like, “Why don’t you\r\njust do the music?” You know I’m like: "Look, I’m an artist. I like to\r\nwrite. I also do music, so they’re not separate." To me music is\r\nwriting. Writing is art. Art is music. Simple.
Question: How do you consume music?
DJ Spooky: \r\nIn massive volumes. Again, as a DJ you have to be current and keep\r\naware of what is going on and that means you know just massive amounts\r\nof information, so a DJ is kind of obsessive about information. I\r\ntend to think that if you look at Michael Jackson he is called the King\r\nof Pop precisely because he had millions and millions of people listening\r\nto the same record, or same songs. If you play “Billie Jean” for example\r\neverybody knows that. Even in India or Nepal or the most remote parts\r\nof Timbuktu you know people know that song, so millions of people\r\nlisten to that. I’m the opposite, where it is like instead of millions\r\nof people listening to the same song it’s millions of songs being\r\nscratched and spliced and diced and you have to keep track of it all. So it’s like an information ocean or data cloud. You\r\nknow there is… I think iTunes now has passed its several billionth\r\ndownload you know, so think of all those people. It’s the biggest\r\nrecord store in the world, and, amusingly enough to me, again as a deejay\r\nand artist the top selling album of all time right now is the blank CD\r\nyou know so, you know, it’s number one on every chart.
Question: Should digital content be free?
DJ Spooky: \r\nI’m a big pro-open source, pro-creative commons kind of artist. I\r\nthink that it’s important to realize that copyright law as it is\r\nwritten relates mainly to the 18th century’s relationship to physical\r\ngoods. And as things move more and more to a digital media, hyper-connected world we need to transform the models of how we think of\r\nownership. Copyright law is something I respect, but the way the law\r\nis written versus the way we live in this rip, mix, burn kind of\r\nscenario, you know... It’s all about I think thinking of digital music as\r\nthe kind of new folk culture where everyone should share, and by sharing\r\nthey create a more rich and robust, you know, narrative.
Question: Even if they’re downloading your music?
DJ Spooky: \r\nYeah, sure, but I get value out of that. I get a different kind of\r\nvalue. You get branding. You get advertising. You get word-of-mouth\r\nviral marketing. Hey, you know you couldn’t pay for that.
Recorded on April 8, 2010
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The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.