Brain Flexibility

Jun 27, 2012

I’m constantly amazed by the human brain’s ability to adjust to new senses and tools.


I remember reading about a man who conducted an experiment in sensory perception. He made a belt with a dozen or so cellphone vibrate motors, and a magnetometer (fancy word for compass). He rigged them up to a micro-controller, and wrote some simple software. He had the micro-controller trigger a vibration in whichever cellphone motor was currently pointing north.

The man was an avid bicyclist, and would wear this belt while biking. He found that, after several weeks, he had an alarmingly accurate sense of direction. He could bike miles from home, taking totally random turns, and would always get back home. No maps, no smartphone.

You can now buy this device, and there seems to be very interesting research surrounding it. An extra sense for $149.

I also remember a story about people with magnetic implants. A man suffered an accident, leaving a piece of iron lodged in his finger.

He developed a new sense from this accident. Sort of like Spiderman:

He worked with audio equipment, and found that he could tell which speakers were magnetized from the sensation that passed through his finger at close range.

The ability for the brain to so quickly and intimately react to stimuli and treat it as sense is really intriguing to me. As the price of embedded electronics continues to fall, devices we can wear (or have “installed”) will become more and more accessible.

I wonder if this has already happened. We walk around with internet enabled devices strapped to our hips. People have a nearly Pavlovian response to their phone buzzing.


I’m also shocked at how well my brain - your cranial milage may vary - is able to deal with tools that I do not know how to properly operate. It compensates as best it can, and does a rather exceptional job at it.

I have two anecdotal examples:

Pens and pencils

I guess I missed the boat in school for learning how to hold a pencil correctly. I hold a pen or pencil squished between my thumb, middle, ring and pointer fingers. With the instrument mashed between my digits, I can write. My handwriting is very messy, but passable. This way of holding a pen is rather uncomfortable for any stretch of time more than 5 or 10 minutes. Thankfully, I don’t write much on paper.


This is more embarrassing, partially because it’s essential to my passion. I failed typing in 5th grade. And I mean failed it. I remember being the last kid in the computer room, sitting there, typing on a school computer and failing. The keyboard was covered with an orange rubber membrane to obscure the keys.

I had a really hard time with typing as a kid. But computers are a passion of mine. So I taught myself. Without any sort of formal training, I learned to type.

There’s a concept of a “home row” in typing. On a QWERTY US layout keyboard, you’re at the home row when you’re resting your left hand on the A, S, D and F keys and your right hand on the J, K, L and “;” keys. This allows efficient travel to other keys, and is claimed to improve typing performance.

I do not type using the “home row”. Casually observing my typing form now, I generally rest my left hand to the left of the home row keys. My left pinky is on the left shift key, my ring finger on the A key, and my middle and pointer fingers on the E and R keys respectively. My right hand positioning is similarly mangled.

My hands have a lot of travel on the keyboard. My mom once remarked to me that I “type cool”. She noticed that my style was very unusual, and that my hands would shift around on the keyboard a lot.

Despite this typing form deficiency, my speed doesn’t seem to be affected. I don’t know how many words per minute I type at, but I am much faster than the hunt-and-peck typists I know. Casually, I’d say I’m on par with fast touch typists.

Despite my troubles with finding keys under that orange membrane when I was younger, I currently type with a keyboard that has no printed glyphs. I do not struggle with accuracy on this keyboard.

Humans are excellent at pattern recognition. Really excellent. We beat highly advanced computers and algorithms at accurate voice processing, image detection, spacial analysis and complex reasoning.

It’s not a fair fight. It took 16,000 processor cores 3 days to accurately learn to recognize a human face from scratch. This was using very low resolution images.

We can learn to recognize a new object in seconds, from many angles, and have no problem reasoning about that object in space with very little time. We have implicit understanding.

As the future rolls on and technology get cheaper, we’ll use this awesome pattern recognition ability to expand our senses. I’m very excited.

Unknowing Agreement

Jun 17, 2012

I went with my uncle recently to get him a new phone. His had worn after years of heavy use, and he was due for an upgrade. We went to a store operated by his cell carrier. After selecting his new handset, my uncle asked the representative to transfer his contacts from his old phone.

The representative, using a piece of machinery not unlike a point-of-sale credit card terminal, connected both phones to transfer contacts. Before he began the process, the representative advanced through several of the setup screens on my uncle’s new phone. This involved agreeing to several license agreements. The representative did what many computer users have trained themselves to do - he advanced through each agreement, dutifully agreeing without reading the contract.

He was agreeing on behalf of my uncle without permission to do so.

This must be happening hundreds of times every day. Imagine all the phones, computers, tablets and other products being set up by helpful sales associates all the time.

I noticed this due to my familiarity with license agreements. I took a course which heavily focused on them several semesters ago. A less technical user, however, wouldn’t know the difference. They wouldn’t realize an agreement had been signed.

I’ve purchased technology where the sales representative asks me to sign an agreement electronically. This makes much more sense. Unfortunately, as shown by my anecdote, this policy is not universal.

Switching Registrars

Jun 15, 2012

I recently changed domain registrars. I switched from GoDaddy to Hover.

Domains transfers are a complex process. Here’s the (rough) process I went through transferring each of my domains:

  • Authorize with Hover that I own the domains (through email)
  • Unlock the domains in GoDaddy’s portal
  • Submit a request through Hover to transfer the domains
  • Have GoDaddy send me the domain authorization codes
  • Enter the domain authorization codes into Hover
  • Approve the domain transfers in GoDaddy’s portal
  • Wait for the transfer to go through

(the order of these steps might not be correct, your mileage may vary)

After 18 hours, my domains were still not functional - didn’t work. I decided to call Hover customer support for help. I dialed the number, and it rang three times.

A voice answered:

Hover support, this is Nathan. How can I help you?

I had not navigated through a menu. I was not put on hold.

To authorize myself with the phone representative, he sent an email. I read him back an authorization code, and this established identity.

Nathan noticed that my nameservers were still set to GoDaddy, and that they had discontinued service to those domains. He offered to change the nameservers of all my registered domains to Hover servers. I said ok, and he made the change. I thanked him, and we ended the call.

I was sent an email that reviewed my call. I was given a ticket number, and the opportunity to obtain more support for this issue. The email had a message written personally by Nathan, my phone representative.

After several hours, the domains began working with the Hover nameservers.

I was very impressed. Highly recommended.

Email is a great way to communicate

May 28, 2012

Here is what I have realized: email really does the trick

(check out the Hacker News discussion for the Monkey Mace article)

I’ve seen a trend recently in startups to create a new form of communication with an emphasis on effectiveness. The vast majority of implementations fail to address the key requisite of communication platforms: critical mass.

If a service has an email bridge, I am far more likely to use that service. A perfect example of this is the GitHub Issues email bridge, which allows users to reply to issues directly from their mail client.

I’m certainly not arguing that email is the pinnacle of human communication standards. Email isn’t perfect. It has a lot of cruft from being so old. It has disgusting errors when messages fail to deliver. It allows for forgery of senders, and cryptographically signing messages is extremely uncommon.

But it works. It’s something that everyone uses, and I don’t have to send anybody an invitation to a service whose utility is questionable and whose longevity is even more so.


May 23, 2012

Tweaking your GTD system is easier than deciding what the hell you want to do with your life

Good post on the pitfalls of so called “lifehacks”.