My Teaching Philosophy (A Letter to My Students)

A university course is like a conversation had over a three month walk. I am like your guide. It’s a walk I’ve taken many times with many students. For our conversation, I’ve selected a few interesting topics. For our path, I’ve selected a few interesting places. I’ve led many other students down this path before, … Read more

What dreams and smartphones can teach VR developers about presence

A natural idea is that the feeling of presence in VR depends on coupling between a user’s movements and the images presented in the headset. When we consider other cases that involve presence, like dreams and getting lost in your smartphone, it becomes clear that this can’t be the whole story. Presence in a space, I suggest, is fundamentally a matter of being fluent at using signs (e.g., reflected light or pixels on a screen) to gain information about that space. When you want to maximize the feeling of presence in a space for a user, you want to think about how to help them gain fluency with the signs mediating their contact with that space.

How digital fluency isolates us

Just as fluent speakers hear meanings, not sounds, fluent tech users experience the digital world represented by their devices, not the devices themselves. For the person staring down at their phone, the real world likely has fallen out of their stream of consciousness.

My life as a super anosmic-smeller

A blindsighter is someone who can’t see in part of their visual field, but when given choices, can accurately guess what’s there. These individuals have damage to their primary visual cortex, but fully functional eyes. Their residual ability to (seemingly) “see unconsciously” derives from parts of the optic nerve which bypass the damaged brain region. … Read more

Depicting visual experience

Appearance and reality are not the same. If I take a photo of the cup next to me, that image may capture the physical features of the cup and surrounding scene, but in many ways it fails to reflect what it’s like for me to see the cup. Vision is dynamic and temporally extended. My … Read more

Touch as (the feeling of) reality

As you look at a nearby object, that object both looks as if you could reach out and grasp it, and it looks as if it’s an objective bit of reality that’s independent of your mind. Are these the same look? Before answering, here’s some quick context. Both looks are pretty clearly independent of a … Read more

Sharpening a pencil

A moment before typing these words I was sharpening a pencil. It’s a classic yellow wood-barrel, #2 Dixon Ticonderoga. In the hand, the pencil is strangely light and stiff. In contrast, the brass sharpener (an M+R 602) pulls my hand down with an unexpected load. As I turn the pencil in the sharpener, I feel … Read more

Dream reports

I spend a lot of my professional life studying dreams. I also write down my dreams from time to time, when they strike me as particularly noteworthy or interesting. My focus is normally on capturing the phenomenology, i.e. what the dream was like, how things looked, felt, and sounded. Strange dog I’m at a hotel, … Read more

Failure and camaraderie

Lately I’ve been reflecting on failure. It’s interesting to see how it’s handled quite differently in sport than in academics. I suspect that’s because failure in sport is manifest and public, while failure in academics is obscure and private. These features encourage camaraderie and other healthy coping strategies in sport. As to how to transfer these lessons into academics, I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting case study nonetheless.

Could you be hallucinating right now?

Descartes famously claimed that “there are no definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep” (Cress’s translation, Meditations on First Philosophy). There are a few possible interpretations of this claim, but an influential one is phenomenological. Dreams, and hallucinations of other sorts as well, do (or at least can) reproduce what it’s … Read more

Engaging in conversation

Most of us have many conversations each day: a quick “good morning” to our cohabitants, small talk at the office water cooler, a phone call to your mother to catch up, chatting with your children about their day over dinner, haggling with a client over price, a tax meeting with your accountant, some flirtatious banter … Read more

How we’re mislead by representational transparency

People share memes all the time, even when those memes have tell-tale signs that they are inaccurate, incomplete, or in some way are trying to mislead. Similarly, people fall for advance-fee and password reset email scams all the time, despite these emails being formulaic and easy to spot. Why? I suggest here that it’s in part because of the way in which representations are transparent to us. We normally notice the message, not the medium, including tell-tale signs of falsity in the medium. I also suggest that transparency is part of why people often struggle to distinguish representation from reality.

Empty minds

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that what we say using language is actually without meaning. For example, if I say “atoms of aluminum have 13 protons”, I seem to be using words to express, or describe, that atoms of aluminum have 13 protons. The quoted stuff—the words I speak—is a representation, representing some … Read more

Going vegan: Preliminary metabolic analysis

To summarize, a preliminary analysis of the data suggests that in my first four weeks going vegan, I needed to consume somewhere around 300 kcals a day worth of food more than I was before to meet the same energy demands. That’s a shocking increase, over 11%. Whether it holds up long-term, or whether my body adapts in some way, is yet to be seen. I used to be a big believer that weight management was just a matter of balancing calories in vs calories out, but this is a pretty dramatic demonstration that since not all “calories in” are absorbed, just balancing this equation isn’t right. I like being wrong, and admitting as much.

Why demonstrative thought matters

My first two published papers were on demonstrative thought. At first glance, these papers are esoteric. The first argued that phenomenal consciousness guides voluntary attention in selecting targets of demonstrative thought. The second argued that an epistemically robust information link to a potential target is not necessary to select that target for demonstrative thought. That’s a lot of jargon. It may seem as if this is stuff only specialists could care about — and may be hard to see why they care.

Algorithmic human engineering

A month or two back it hit me that I haven’t been bored in years. As a child in the 90s boredom was a constant threat: nothing good on TV, no neighbourhood friends around to play, etc. VHS tapes, N64, and dial-up internet could only alleviate boredom to a certain extent. I could only watch the same dozen tapes so many times, Nintendo games get old, and the internet wasn’t the bottomless content well it is today — and, it was slow.

A briefer guide to bodily awareness for athletes and performance artists

New riders at the velodrome, watching film, are often surprised at how high they sit on the bike. They feel as if their head is more tucked towards their handlebars than it actually is. Similarly, those who ride based on perceived effort can be in for a shock once they get a powermeter. What feels to them like a nine-out-of-ten might only be 70% of their VO2max power.

Is physical endurance mind over body?

Is physical endurance mind over body? I tackle this question through the lens of a new study which suggests not. I offer two thoughts on why it’s not surprising researchers in a recent high-quality study were unable to enhance endurance by enhancing the brain area involved in resisting our urge to stop in response to stress. The takeaway? Your ability to will yourself to better performance or push through the pain is pretty limited, and that urge to stop is likely just the collapse of your body’s ability to metabolize fuel at a rate needed to continue. It’s not merely a subjective feeling to be overcome.

Why we ride: Finding purpose in training during COVID-19

Like everything else, organized sports have been cancelled due to COVID-19. This includes all the bike races sanctioned by Cycling Canada and USA Cycling. UCI World Tour races have been cancelled, and the Summer Olympics is also postponed. Those who were planning to race might find themselves wondering whether their training this winter had a point. They might also be struggling with motivation: why keep up the rigours of training with no racing in the foreseeable future?

A guide to bodily awareness for athletes and performance artists

Sport and performance art involves skilled movements which must be learned and improved. For example, pitchers throw baseballs, competitive cyclists sprint out of the saddle, and ballet dancers pirouette. Experts who have mastered these movements perform them automatically, effortlessly, and without much conscious awareness of their bodies (but see Toner et al. 2016). But learning or improving a movement requires compensatory adjustments based on bodily feedback: body position must be sensed, deviation from the ideal registered, and adjustments made. The problem is that many athletes and performance artists have poor bodily awareness, making learning new movements a struggle.