Archive for April 2019

Personal space diagram

The study of personal space

In 1966 anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the term proxemics to describe the study of how people perceive the proximity of others. Hall’s work was inspired by an animal study conducted by Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, who found that animals maintained various boundaries depending on whether they were preparing to escape, to attack, to communicate with members of another species, or relating to a member of their own species.

Based on these insights, and after conducting his own research, Edward Hall developed the idea of a set of expanding circles, called reaction bubbles, that described how humans manage the space around them. The innermost circle he identified as Intimate space, reserved for those we are closest to, and usually measuring 6 to 18 inches (15 to 45cm) in radius. The next level up he dubbed Personal space, the distance we are comfortable maintaining with close friends, about 1.5 to 4 feet (0.5 to 1.2m). He used the term Social space to indicate our preferred proximity to acquaintances, about 5–12 feet (1.5–3.6m), and Public space for the distance we need for public speaking, 12–25 feet or more (3.6–7.6m).

This sounds very specific, but Hall himself acknowledged that these distances vary from culture to culture. While those from less-populated countries, or countries where individualism and privacy are highly valued, are more comfortable with larger spaces between themselves and others, in other cultures maintaining what is considered excessive distance can be perceived as rude or unfriendly.

As this video shows, Hall’s work on proxemics goes beyond reaction bubbles, but it is his idea of how we manage the space around us that has had the most long-lasting effect on popular culture.

Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Because in certain situations it is not always possible to keep our preferred distance from others—for example in crowded subway cars or elevators—we learn coping mechanisms to deal with our discomfort. Psychologists observe that individuals in these circumstances often avoid eye contact as a way to minimize the forced intimacy of close quarters. Another strategy we employ, according to psychologist Robert Sommer, is to dehumanize those around us, imagining them as inanimate objects in our personal space instead of the more anxiety-producing fellow creatures they are.

I think these strategies are in play in most large cities and in other situations where it’s is too threatening to acknowledge the close presence of others. My own discomfort is assuaged by passing others anonymously on a crowded sidewalk, or keeping to myself in a cramped airplane cabin. Of course, the illusion of space is shattered when I’m approached on the street, or when the passenger behind me starts kicking my chair. At these moments I feel my blood pressure rise, my stomach clench, and my temper grow short. While this reaction might be appropriate in truly life-threatening situations, nothing is at stake most of the time. Maybe knowing that I am responding only to a perceived threat to my safety will help me to remain calm the next time this happens. Then again, maybe not.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 15, 2007.

Image credit: Jean-Louis Grall [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A lost-and-found box

A better way to get your stuff back?

If you go to a coffee shop and leave your glasses, keys, or notebook on the table, chances are some honest citizen will turn the item in at the counter, and as long as you know where you left it, you can return later to claim it. Larger stores, stadiums, concert halls, theme parks and so on typically have central lost-and-found departments that serve the same purpose. But again, you must have at least a general idea of where an item was lost, and you can only hope that whoever found it didn’t decide just to keep it. (Lost-and-found departments are unlikely to have your lost camera, laptop, or wallet—at least not with the money still in it.) Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a general, all-purpose lost-and-found service that didn’t require you to know where your valuables went missing? And wouldn’t it be nice if there were an incentive for the finder to return your lost item rather than just pocketing it? These are precisely the ideas behind several online services.

The Carrot and the Sticker

In general, the programs require you to purchase tags, stickers, or labels of some kind and affix them to the things you want to keep track of. The person who finds your missing item can either call a toll-free number or visit a website and enter the ID number on the label. Depending on the service, the finder may then be informed of a reward for returning the item—and that may be one that you supply, or one that the service provides (paid for by your subscription fees). At this point, some services simply send you a message from the finder—allowing you to make your own arrangements for getting the item back. In other cases, the service arranges for anonymous return of the item (typically at your expense) and delivery of the reward to the finder.

Unfortunately, even the promise of a reward may not result in the return of items that have been stolen rather than simply misplaced. However, if stolen goods are later recovered by the police, the ID tags provide a way for them to get in touch with the rightful owner and arrange for return of the goods. When police confiscate stolen property and can’t determine who owns it, it is often sold at auction.

The idea for online lost-and-found services actually came from a very successful program called the National Bike Registry (NBR) that is endorsed by many police departments (and recently merged with another bike recovery service called 529 Garage. Like more general lost-and-found services, NBR provides you with a tamper-resistant ID label for your bike which includes a URL and a toll-free phone number. Since missing bikes are much more likely to have been stolen than lost, though, it is rare for anyone other than law enforcement officials to use the service.

Fringe Benefits

Though not their main purpose, there is reason to believe ID labels provide a deterrent to theft. Because the labels are tamper-resistant, they cannot be removed cleanly, making resale of stolen goods more difficult. Although these lost-and-found services are still small enough not to have aroused much interest in the insurance industry, the potential certainly exists for reduced premiums for people who use the ID tags, as they decrease the probability that an insurer would have to pay the cost of a missing item.

Lost-and-found services offer labels in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and materials to be used with almost any imaginable product. For example, ReturnMe sells skinny labels that can fit unobtrusively on eyeglasses and sunglasses, as well as metal key tags, luggage tags, and even pet tags. The presence of the tags on your stuff help to ensure you don’t suffer for forgetting to pick up that umbrella or briefcase when you step off the train or out of the restaurant.

Since I originally wrote about these services back in 2003, there’s been a lot of change in the industry. BoomerangIt, at one time the largest online lost-and-found service, changed ownership in 2016 and currently has only a minimally functional website that claims it’s in the process of being renovated. Meanwhile, competitor StuffBak shut down in 2005, and its former customers are now being served by ReturnMe, which appears to be leading this category at the moment. Although Yellowtag is still operating in the U.K., MicroTrax (a U.S. company) and Trackitback (a Canadian company) are apparently no more. Or…maybe they’re just lost. If you see a lost-and-found company on the sidewalk, be sure to check for a tag. There could be a reward if you return it!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 22, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on January 9, 2005.

Image credit: Paul Gorbould [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Silhouettes of people dancing

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play.

Play Time

Children, of course, have no trouble playing, and kids seem to engage in play with their whole beings—what InterPlayers refer to as “mindful presence.” That, in a nutshell, is what InterPlay seeks to restore to adults who have lost all sense of how easy it is to have fun. As we grow older, we tend to take ourselves more and more seriously. Although that is useful in some respects, InterPlay is a reminder that we never outgrow the need for play.

What does InterPlay mean by “play”? Not the things adults usually mean—sports, board games, gambling, and so on. In a sense, play can be anything that’s enjoyable, but some of the specific activities that make up InterPlay are deep breathing, telling stories, singing, stillness, hand movements, and yes, dancing—all done with a relaxed (and often goofy) attitude. InterPlayers realize that the people who most need to learn how to play sometimes have mental blocks about the very idea of dance, or perhaps even resistance to more basic notions like movement or touch. So their practices are carefully designed to put participants at ease and ensure that everyone feels safe as they learn gradually to “let go.” You may think you’re making a fool of yourself, but so is everyone else; the freedom for each person to be equally silly without judgments or comparisons is part of InterPlay’s basic philosophy.

InterPlayers learn to identify judgments they may have unconsciously made about themselves and release them. Since other participants are not judging you, you learn to silence your inner critic as well. So taking part in InterPlay activities is something like a cross between group therapy and improv comedy. InterPlay teaches participants to become more spontaneous and creative, to better handle stress, change, and uncertainty, and to be more effective collaborators.

Playground as Church

Although many InterPlayers become involved out of a desire to free themselves of certain religious baggage, the practice itself has no religious (or anti-religious) agenda. Instead, it espouses the viewpoint that spirituality is a subset of play, and that to the extent we can discover our true selves, we become better equipped to experience deeper levels of reality. Those who feel a spiritual path must be one of great seriousness and asceticism are challenged to think about spirituality in a more relaxed, light-hearted way.

InterPlay creators Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter met while attending seminary in Berkeley, California in the late 1970s. They have collaborated ever since. After developing the basic philosophy of InterPlay, they formed a nonprofit organization called Body Wisdom to provide a structure for teaching InterPlay and training other leaders. InterPlay groups have sprung up all over the world; the activities are also taught in such diverse settings as corporations, churches, hospitals, and prisons. Body Wisdom’s current headquarters, called InterPlayce, opened in downtown Oakland, California in 2004.

I have several friends who practice InterPlay, including one who’s a regional leader and was once on Body Wisdom’s board of directors. Although I myself am not an InterPlayer, I’ve noticed that simply by interacting with people who are, I’ve gotten sucked into the wonderful vortex of playfulness that they embody. And that’s exactly what InterPlay is all about: spreading the benign contagion of play.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 17, 2005.

Image credit: Pixabay


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An artist drawing with the aid of a camera obscura

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve learned about the methods of some famous painters, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers.

Without a Trace

Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness.

We know that numerous artists nowadays, and over the past couple of centuries, have employed just such a technique; many of Andy Warhol’s best-known pieces, for instance, were done this way. Prior to the invention of photography, though, the only images that could be projected were live representations of the real world. The technology to do this, the camera obscura, has been known for many centuries—possibly since as far back as the fifth century BCE. If a tiny hole is placed in the wall of a very dark room and the light outside is bright enough, an inverted image of the outside scene is projected onto the wall inside. But the image is usually fairly dim and fuzzy. Two important innovations in camera obscura design occurred in the 16th century: the addition of a lens (which made the image sharper) and a mirror (which could direct the image onto a horizontal surface rather than a wall). And there are a few scattered records from the mid-16th century of artists suggesting the use of a camera obscura as a drawing aid, though the earliest confirmed date of anyone actually doing so is 1603.

An Obscura Artist

It should therefore come as no surprise that an artist might have used such a technique in the 1660s, and that’s just what some people have claimed for more than 100 years about Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632–75). These suggestions first surfaced when people began noticing that the proportions in Vermeer’s paintings didn’t match those of other works from the time, in which the subjects were typically painted at the size the artist perceived them to be. But in Vermeer’s works, objects and people closer to the foreground are larger than those in the background—seemingly in just the proportions that they would be in a photograph—or a tracing from a camera obscura image. Several other clues in the geometry and lighting suggested the same thing, but there was no evidence that Vermeer actually had (or even had heard of) a camera obscura. In addition, since the scenes in question were interiors, presumably any image created by a camera obscura would have been incredibly dim. So for many decades the debate continued.

Then in 2001, architect Philip Steadman described in his book Vermeer’s Camera detailed research into the geometry of several of Vermeer’s paintings—backed up with photos of painstakingly recreated miniatures of the rooms from the paintings. Steadman’s studies showed that given the dimensions of the room in each scene (which he carefully calculated) and the viewpoint and size of each painting, all are absolutely consistent with an image of the room being projected onto its back wall with a camera obscura. In other words, given not only the uncanny accuracy of the paintings but also the specifics of their perspective, Steadman felt it was nearly a mathematical certainty that Vermeer partitioned off a small corner in the back of this room as a camera obscura and painted over the image on a canvas that hung on the wall. (In at least some cases, X-ray evidence shows that although there was no underlying sketch, there was a monochrome image beneath the color paint; this makes sense considering the very dim conditions inside the camera obscura.)

Tim’s Vermeer

In 2013, the story took another big step. Inspired in part by Steadman’s work, an inventor named Tim Jenison set about to recreate one of Vermeer’s paintings. Jenison claimed no artistic talent, but he did know a few things about optics. So he devised a mechanism that would have been entirely possible using 17th-century technology: a combination of a camera obscura and a small mirror positioned at an angle above the canvas. Using this setup, along with a room designed to be an exact duplicate of the one in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” (including live models in period dress), Jenison spent seven months creating his own version of a Vermeer. The striking results strongly suggest that Vermeer used a similar setup himself. The entire project was documented in the film Tim’s Vermeer, directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller).

Both Steadman’s book and Tim’s Vermeer met with a certain amount of controversy, not least because they seemingly suggest that Vermeer did not produce his works with artistic skill alone. (Oh, the horror to think that he might have supplemented his considerable artistic skill with technological skill!) But the evidence from both sources is pretty convincing—and, of course, it mainly confirms what a lot of people had suspected all along.

Mirror, Mirror

Shortly after Vermeer’s Camera was published, another book hit the shelves that made much broader (and more controversial) claims—and also influenced Tim Jenison’s work. Painter David Hockney, in his book Secret Knowledge, alleges that European artists used optical aids for painting as early as the beginning of the 15th century. But rather than using a camera obscura, Hockney believes these artists used a concave mirror to project an image onto the canvas; no documentary evidence exists simply because they all chose to keep it a carefully guarded trade secret. Among the many artists on Hockney’s list are Van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Lotto.

Hockney noticed that around the early 1400s, paintings began to show a much more natural representation of light and perspective—that, in some cases, they looked nearly photographic. He was convinced that the level of realism and accuracy they displayed was simply too great to have been done by eye, so he started looking for other explanations. As he went back through history, he noted the use of the camera obscura and other optical aids, and he suspected that the practice may have been much older. He formulated a series of theories about how various works of art over a period of several centuries may have been made by using optics of one kind or another.

Experts in the art world are still divided over Hockney’s claims. Because his theories are so wide-ranging, some of them are bound to be accurate to one extent or another. But many critics believe Hockney has gone too far, and a few have spent considerable effort rebutting his theories. David Stork, a physicist and art historian at Stanford University, has published numerous papers debunking various aspects of Hockney’s book. Stork found alternative explanations for many claims of optical aids, pointing out that none of the available evidence requires one to posit the use of optics in the oldest and most controversial works; there are other, simpler explanations. In addition, Stork finds it highly implausible that the artists could have discovered, created, and kept secret such advanced technology for so many years.

Having read lengthy articles about this debate until my eyes blurred, I feel I have enough information to reach my own conclusion. And that conclusion is: it doesn’t matter. What Hockney, Stork, and I agree on is that even if these legendary masters did use optics, that does not in any way constitute “cheating”; they would simply have been tools of the trade. In the end, I think the years invested in this intellectual exercise might have been more profitably spent painting.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 21, 2005.

Image credit: unknown illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Take Control of Your Online Privacy cover

It seems like every few days I run across yet another news story about a privacy catastrophe of one kind or another. Maybe it’s a huge corporation that suffered some sort of data breach, revealing private data about millions of customers. Or slimy behavior by social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Or the latest creepy attempts by advertisers to track people’s movements across the web without their permission. Or any of countless other examples of how using the internet puts your personal information—and perhaps even your physical safety—at risk.

Online privacy is a hot mess these days, and with few exceptions, the big tech companies are working against greater privacy protections, not for it. It’s enough to drive even tech experts (to say nothing of the rest of us) to despair. That’s why I wrote Take Control of Your Online Privacy—I felt the world needed an easy-to-read summary of what the threats are and how ordinary people can achieve a reasonable level of privacy online without abandoning all technology and heading off to live in a cave somewhere. This book tackles web browsing, email, digital payments, social media, file sharing, and numerous other types of online activity, showing users of any platform what they can do to protect their private data. The brand-new fourth edition, released last week, brings the book fully up to date with all the latest techniques, hardware, and software you can use to keep your personal data private. I hope you’ll find it helpful!

This book, like all Take Control titles, comes as an ebook, and you can download any combination of formats—PDF, EPUB, and/or Kindle’s Mobipocket format—so you can read it on pretty much any computer, smartphone, tablet, or ebook reader. The cover price is $14.99, but as an Interesting Thing of the Day reader, you can buy it this week for 30% off, or just $10.49.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day