Saturday, December 19, 2015
  Pigment vs mechanism

Humans have developed two ways of recording and playing sensory impressions.

For each sense, two-dimensional pigment application or 'writing' came first, and mechanical methods came VASTLY later or not at all.

Cave paintings are about 30k years old. Representing phonemes with symbols is nominally about 5k years old, but that's a fine distinction. We were really painting stories for future reference. Why did Og bother to paint an elk? Not to deconstruct neomaterialist pansexuality. He was expressing a sentence that could also be spoken. "I killed this elk here."

So cave paintings count as a simultaneous development for both vision and speech. Though we can't get into the heads of those ancients, I expect a cave painting was meant to call up the entire sensory picture of the elk or waterhole or tree, including smell and taste and the action of hunting or drinking or picking. Distinctions came later.

= = = = =

On the mechanical side, output devices came first, followed by input.

Output of vision: Magic lanterns or phantasmagoria, around 1600. Projected paintings or drawings.

Input of vision: Photography, 1840s.

Output of sound: Signal drums and bells, extremely old. Maybe older than painting.

Input of sound: Phonograph, 1877. As I've noted, this is the ONLY major invention that happened exactly once without any gradual buildup of ideas.

= = = = =

Well, where are the other senses? Specifically, where is smell? We don't even have a 'writing' for smell. We have a dozen words that can be applied loosely, but without any precision or validity. We can name the emitters of a few smells validly: skunk, marijuana, rose.

If our visual representations were as poor as our olfactory, we wouldn't be able to name colors or intensities; we'd only be able to say "Draw a house" or "Draw an elk". As with smell, this would only work for animals and plants, because human products are non-standardized.

Mechanical playing of arbitrarily chosen smells, parallel to the magic lantern, has been around for a long time. It began with incense in religious ceremonies, and branched off to the rare and brief Smell-O-Vision in movies around 1930. Some computer-based smell generators have been advertised, but none have become commercially available. It's not clear that they even exist. (Try to find actual reviews by people who have actually tried the gadgets!)

Mechanical recording of smell is supposedly in development, but it's solely in the hands of tyrants who will use it to spot bombs or other illegal chemicals. Dogs perform this job so beautifully that there's no major pressure to develop electronic devices.

= = = = =

Beyond smell, we have a few other well-defined senses. Taste doesn't really count; most of what we call 'taste' is just smell. Skin can detect light, heat, pressure, and 'presence', but those are so localized that there's no good reason to record them.

Kinesthesia is the most important. Position, velocity, acceleration. There are systems of 'writing' for kinesthetic variables like Labanotation. We can record these variables accurately with photocells and accelerometers, and we can replay them directly with big expensive flight simulators. We can also replay them with magnetic stimulation of the cochlea, but this is so invasive that it's not likely to become commercial, and probably shouldn't. A similar method can invoke smells, but again could be too dangerous for common use.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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