A new physics-centric "carnival" called Philosophia Naturalis debuted yesterday over at Charles Daney's Science and Reason. We were going to submit something, we really were, having been included in the bulk email invitation sent out a few weeks ago announcing the impending carnival. Our excuse? (1) We're still fairly new to this whole blogging thing and we're still getting our head around the concept of carnivals. (2) Time got away from us because we were too busy taking the "Are You a Narcissist" quiz, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. That's right, it's all about us.
More accurately, it's all about Jen-Luc Piquant. Her score almost maxed out the scale, which ranged from 0 to 40. The average American scores around 15.3; Jen-Luc scored a whopping 39. (She had a brief moment of uncharacteristic humility which destroyed her shot at a perfect 40.) Even celebrities -- which, a new study has found, tend to score slightly higher (17.84) than average -- aren't as narcissistic as my Faux-French avatar. I, on the other hand, scored a rather troubling 10 on the narcissism scale. I once joked to friends during a past blue period that my
Indian Native American name would be Crippled by Self-Doubt. I was kidding. But apparently I barely have sufficient self-esteem to function in polite society. A certain degree of narcissism is healthy, after all; it's what gets us through the inevitable obstacles and disheartening stumbles in life.
I take comfort in the fact that (a) I kicked Jen-Luc's smug Gallic ass on the Buffy quotation quiz, and (b) researchers in this field draw a distinction between narcissism and egotism. Whereas egotists genuinely love themselves, narcissists "have low self-esteem and are compensating for it." So perhaps Jen-Luc is just much more insecure than the average avatar. Furthermore, the study might be a bit suspect in its methodology, considering it's the brainchild of Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-host of the popular call-in TV show, Loveline.
Admittedly, we're peeved at scoring so low and are therefore not being entirely fair. Pinsky is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California (USC), so he has some bona fide academic credentials, and the paper is slated for publication in the Journal of Research and Personality. The paper was co-authored by Pinsky's USC colleague, S. Mark Young, a professor of sports, entertainment, accounting, and communications (choose a field already!). And the quiz is actually the standard Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) survey routinely used by clinical psychologists.
Here's a sampling of Pinsky's other findings: Women celebrities were slightly more narcissistic than their male counterparts. Musicians are the least narcissistic among celebrities. And out of all the celebrities Pinsky polled, it shouldn't surprise anyone that reality TV stars scored the highest, at 19.45, while female reality TV stars scored off the charts.
Pinsky's study drew positive commentary from University of Georgia psych professor W. Keith Campbell, who specializes in the study of narcissism, and even wrote a popular book on the subject: When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. Campbell sees a disturbing trend among US college students, who he believes are becoming increasingly narcissistic. He attributes this in part to the surge in popularity of reality TV. This seems to contradict Pinsky's insistence that celebrities don't become narcissistic because of celebrity culture; rather, they seek out celebrity to compensate for their own psychic pain and emptiness. In fact, says Pinsky, "their greatest fear is losing their celebrity status."
That might explain their willingness to take the NPI survey, which consists of 40 "forced choice" questions asking one to select one of two statements. For instance, "If I ruled the world it would be a better place" versus "The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me." (Guess which statement Jen-Luc chose?) The participating celebrities were all guests on Loveline during the past 20 months, who took time out from being interviewed to take the quiz -- much to the annoyance of Pinsky's brash, big-mouthed co-host, Adam Carolla, who admitted there were numerous backstage arguments about Pinsky "distracting" celebrity guests with his stupid scientific survey. Quoth Carolla: "Who cares? Is this ground-breaking, that celebrities are narcissistic? I mean, this is like you found out Liberace was gay."
One wonders how Carolla scored on the NPI, but he has a point. Regardless, clearly I need to work on being more self-centered. You'd think having a blog would boost my score by several points all on its own -- is there anything more self-indulgent? Not many science bloggers affect their own avatar, either. But judging from a recent crop of articles that has crossed my path over the past month, soon the average well-heeled American can have a tailor-made talking avatar not just on their computer, but in their home -- sort of a virtual all-in-one valet.
For instance, Themeaddicts, Inc. offers the Magic Message Mirror, which is far more than just another TV set disguised as a mirror. It's hooked up to an elaborate home security system. When a visitor arrives, he or she trips a sensor in the driveway, activating the mirror. A virtual character named Basil the Butler appears to announce the visitor's approach. It's the brainchild of Craig Barr, a wunderkind of Hollywood animatronics, whose creations have been featured in the blockbuster film, Jurassic Park (he built that astounding T-Rex), and at the King Kong attraction at Florida's Universal Studios. Basil doesn't just announce visitors; he can also let residents know when the Jacuzzi has reached the right temperature. (Anyone who can afford Barr's pricey Magic Mirror most certainly can afford a Jacuzzi.) Customers can even ask Barr to design custom animatronic and mirror characters.
So avatars are slated to be all the rage in cutting-edge electronic homes, such as the Cleopatra avatar that graces Brian Conte's home in Seattle. Conte is an unabashed tech-head, president of Fast Track, which sells "greeter" software for homes, so naturally, he incorporated the concept into his own not-so-humble abode. Whenever a family member comes home, Cleopatra greets them (by name! thanks to RFID tags on the family's respective key chains) via a 42-inch plasma screen by the front door, summarizing visitors, phone calls, voice mails, emails and any deliveries that have occurred in the occupant's absence, along with the weather forecast, stock market updates, and the national security level. But she can also roam throughout the house and appear on various screens, including wireless PC tablets, switching off lights, lowering shades, turning off the music, setting the nighttime security alarm, even waking up residents at requested times. Family members can interact with her directly in turn via built-in microphones in the ceilings.
It's not for everyone; there's an undeniable "Big Brother" aspect to the whole thing, and even Conte's wife, Patti, was a bit reluctant to let him install the system. Now she loves it, although there's still the occasional glitch in operations, and the voice recognition software for issuing commands needs some improvement. Patti also bemoans the fact that the Cleopatra avatar resembles Angelina Jolie, when she'd vastly prefer a more Brad Pitt-ish character. We think that's a reasonable request. Every Cleopatra should have her Antony.
Again, the technology is pricey, but "Brangelina" can certainly afford a "his and hers" system. However, Jolie might be a bit disappointed in her digital doppelganger, since the technology still can't quite create a "photorealistic human being." Most motion capture technology can't replicate the tremendous detail and idiosyncratic quirks of human expression. But Steve Perlman, a former Apple engineer, is in the final developmental stages of Contour, a new camera system that will make it possible to create realistic synthetic actors by capturing the intricacies of facial movement (not counting Keanu Reeves, whose features barely move at all).
Unlike prior systems, Contour offers significant increases in resolution: around 200,000 pixels, making the digital video images that result highly realistic. Eyebrows, mustaches and short beards can also be accurately conveyed. Perlman is still tweaking the technology, but director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) plans to use Contour next year to film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Pitt will play a character who ages in reverse.
Hair is another problem area; even Contour has trouble with freely moving strands of hair. Another difficulty is the color. Real hair might have a sheen if it's dark, or glow if it's blond, the result of the scattering of incident light off individual strands. This effect is very difficult to reproduce digitally; just check out Jen-Luc's monochromatic tresses if you don't believe me. It requires complex calculations to keep track of all that hair-to-hair scattering, a laborious process known as path tracing. To save time, current methods use approximations, which work well for dark hair, and okay for brown hair, but just don't do justice to glowing blond tresses.
Why? Well, the problem is compounded because when light hits a mass of blond hair, it not only reflects off the surfaces of each strand, it also passes through the hairs (transmission) and emerges in diffused form, and then is reflected and transmitted yet again, and so forth. Two computer scientists at Cornell University have come to the rescue. Cornell professor Steve Marschner and his graduate student, Jonathan Moon, have developed a new algorithm that traces rays from the light source into the hair, using approximations of the scattering to produce a map of where photons of light are located throughout. The program then traces a ray from each pixel of the image to a point in the hair, using the map to determine how much light should be present in that spot. The result? Simulated blond hair in 2.5 hours that is as realistic as the far more laborious path tracing method, which required 60 hours of computation. Marschner is now extending his work to realistically simulate how hair moves. Animators everywhere, rejoice!
That's entertainment, but it's also cutting-edge science. After all, NASA maintains its own scientific visualization studio, whose employees are animators using the same software as Pixar Animation Studios to turn scientific data and concepts into visually compelling simulations. "Visualization is that link between the flood of data coming down from space and the ability of the human mind to interpret it," NASA oceanographer Gene Carl Feldman recently told the Washington Post. Whether its compiling raw data from outer space, or producing Charlotte's Web, visualization technology is a critical component.
More importantly, all this cutting-edge technology is making it possible for everyone to indulge their inner narcissist by producing a digitized replica of themselves -- or their aesthetic ideal -- and an animatronic version is a natural extension of that. We just know P.Z. Myers is going to be all over Themeaddict's talking toucan and pirate skull.