Sunday, March 15, 2009

Theory: Obsession

Note: This theory is not based on specific evidence or scientific study.

It certainly seems tenable to me, speaking both mechanically and as an observer of people (however little of that I may do) that there should be a correlation between what we think about, and in particular do, while exhausted or when we should be sleeping, and obsession, which I will define here as an irrational reappearance of a particular thought or topic in connection with unrelated events (perhaps a better word for psychologists would be fixation, but I'll stay with my terminology, if only because I am not a psychologist). I have two arguments in favor of this viewpoint, neither of them deductive nor scientific, if only (in the case of the first) for lack of sufficient or sufficiently detailed information to qualify as such. Both arguments are arguments for more research, and not arguments that the premise itself is valid.

The first argument is based on what I think I know about the function of the brain at night. We know that the brain does a great deal of integration of memories and other organizational and maintenance tasks within the brain during sleep. Supposing that this task starts earlier, when the brain begins to assume (based on internal factors) that sleep will be coming soon, it makes a logical kind of sense that if more stimuli (whether external or internal) are presented, with some probability, those stimuli will begin to be mentally associated with whatever memories, topics, or semantics the brain is currently integrating. That is to say, if you were playing baseball, today, and thinking at night about fluid mechanics at bedtime, you would be more likely to question the fluid mechanics behind a baseball pitch in the coming days than if you had studied it before dinner, and went straight to bed when you got tired--in the case of the sleepy studier, his current thoughts about airflow may have gotten misfiled as part of his thoughts about baseball, as his brain was categorizing his baseball-related memories from the day at the time he chose to study.

The second argument is not an argument at all, but rather an intuition pump. I will examine a number of cultures, however shallowly I may have observed them, and point out possible correlations which might be indicative of this relation. Examining my own (geek) subculture, I see two trends which may or may not be in correlation: people who spend their nights partaking in their hobby, and people who have become extraordinarily single-minded about such hobbies, such that the first thought they may have about any particular topic or event may be related to the hobby--for instance, seeing a cat stuck in a tree, a comic book geek's first thought might be about superman or another superhero rather than the fire department. Perhaps the best known example of this is the internet geek who instantly associates any attractive female with, we can only assume, the untouchable, airbrushed ladies of the internet who exist only to be looked upon by you, whatever they may be doing in picture or video to others. (This is not meant as judgmental--keeping in mind that I am proposing a reason for this instant and injurious mental reflex, and pointing out that it may not exist in every case, but that it explains such a case when and if it appears)

A second subculture might be what could best be termed the 'chatterbox' subculture--people who, whenever you see them, will continue speaking about anything that comes to mind until everyone within hearing range has bled to death through their ears. Supposing only that these people are those who habitually had late-night phone calls with each other, and that therefore they developed the nightly habit of talking about anything that came to mind, it is therefore possible that this habit could become a part of their daily ethic, if this imperative to talk becomes bound to the memory of everything they did during the daytime due to this unintentional contamination. This would, interestingly, be an example of such contamination not in explicit thought, but in compulsive behavior.

Similarly, we can ascribe similar compulsions to people who stay up late doing other things--reading, studying/memorizing, watching TV, drinking, or having sex, for example. Although a trivial counterexample of each case is likely (someone who does these things at night a few times but is not adversely affected), I would propose that it is more likely in every case for someone who is performing rote actions at night or before bed to become obsessed with such things that it would be if they exerted the same amount of effort during waking hours, such as in the middle of the afternoon.

This theory also has interesting ramifications for the study of, for example, depression. According to my proposal, people who are habitually depressive at bedtime are likely to become depressive more permanently, unless something else happens to break the association and/or create a new one. Similarly, people (such as myself) who consider the evening to be time during which to studiously avoid thought of work or anything not enjoyable may find themselves having trouble focusing on their work or other hard tasks even during working hours.

It also seems to be capable of explaining additional effects such as: the use of sleep deprivation as an act of torture or reprogramming, the stockholm syndrome, lovesickness (which is just another term for my definition of obsession, when defined by fixation upon a person rather than an act or idea), etc.

This hypothesis also seems testable and falsifiable, especially using the phrasing of the hypothetical consequences laid out previously, and I would be fascinated to know the results of such a study.

Multiple monitors as display devices

As near as I can tell (without having done any research in particular, which bias I readily admit), current trends in single-computer multiple-video output come in four general trends: Multiple terminals, Extended desktop, Display clones, and Custom solutions (the last being reserved for, for example, usb devices such as the Pertelian display). I think most people who have a second monitor get the same itchy feeling at least once--what else can we do with it? There's no good language to describe, or tool implementing, a properly flexible solution (IHNRTS*).

The idea has been itching in my mind for a while that the same windowing system should be able to run different display managers on different displays (where "the desktop" is an example of a display manager, as is any full-screen application, in particular ones that change the display resolution, such as full-screen games or video, or presentations). This effect can be mimicked with the extended desktop to a limited degree, but the extended desktop is limited for one very important reason: there is exactly one meaningful way of switching input focus from one monitor to the next, which is limited by the metaphor of the extended desktop which is broken when an application other than the desktop takes exclusive control of the input.

It's been technically possible to connect two or more keyboards or mice to the same computer for ages, but there has never been a good reason--unless you want to run a mainframe with multiple sessions running, the clutter is meaningless and adds to frustration and confusion more than anything else. There is little reason not to have only one full-sized keyboard--you will only be doing one thing that needs full access to it at once, unless you're a mythical prodigy typing on four keyboards with your hands and feet and mousing with your knees and elbows, or are doing independent work in more than one context, in which case it is likely that more than one computer is a viable solution.

Imagine, however, that you have a second--or third--monitor which doesn't have the capabilities of a full desktop, and is merely a display to which you send tool windows and other informative applications so that they do not clutter your workspace. When running in an extended desktop situation, it is fine to use your primary mouse between the monitors to click options and rearrange the windows a bit--however, run a full-screen game on your primary monitor and you'll see, among other things, that your primary input is now captured and you have no feasable way to interact with it without the dreaded resolution switch back to the desktop, wasting precious seconds and interrupting whatever internal context the game may have. Surely a second mouse could have a use here, but as it stands the primary display manager captures all input, and the tertiary display manager on your other monitor has no independent ability to strip the primary display of the input focus of even redundant input devices.

Thus we get to the proposed solution: a meta-display manager behind the desktop, which is reponsible for determining which display managers have control over what output devices, and which manages input devices configurably--including switching the primary input devices between contexts, and assigning a secondary input device to the nonprimary display, and changing input and output mappings when a new program gains or loses control of one or more resources.

Unfortunately, it may require new APIs as well. Imagine, for example, that you wanted your instant messaging program to have a tool window on a tertiary display while its main window remains on the desktop. Even assuming that the same window-drawing capabilties are granted to the display manager on the tertiary display, how do you programmatically determine or specify which output device you want the new tool to be displayed on? If the tool-window display manager is not part of the operating system, or otherwise not part of the basic windowing library, then any windowing operations will have to be done through its own set of libraries instead of directly through the windowing system. Although this will create increased overhead, most likely these tool windows will not be graphically taxing or real-time, so it is not likely that a slight performance hit will be problematic.

As it is currently envisioned, the only principle problem that this solves is maintaining user interactivity across multiple contexts when one context takes full control of normal user I/O, although it also offers an API which unifies control of non-primary display devices in a way that is not fundamentally different from the APIs used to manipulate primary displays. Whether more can come of this solution is a question that might best be answered in the process of its implementation.

Irrespective, it is an idea to be taken seriously, and a potential that could be fascinatingly useful.

(* I Have Not Researched This Statement)


The entries in this blog, whether philosophy, theory, or design planning, are my own thoughts and work.  In any cases where I seem to be expounding upon said thoughts and work, I'd like to be known for my work, and as part of that, I'd dearly appreciate being credited for any use of it.

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