002: uncanny valley

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uncanny valley — /ˌənˈkanē ˈvalē/ — noun

The more human [a] character looks, the more comfortable we feel interacting with it until a point is reached at which subtle nonhuman flaws cause the character to seem eerie, like an animated corpse. Masahiro Mori dubbed this dip in rapport bukimi no tani (the uncanny valley). — source, and graphical interpretation


I’ve had tons of different living situations in the past several years… far more than I like to let on. Most of my friends know that I used to live with my parents after graduating college before I moved into an apartment with friends. As my family began to crumble, I started spending weekends away from home. Eventually some of my friends who lived near where I worked began to catch on to the situation, and I started spending nights in their rooms during the work week.

Most people don’t know that at that point I was essentially an extremely fortunate homeless person. I became a little “turtle woman,” living out of a bag on my back so I could always be ready to escape the trauma of going home. I always carried toiletries and a change of clothes. I learned how to pack clothes tightly and which clothes don’t crease as visibly. I became extremely tolerant of skipping meals. I was lucky that I could still store my belongings safely in my parents house, and that I could always go back to that house if I couldn’t find a place to stay. But that house was no longer my home, and I treated it as such.

It took me almost a year to come up with enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent, and a few more terrifying days to build up the courage to tell my dad that I had signed a lease and was jumping ship. I ended up moving out with little more than 2 suitcases stuffed with clothes. The entire process — especially the uncertainty and secrecy involved in hiding it — took a massive physical toll on me. To this day I still carry a little bag of toiletries around… for “emergencies,” of course. But one of the comforts I could always count on was the feeling of being at home in the Bay Area. No matter where I traveled on the peninsula, the climate and landscape were the same. Even the trees were the same everywhere. I could always count on the feeling of being oriented and familiar.


“The brain doesn’t seem tuned to care about either biological appearance or biological motion per se,” said Saygin, an assistant professor of cognitive science and alumna of the same department. “What it seems to be doing is looking for its expectations to be met — for appearance and motion to be congruent.”

In other words, if it looks human and moves like a human, we are OK with that. If it looks like a robot and acts like a robot, we are OK with that too; our brains have no difficulty processing the information. The trouble arises when — contrary to a lifetime of experience — appearance and motion are at odds. — source


I know San Diego isn’t objectively very different from the Bay Area. If anything, it’s probably the best stepping stone I could’ve chosen as my first home away from the Bay in 24 years. It’s warm and sunny, and the tree-to-land ratio seems similar. The familiar sounds of Moffett Field have been replaced by Camp Pendleton. The ocean is still nearbyThere are even mountains I can use as landmarks — boy, are there lots of mountains here. Sometimes I look around and see a close facsimile of the area I grew up in. I feel comforted and at home, even if just for a moment.

Every now and then, I notice something small that’s different from what I’m expecting. Sometimes it’s a tree that’s a different species upon closer inspection. Sometimes I listen for the Caltrain and I can’t hear it. Sometimes it’s something as small as the street signs being a different color. It happens less frequently as I adjust to the feeling of Southern California, but I still find it jarring and disconcerting. I find myself slightly revulsed whenever it happens, like I’m living in a simulation world.

Thank goodness all of the license plates I see on cars are still mostly California plates. I think I’d lose my mind if they were different.

— A