Archives May 2012

Lens Flare in the Eye of the Beholder

We’re all familiar with lens flare, those circles of light that appear in a photo or video when the camera points too close to the sun. When the scene is too bright, light bounces off of camera parts that it shouldn’t, and reflections of the inner workings of the lens show up in the picture. (Paradoxically, even video games often include lens flare, because we’re so used to seeing the world through a camera that adding a camera defect is seen as making the scene more realistic, even though we’re supposedly seeing it through the protagonist’s usually-organic eyes.)

But still, there are people who get taken in by it. That is, they mistake what’s on the photo due to a camera defect, for what’s actually in the scene.

This happens quite often, actually: people looking for evidence of aliens (I mean people who thought the face on Mars was an artificial construct, not the SETI institute people) will blow up or process an image until the JPEG artifacts become obvious, and then claim that these artifacts are alien constructs. Ghost hunters have been known to do the same thing with audio, claiming that MP3 lossy-encoding artifacts are evidence of haunting.

The common thread here is that these people are using their instrument (camera, audio recording, etc.) in ways that it’s known to be unreliable. Every instrument has limitations, so the best thing to do is to learn how to recognize them so that you can work around them: if you see a bright green star in your photo of the night sky, check other photos taken with the same camera: if the star appears in different places in the sky, but always at the same x,y coordinates on the photo, then it’s likely a dead pixel in the camera, not a star or an alien craft.

But if this applies to instruments like cameras, JPEG and MP3 files, and so on, shouldn’t the same principle apply to our brains, which are after all the instrument we use to figure out what the world is like? What are the limitations of the brain? Under what circumstances does it give us wrong answers? And just as importantly, can we recognize those circumstances and work around them?

Yes, actually: every optical illusion ever exploits some problem in our brains, some set of circumstances in which they give the wrong answer.

The checker shadow illusion is among the most compelling ones I know. No matter how long I look at it, I can’t see squares A and B as being the same color. I accept that they are, because every technique for checking, be it connecting the squares, or examining pixels with an image-viewing tool, say that they’re the same color. Yes, in this situation, I trust Photoshop more than my own eyes.

There are also auditory illusions, tactile illusions, and probably others.

So if we can’t always trust our eyes, or our ears, or our fingertips, why should we assume that our brain, the organ we use to process sensory data and make sense of the world around us, is infallible? It seems silly.

In fact, it’s beyond silly: it’s demonstrably wrong: stage magic is largely based on flaws in the mind. The magician picks up a ball with his left hand, moves his left hand toward his right hand, then away, and shows you a ball in his right hand. You then assume (perhaps incorrectly) that he showed you the same ball twice, and that his left hand is now empty. Gary Marcus talks a lot more about the kludginess of the brain in his book, Kluge: the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

But the bottom line is that if we’re serious about wanting to figure out what the world is like, we need to be aware of the limitations of our equipment. This includes not only cameras and recorders, but also eyes and brain.

Church-State Separation in Norway

Whøå (Google translation).

The Norwegian government is expected to amend its constitution to become a more secular society: the Church of Norway will no longer be the official state religion. As I understand it, from now on the government will no longer have any say in how the church is run (and will abolish the post of Minister of Churches), and the church will appoint its own bishops and other officials.

This all sounds rather… civilized and sensible, I must say. As an American, I’m not used to such things happening without a whole lot of hand-wringing, hyperbolic rhetoric, and accusations of treason, communism, and collusion with Satan. I don’t suppose we could get some Norwegians to come over here and show us how it’s done, could we?

Obama’s Tepid Rubicon

Of all the adjectives that could be applied to the current Thing Dominating The News Cycle — Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage — the most popular seems to be “tepid”. Other criticisms I’ve run across are in a similar vein: that Obama was wishy-washy, didn’t pledge any actual support for marriage equality, and generally speaking, why the hell aren’t we at the point where he could just say “Of course I’m for marriage equality! I can’t believe we have to have this conversation!”

(In case you couldn’t tell, I spend a lot of my time on the left side of the Inter-Blogo-Echo-Chamber-Sphere, but I can only assume that the right also had its share of criticism, which probably sounded something like “Rar rar grarh destroy our country rarh grar socialist grumble grumble Ron Paul smash!”)

I understand this criticism, and agree with a lot of it (at least the sane stuff, not the “Obama is a communist from planet Reptilia”). And yet, I can’t help thinking that maybe for all Obama’s wishy-washy, weasel-qualified luke-warmth, maybe it doesn’t matter; that was all that was needed.

In particular, I’m reminded of pope John Paul II’s statement about evolution in 1996. It’s remembered as a watershed moment when the Catholic church finally admitted what was obvious to everyone with a minimal scientific education. But if you read the thing, it’s as wishy-washy as Aladdin’s lamp in the middle of the spin cycle. Even the central assertion, that evolution is “more than a hypothesis” is an endorsement so weak that 98-pound weaklings routinely kick sand in its face at the beach.

And yet, in retrospect it turned out to be a watershed moment, from which there was no turning back. Even John Paul II’s successor, pope Reactionarius XIV (the X makes it sound edgy) hasn’t really been able to undo that, as far as I know.

So maybe the same thing’s going on with Obama. Granted, he’s not the pope. It’s not as if he can control the hearts and minds of a billion people (especially when he can’t even control his own vice-president! Amirite? badoom-sha!). At the same time, he’s The President. He sets the tone. And the fact that we’ve gotten to the point where a sitting POTUS can unambiguously, if tepidly, express his support for marriage equality, must mean that some kind of rubicon has been crossed.

Perhaps in five years we’ll look back and see this as the moment when the country released a breath it didn’t realize it had been holding; or stopped unconsciously talking about gay marriage in slightly hushed tones (yeah, that seems pretty unlikely, given that a lot of the relevant voices have been pretty loud). Or maybe just as the moment when Washington definitively figured out which way the wind was blowing and decided that it was okay for the president to commit himself.

At least, that’s what I hope will happen. I could be wrong. I don’t actually have a tingly Rubicon-sense. It might just be gas.

Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

I Get Spam

Track lighting, from Wikimedia Commons

I don’t often get spam worth sharing, but this one is comedy gold. (See also below for post-419 comments.)

From: “Mr Ronald Anthony”<mrronaldanthonys@—.—>


FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Avenue,
NW Washington, D.C. 20535-0001



This the Federal Bureau Of Investigation (FBI) We are writing in response to our track light monitoring device which we received today in our office about the illegal transactions that you have been involve in for a long time now.

We understand from our general investigations that some con men from Australia has been ripping a man off him hard earned money with the pretense of dealing with birds Company that will deliver a pet to him and the proposed amount which was to be transferred to you is the sum of $5,000,000 Usd as stated in our record here.

We also got a complain from our Australia man counterpart stating that your identity/information’s was used to dupe a Australia business man to the tune of $4 Billion Usd by some Australia Fraudsters which you have been in contact with for some time now.

The German Government has ordered for your urgent arrest regarding the crimes that was committed with your name,after all the series of investigations conducted here in our office we tracked your record and we found out that you have never been jailed or had any fraudulent case that may jeopardize your image and personality.

All this information’s are on record and we are going to use it against you in the world court when this case will be brought before it and we called the Australia High Commission for an urgent compensation for the bad deed that has been committed with your name.

The Australia Government has made available the sum of $950,000.00 Usd for your compensation and then we would like to inform you to stop any further communications with the con men so that you will not be brought before the law..

We also discovered that you have made some payments to them earlier for this same funds that was to be sent to you.

Don’t forget that all your properties will be confiscated as soon as you are jailed because it will be believed that you got them from fraudulent and dubious business transactions like the one that you are in right now.

We have forwarded a copy of this information’s to all the states crime agencies including,

National Crime Information Center (NCIC)

CrimTrac Agency, Canberra,

Crime and Corruption Commission

Crime and Misconduct Commission

Home Land Security Service.

Economic And Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)

Nigerian Local Metropolitan Police (NLMP)

So all you need to do right now in other to clear your name from the scam list which has already been forwarded to our office is to secure the CLEAN BILL CERTIFICATE immediately.

This Certificate will then clear your name from the scam list and also after the Certificate has been issued to you, you will then forward it to the payment officer for the urgent transfer of your compensation funds of $950,000.00 Usd.

You are required to forward to us your private contact number for oral communications and don’t forget that you will be given only 72hours to secure the CLEAN BILL CERTIFICATE or you will face the law and its consequences.

Your e-mail address is now under our e-mail track monitor, so you should make sure that you don’t respond to any e-mail that is being sent to you from anybody or organization that claims to be working for the Government.

Forward the details of the payment you made to them earlier, and also all the information’s/documents that was forwarded to you by those criminals that you have been in contact with for a long time now.

Also below is my attached Identity Card for your perusal.

Get back to us as soon as you receive this e-mail so that we can guild you on how to secure the Certificate within 72hours.


Thanks as I wait for your response

Mr Ronald Anthony

I’ve seen some unconvincing 419 scams before, but this one is like two kids on each other’s shoulders, wearing an overcoat, trying to sneak into Buckingham Palace by pretending to be an Interpol inspector. And using Clouseau as a model.

Having said that, isn’t it amazing what they’re doing with track lighting nowadays? And I hope guilding doesn’t hurt.

If you liked that, you’re sure to enjoy this PSA for Camp Quest Northwest.

War Is Peace. Slavery Is Oppression. Ignorance Is Strength.

Once again, it seems that the word “Family” in an organization’s name can be more accurately replaced with “patriarchy”.

The Illinois Family Institute didn’t like President Obama’s National Day of Prayer proclamation. No, they didn’t:

President Obama’s proclamation has raised the eyebrows of some because he is thankful that we live in a country that “respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people.” Critics have noted that this point seems to fly in the face of the President’s failure to defend the Defense of Marriage Act which would have huge ramifications for religious freedom should marriage be undefined to allow for homosexual couples. (The repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is already causing problems for military chaplains.) The President’s prayer proclamation also contradicts his actions associated with his health care plan that could force people to pay for abortions and contraceptives against the teachings of their faith

Got that? Failing to uphold a law that tells gays they can’t marry the person they want is at odds with religious freedom. Not forcing gay soldiers to live a lie is at odds with religious freedom. Telling religious employers that they have to play by the same rules as everybody else is at odds with religious freedom.

Anti-Christian Bigotry
"Anti-Christian Bigotry" by Dana Simpson

I once had a discussion with my friend JB about the Civil War, and mentioned the argument that the war was fought not over slavery, but over states’ rights. She snorted and said, “Yeah. The right to own slaves.”

Your right to religious freedom ends when it affects people outside of your sect. Your right to worship as you see fit does not include the right to be kowtowed to, the right to make other people live by your rules, or even the right not to be offended. Put on your big-boy pants and deal with it.