Monday, June 29, 2009


The spirit is willing but the will is decidedly unspirited. One of these days I'll be a real blogger, blaging on the blagosphere from my dirigible.
Until then, this!

Earlier today I saw a fascinating video about the human blind-spot:

God is such an awesome designer, he decided to have our optical nerves bore up through the base layer of the retina, then splay out it's layer of nervous tissue, and grow the optical receptor cells pointing downward, meaning they catch light after it's already bounced off of the back wall of the eye ball.
Now, evilutionists may point out that there's an entirely logical progression to this structure along well studied evolutionary pathways; that these even expose some of the reasons for it to sport the structure it has today; and that only an incompetent would actually design an eye from the ground up to work like that for humans; but, um....

Okay, okay, I'll stop taking the easy potshots at creationists now, and return to the original tangent.

(After this one: when it becomes possible to have my selfness extracted from its current meat matrix and installed in a body of my design, would you all still be my friends if I had a smooth visor where my eyes, forehead, and temples are now, concealing some sort of multiple aperture or plenoptic lightfeild camera? That or maybe just gave myself mantis shrimp eyes.)

So because the nerve has to punch all the way through the retina before spreading its tendrils, there are no optical receptors in that small spot.
You'd think you'd notice when, however small, there's a pair of circles of your field of vision to which you are truly, literally blind.

Humans are blind to a lot of things though:

Kinda trippy but not interesting right?
Open this picture in a program with a color picker (The GIMP, Photoshop, etc), or use a stand alone color picker program.
Pick the green spiral and the blue one.
No, you didn't mis-aim (unless you did and got the magenta or the orange). Both spirals, blue and green, are the exact same color.

The point that this video and the image really brings home, at least to me, is that the information we receive from our senses is heavily filtered well before it gets to our higher level consciousness.
And being a very meta-cognitive sort (why do I think so much about why I think about the things I'm thinkin' of?), I start to wonder what else our brain does this kind of filtering to. Is this really just an artifact of how our brain processes visual information? (Well, yes.) Is it something to be amused by, and then pass up as a mere trick, an optical illusion? (I don't think so.)
Maybe this is simply my bias, short circuiting those mental circuits I've attempted to build, to use to evaluate the world logically. But every time I see an optical illusion, it connects, in my mind, to all of the magical thinking humans participate in, through time and around the world. A belief in the supernatural, in philosophies unsupported by evidence, in policies that foster a result directly counter to the aims that built them. It's all based on humanity's ability to filter the information they receive, to alter it at a level that they're completely unconscious of. The things we think rewire our brains as we think them. Deep tracks worn on crackling neurons with the continuous application of self-feeding networks of varying voltage.
The executive center of our brains isn't "designed" to apply rigorous, logical thought to the information it receives. It isn't "designed" to come up with the best solution to complex social issues that decide our quality of life.
The human brain evolved because it was a powerful tool for feeding a tribe of pre-humans enough to raise another generation. What gazelles do before they run away from, or are felled by, your rocks, and what the ones you don't eat do, that doesn't matter. It doesn't really affect the pre-human's ability to catch and eat it, so why not believe they gallop across the sea at night. (Or, as Aristotle thought, that birds hibernate under swamps and seas during the winter).

I can only see one path out of this morass. Or rather, one way to find that path. Measure, measure, measure. Nail the world down with facts, trap the structures and inter-relations with chains of words. Remove our conceptions of the world from our flawed psyches, and we can begin to see things as they really are. Step back, and appreciate the glory of the world exposed in a way unique, so far as we can tell, to humanity. Examine yourself with rigor, ask your friends to help (help me?), find the discontinuities, and create rules to reduce the impact of perceptual or cognitive error on your life. Shine a light in the dark corners of existence, and when our flaws are exposed, sadness and suffering can be reduced to the lowest level mathematically possible.

Of course, I could be wrong. Humans are fallible after all.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ben Goldacre (whom you should be reading regularly, if you are not already) has written an interesting piece today. He does that voodooscience that he does so well, and talks about reality. In this case, the reality often obfuscated by deliberately fuzzy thinking on the part of record industry mouthpieces.
A big part of Ben's job is heaping scorn on lazy and credulous journalists. And this is a doozy. Apparently, piracy of music costs the UK's recording industry 10% of the Gross Domestic Product. You would think that as this number were bandied about that if mystic fairies came from beyond the veil and abolished music piracy forever, the entire economy of Britain probably wouldn't suddenly regear itself into a mechanism designed to feed money to recording companies.
(One of the biggest obstacles to rational thought is wishful thinking. Keep that in mind.)

Or concurrently, you'd think they might realize that music albums are ludicrously expensive, what with about 70% of their cost being overhead that goes to the production companies. Raise your hand if you think any of these journalists took the numbers as an impetus to explore the world of mass market music. Why do we pay so much for musically jejune preprocessed garbage? What alternatives we could explore? what might be looming on the horizon?
Put your hands down.

As a whole, the heaviest downloaders of music do so because they love music, and are also among the heaviest purchasers of music. There's a rising tide of "amateur" music artists, who love creating music more than anything. The Internet is creating a place for these groups to come together, one where the greedy siphon of middlemen have no place. I'd be scared too, were I the recording industry. But this is just undignified.