Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Champions of Ilusion

Sorry about the lecture recap delay, yesterday I had to attend my annual state-mandated training for the job, and then went out for a couple of beers. On Monday, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr Stephen Macknik, both of Brooklyn's own SUNY Downstate Medical Center. The good doctors form a neurology power couple, the masterminds behind the Best Illusion of the Year Contest. Monday's lecture was a showcase for the gorgeous illusions that were sent into the contest, and dovetailed with the couple's new book, Champions of Illusion, which is a gorgeous mind-blower of a tome.

The good doctors handled the lecture in tag-team style, riffing off of each other and pausing to display videos and static images of the illusions submitted to their annual contest. The contest was formulated to provide information about the neuromechanics of perception, while remaining fun for the layperson- one does not need neurological training to appreciate illusions. The illusions submitted to the contest were rated on their intellectual, aesthetic, and 'spectacularity' appeal.

Dr Martinez-Conde began the lecture with a brief discussion of the infamous color-changing dress, accompanied by an image of the dress illuminated in light of two colors. As a personal aside, I figured out the controversy by comparing night Ginger with day Ginger.

The first illusion presented by the good doctors was Kokichi Sugihara's 'ambiguous cylinder' illusion:





The physical objects are ambiguous square/circle hybrids, and the use of a mirror activates this ambiguity as the objects are moved. Dr Martinez-Conde described this illusion as 'smoke and mirrors', or in this case, light and mirrors.

The next illusion presented to the crowd was the dynamic Ebbinghaus illusion:





Our perception of illusions can help neurologists 'dissect' how we see objects. The next illusion presented by Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik was Anthony Norcia's Coffer Illusion:




The audience was tasked with counting the circles in the image, which tend not to be immediately apparent.

The next illusion present to the audience was Victoria Skye's beautiful variation on the classic café wall illusion:





In this instance, the shading is a crucial element in the illusion.

The next illusion presented was the chesspiece illusion, in which identical images of chess pieces were made to look dissimilar using the darkness of the background against which they appeared:





The observer's brain determines whether a piece is white or black, in the real world, everything is ambiguous. Our brains normalize things, which has evolutionary significance, such as a parent's ability to recognize a child both inside and outside of the cave.

We were then shown the Leaning Tower Illusion, in which two parallel images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa were perceived as diverging:




While actually parallel, the mind interprets them as diverging because, as parallel objects recede into the distance, they are perceived as converging:




A similar illusion was entered into the 2014 contest by Kimberley Orsten and James Pomerantz:





My favorite illusion of the night was Kochiki Sugihara's 'uphill rolling' structure:





This illusion exploits the brain's desire for a sensible rectilinear shape- our perception 'defies gravity' in order to make sense of an ambiguous structure.

The next illusion was an attention illusion- instructed to pay attention to changing dots, observers tend to stop seeing change in individual objects when the objects move:





The brain gives primacy to perception of the motion, which is more important from a survival standpoint than the color changes.

Dr Martinez-Conde likened illusions to 'stories that the brain tells us'. Illusions allow us to tell stories about neuroscience. The challenge in talking about neuroscience is how to engage the audience. She invoked E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel- writers have thought deeply about narrative, with there being a difference between story and plot. Foster contrasts two sentences- the first is 'The king died and the queen died', a story, which makes a time connection between two events. The second sentence- 'the king died and the queen died of grief', a plot, makes a connection of causality as well as time. Plots engage audiences- Dr Lawrence Krauss remarked on the muted excitement when the discovery of gravitational waves was made public, quipping that the public is interested in science when it results in faster cars or better toasters. Scientific discoveries that affect the public create emotional responses- people have strong reactions to cloning, the discovery of hobbits, or the demotion of Pluto.

Science is as its best when it engages our sense of wonder- where did we come from and how did we get here? Illusions provide a sense of magic, a sense of wonder. She showed a video of a broken-and-restored thread act in which the stage magician spun a poignant tale of a difficult relationship "you are intellectually dull and your cooking is mundane", effectively distracting the audience from the slight of hand. She then showed the same video of prestidigitation without the narrative, removing the emotions which accompany the illusion, which requires misdirection.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session- one bastard in the audience asked about the perception of illusions by non-human species. Animals are subject to illusion, many organisms employ camouflage, mimicry, and other forms of deception to trick each other in various ways. Illusions have value, evolutionarily. Another question elicited the response that the brain fills in gaps- the brain makes up more than it takes in, in some cases, there are spectacular cases of discrepancy. Previous generations of scientists believed that illusions were cases in which the brain 'got it wrong'. Now, the focus has shifted to how illusions may help us- if illusions had no adaptive use, we would have evolved out of them long ago. Another question involved tactile and auditory illusions, which led to a brief discussion of the disappearing hand illusion:





A question about Dr Kokichi Sugihara's physical objects led to a fascinating digression about Dr Sugihara's initial desire to program 'impossible' object plans into a design program, then discovering that, not subject to human perception, the program would render workable designs for objects deemed impossible within the limits of human preconceptions. Regarding the subjectivity of perception, Dr Martinez-Conde joked that objects are honest, the brain determines what is perceived. Asked to picture one's mother's face, a subject is able to do so even if she is not present. Perception often involves 'filling in details'. There are conditions which affect one's perception of illusion- certain individuals on the autism spectrum are difficult for stage magicians to misdirect, certain people have brain damage which removes the ability to perceive motion, certain illusions are more difficult to perceive as a subject ages.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture, one accompanied by a variety of mind-bending illusions. Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik entertained and enthralled as well as informed us. Kudos to the good doctors, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for another fine Secret Science Club event. Here's a nice video featuring my favorite neuroscience/magic power couple:





Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that science... and consider picking up Champions of Illusion, which is a spectacularly pretty book.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Brooklyn Bound, Repeat Secret Science Club Lecturer

I'm heading down to Brooklyn this evening for tonight's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring the return of Dr Susana Martinez-Conde of SUNY Downstate. Two years ago, Dr Martinez-Conde gave a great lecture about perception which featured a lot of really great optical illusions.

I'm running out the door, so how about a video for my favorite song by Joe Walsh, but not the asshole Joe Walsh:





Lately, it seems like we've all been living a life of illusion. Try as I might to pierce the Veil of Maya, I still see a hairy, anthropomorphic pumpkin in the White House.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

Responding on the Local Level

It's been two months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the response by the federal government has been a disaster, a farrago of incompetence and outright kleptocracy. Thousands of marchers hit the streets of Washington D.C. today to call attention to the situation in Puerto Rico, and the poor response to it.

The real response to the ongoing crisis is coming from local municipalities- shortly after the hurricane, the Fire Department of New York rallied to collect material and funds for the relief efforts. Last week, I made a donation to the police department of the Town of Greenburgh, north of my beloved Yonkers, to help send a team of first responders to the island. The New York Metropolitan Area is home to a large Puerto Rican community, the members of which form a large portion of our civil servants, our first responders, the people who keep things running. New York, along with Florida (also home to a large Puerto Rican community), is stepping up to get the power running on the island after the corrupt cronies were sent packing.

I believe in competent governance, the pooling of talent and funds to ensure that the roads are maintained, the garbage collected, and, yes, disasters are responded to with alacrity, compassion, and know-how. The worst bill of goods ever sold to the population of the U.S. was Reagan's assertion that government is the problem. If you are a member of a political party that runs on this premise, you have no business being in government, because you will seek to prove it. The GOP has devolved since Reagan, to the extent that we have a bunch of kleptocrats, and kakocrats, running the country. Thankfully, there are still localities which function, and can act to prop up places, like Puerto Rico, that have been the victims of this dysfunctional government. I'm thankful I live in one of these localities.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Senseis Nerding Out

This morning, as is usual for me this time of year, I went down to Manhattan for my volunteer gig, teaching children's judo classes. The latest addition to our roster of senseis is a women's national champion judoka who is all of twenty-two years old. Like most judoka I have met, she is tough as nails but nice as can be- there is something magical about the sport, it involves combat with compassion. When an athlete throws an opponent, there is an emphasis on proper form so the thrown individual's safety is fostered. A few years back, when asked what he thought of MMA, one of my senseis thought for a minute, then answered, "It lacks warmth."

After we taught four kids' classes, we were hanging around the dojo and I started talking with our young champion about her field of study in college, and she mentioned that she studied ecology, with an emphasis on botanical systems. The conversation soon turned to the topic of slime molds, and she started rhapsodizing about these amazing, protean eukaryotes. She recounted how she convinced a professor, a fungi specialist, to order a slime mold for her. I had to ask, "Oooh, was it from Carolina Biological Supply?" Needless to say, we went down the nerdery rabbit hole, and the two of us were regaling Sensei Big Al about the wonders of slime molds, and our new sensei showed us gorgeous pictures of the slime mold colony that she had fostered, and we discussed the 'brainless intelligence' of these organisms. This sort of 'intelligence' in food location can mimic the highways of a country:





I'm pretty sure one of those slime trails is Route Nationale 7. When Sensei Frenchie's wife came to the dojo after our classes, we subjected her to this onslaught of nerding out. Slime molds just aren't popular enough, and we were in evangelical mode.

Me being me, I mentioned the Secret Science Club and suggested that I introduce sensei to mon bon ami Simon Garnier of the NJIT Swarm Lab- he's totally down with slime mold fandom. I envision a trail of New York nerdery to rival a slime mold's peregrinations across a culture medium.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Decrying the Over-Commercialization of the War on Christmas

There was a time when the War on Christmas didn't start until after Thanksgiving, and the War on Christmas decorations didn't go up until December. That's all changed now, via Tengrain, the good folks at Right Wing Watch have reported repulsive grifter Jim Bakker's early start on the War on Christmas:





Jim is complaining that he can't buy Jesus-themed merchandise at Walmart, but he's hawking the stuff himself... this is like Pepsico complaining that the Coca-Cola Company of America doesn't sell their products at Taco Bell. I think the War on Christmas has become over-commercialized, but the entire evangelical movement is one huge commercial enterprise.

POSTSCRIPT: I have become addicted to Vic Berger's videos... he's the Werner Herzog of satire, making hilarious-yet-terrifying edits of right-wing wackos and fundamentalist con artists. His use of music, sound effects, and tempo manipulation is brilliant, each video is a surreal mélange of horror and comedy. His YouTube channel is a time-sink, you've been warned!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Et Tu, Al?

This one genuinely hurts... in the general torrent of sexual harassment accusations and revelations, Al Franken has been accused of non-consensual kissing and groping. I have long admired Franken for his outspoken support of liberal values and causes, and his progressive political career. To hear that he has been a creeper and an abuser is disheartening. I thought he was better than that. Looking at the photo of him creeping on Leeann Tweeden is infuriating... even if he wasn't actually touching her, this sort of smirking attempt at 'humor' makes light of sexual aggression.

I'm not the only one who's pissed off... Of course, the regressive Right will try to draw false equivalences between Franken and serial-pedophile Roy Moore. I also have a feeling that Bill O'Reilly, who has long hated Franken, will try to use this scandal to leverage a return to the airwaves.

Al fucked up, bigly, and this is a fuckup which will reverberate throughout the public discourse.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

This Is the Best News You're getting All Week

It's been a busy day, so I am going to post a video for my current earworm, a viciously funny number from Brooklyn's electronic superstars LCD Soundsystem. I was first drawn to the single 'Tonite' by its retro-electronica sound, but damn, the lyrics are topical and trenchant:





This was the verse that hit me when I first heard the song:


And you're too sharp to be used
Or you're too shocked from being used
By these bullying children of the fabulous
Raffling off limited edition shoes



Sound familiar to you?