Friday, April 17, 2015

Now, THAT's What I Call Fiscal Responsibility!

From the Party of Fiscal Responsibility files, we have a local story about New Jersey's bond rating has been lowered for the 9th time in five years. Oh, yeah, that Chris Christie, the Hudson Harkonnen, really knows how to be a financial steward for his state.

This is the same sort of fiscal responsibility that is reducing Sam Brownback's Kansas to a third-world Thunderdome. Back in the day, I noted that Chris Christie is a reasonable man. Kansas, though, fits the "post-apocalyptic dustbowl hellhole" image better than the Garden State, though:





I'm sure Sam Brownback is a reasonable man...

We'll be hearing more about "fiscal responsibility" in the upcoming presidential election. Remember, though, no matter what any Republican candidate tells you, if elected, they will mess up the finances of any polity they are elected to run.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thanks, Smut!

I was authorially uninspired today, so I figured I'd post an embedded video. Thanks to Smut Clyde, I have decided to post the video to Shriekback's Nemesis. I thought that I had posted this video before, but I merely linked to it. The song, which is one hell of a dance number, takes its title from a comic-book character which is referenced in the video:





I've always taken the song to be about the allure of evil, and the cognitive dissonance it takes to perform atrocities while claiming a moral high ground:

We are no monsters, we're moral people
And yet we have the strength to do this
This is the splendor of our achievement
Call in the air strike with a poison kiss


I can picture Dick Cheney, or the Gitmo torturers spouting this verse without irony.

There's a remix version with an introduction culled from Apocalypse Now, hinting at another inspiration for the song. At any rate, the song's meaning is ambiguous enough so that one can ponder it while tearing up the dance floor.

Thanks again, Smut!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Secret Science Club Recap: Trompe L'Oeil... FOR SCIENCE!!!

Last night, 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, the director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at Brooklyn's own SUNY Downstate. Dr Martinez-Conde is a renaissance woman, being a professor of ophthalmology, and physiology & pharmacology besides being a neurologist.

Last night's lecture dealt with illusions, beginning with the question, "Is everything an illusion?" She showed a clip from The Matrix, joking that the philosopher Keanu Reeves had posed this question, then noted that "reality" is actually the product of an individual's neural matrix. Dr Martinez-Conde defined an illusion as a subjective perception that doesn't match the real world. There are three broad categories of illusions: seeing something that is not there, the failure to see something, and seeing something that is different from what is actually there.

Illusions depend on the brain "deceiving" us- everything we perceive is relative in context, and neural limitations lead to neural "deceptions". Our brain fills in blanks in sensory input- Dr Martinez-Conde illustrated this by having the audience members locate their "blind spot by joining our thumbs at arms' length and moving our hands toward our faces until one thumb tip disappeared. She noted that the brain "fills in" the gap in the visual field, but this can relate in errors- she joked that you can "decapitate" people because the brain fills in the background using the information around the gap, and cannot reconstruct a figure.

The brain seeks structure in the things it perceives, which Dr Martinez-Conde illustrated with the "3 Pac-Men" figure, in which the brain mistakenly perceives a triangle:




The brain organizes information, even if organization must be imposed.

The brain also imposes narratives- to the extent that choice blindness can occur... In one experiment, subjects were asked to rate pictures of female faces and to choose the more attractive of each pair. The majority of subjects were unable to detect when the pictures had been swapped using sleight of hand and were able to confabulate reasons why they had to justify why they thought that a picture they initially hadn't chosen was the more attractive of a pair. Dr Martinez-Conde quipped that it doesn't matter what choice you actually make, you can convince yourself that you've chosen otherwise.

Dr Martinez-Conde noted that the illusions that have been studied often come from the art world. The use of size and occulsion to create the perception of perspective was developed in the Renaissance. She noted that there will always be ambiguity in perception, but the visual system needs to make sense of ambiguity. Artists and architects are able to exploit this fact by creating distortions such as Borromini's forced persective tunnel in the Palazzo Spada in Rome which appears to be about four times as long as it actually is. Illusions such as these work because such trickery is not normal in the natural world.

Dr Martinez-Conde then displayed the Leaning Tower Illusion, in which the rightmost of two identical images appears to lean more because the brain perceives objects to "converge" in the distance. In the image of two towers, the failure to converge is interpreted as looking like divergence.

The next illusion Dr Martinez-Conde displayed was the impossible triangle. At first sight, the impossible triangle seems acceptable, but further observation reveals the flaws. A three-dimensional sculpture of an impossible triangle looks radically different from different vantage points.

She then displayed a visual puzzle, a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, his wife Josephine, and their child, disguised as a depiction of violets:




Spoiler, look for the white profiles of the trio.

The topic then shifted to the infamous blue-black/white-gold dress. Color perception is subjective, ambiguous, and illusory. Dr Martinez-Conde joked that, with illusions, not everything is black and white. The images we perceive are not static, and context can make identical colors appear to be different. To demonstrate this, she showed us Akiyoshi Kitaoka's "grey-eyed girl" illustration, in which two identical gray eyes are perceived to be different colors:




Context is everything. In one dramatic illusion, demonstration 14 on this site, two identical-colored tiles on the image of a cube appear to be different. demonstration 12 shows the effect of "illumination" on color perception, with identically-colored tiles appearing very different under blue or yellow illumination. The visual system discounts the source of illumination when perceiving colors- color constancy causes humans to perceive colors as similar under different lighting conditions. Color constancy can be "fooled" under certain lighting conditions, allowing alterations of color perception, such as that in the "gray-eyed girl" illusion. In the case of the dress, the different perception was due to different perception of illusion. The visual system evolved to deal with sunlight and a blue sky, so golden light and blue light can be confusing.

Perception involves making shortcuts and putting things in context. Dr Martinez-Conde finished her lecture by demonstrating that not only the visual system is subject to trickery, presenting a funny video which involves an audio deception, a "misheard lyrics" take on Oh, Fortuna! from Carmina Burana:





In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked Dr Martinez-Conde if any illusion studies had been performed on other primates- she answered that animals perceive illusions, but that no chimpanzees had been asked about "the dress". Other topics she covered were the possibility of visual prostheses and machine vision, which the study of illusions could refine. One young fellow who was standing next to the bastard asked about "illusions" affecting other senses, such as touch, taste, and smell. Dr Martinez-Conde asserted that these senses can be tricked, but that it was harder than visual illusions. I reminded him of the "hot warm cold" trick after Dr Martinez-Conde responded. Regarding the "Best Illusion of the Year" contest, she told us that she had thought that the first year would have been a "greatest hits" type of situation, but that the illusions continue to be top-notch year after year.

Dr Martinez-Conde and her husband, who is her Best Illusion of the Year co-creator, stuck around after the lecture to hang out with audience members. Some bastard joked that she should buy "the dress" to wear during the presentation. She responded that the trick would only work under the proper conditions of illumination, whereupon said bastard, who is no stranger to theatrical lighting, ruefully noted that there are more people in NYC who studied stage lighting than there are positions for lighting designers on Broadway. I asked her husband if he had ever introduced her to the mad genius of the MAD fold-in, and answered that he hadn't but that she'd probably like them. One could not meet a nicer couple.

The lecture was really great, with some wonderful visual accompaniment. Throughout the lecture, I was thinking, "The good professor is messing with our heads... and it's awesome!!! Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture by an informative expert who looked like she was having a ball. Here's a hearty round of high-fives to Dr Martinez-Conde, the staff of the beautiful Bell House, and Margaret and Dorian. Thanks yet again!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Busy Bastard

Today is one of those days on which I am a busy, busy boy. This morning, we had our all-staff meeting at work. I woke up before dawn and drove to my principal worksite, where I met three co-workers in order to carpool to our headquarters, which has a smallish parking lot. This being the week of our season opener, I hadn't seen a lot of my co-workers since December. It's great, as one of the year-round skeleton crew, to see the eight-monthers return.

After a lavish breakfast, our head of HR and our president spoke- we heard the yearly talk about how to boost site visitation with fundraising events in order to finance our educational mission. It was pretty much standard boilerplate.

After a brief break, one of our site directors, who is pretty much the nicest guy in the room (seriously, he is one of the most hospitable persons I have ever met), gave us a presentation about the restoration work being done on his site, including the lifting of a building so a new foundation could be installed- fascinating stuff.

Then, our head grant proposal writer gave a presentation about the various funds she had lined up from national and state funds, and institutional and private donors, to pursue some remarkable projects, including remote learning and artistic collaborations with schools in The New York Metro Area. Her presentation was captivating- she is a compelling writer and she was able to pull off some remarkable feats on a very short notice. I think I've kinda got a crush on her, she makes my continued employment more likely.

The final presentation was by the head of our education division. He's typically a mellow fellow, but is very impassioned about his field of study. He gave an account of the challenges of increasing school groups in a time of budget cuts and an emphasis on "Common Core" learning. Besides figuring out how to convince schools to send more grade cohorts to our sites, he summarized some video courses that were being produced with local scholars and artists. He knocked it out of the park, despite starting off with a big dose of self-deprecating humor: "I want you to lower your expectations. I used to drive a Ford Pinto, and I gave my wife a vacuum cleaner for an anniversary gift." I think I have a crush on him too, even though he doesn't look like a pixie.

I returned home and took a nap, and am now heading to Brooklyn for the SSC lecture. North for work, south for play... Busy busy Bastard!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Let the Games Begin BENGHAZI!!!!

I finally had an opportunity to check out Hillary Clinton's announcement of her 2016 presidential run. I think it's great that there is a serious female candidate for the presidency, though I have to confess that the very prospect of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton was so distasteful to me in 2008 that I was relieved that Barack Obama won the nomination (I also didn't want the 2008 presidential campaign to be a referendum on what the candidates were doing during the Vietnam War era).

While a lot of the commentary is dealing with the "baggage" that Hillary Clinton has accumulated over the years, I'd pooh-pooh that as typical media "horse race" B.S. Most people don't have the particular obsessions that right-wingers have, so mentioning Vincent Foster will draw blank stares from normal people and Hillary Clinton value meal "jokes" will offend them.

The main line of attack against Ms Clinton will doubtlessly be the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Republicans aren't too swift, they tried to use the Benghazi attacks as an issue in the 2012 presidential election, and they failed. Their multiple attempts to make the Benghazi attacks into political hay have become a grotesque punchline, and their current hearings led by Trey Gowdy (R-Uncanny Valley) promise to be a grotesque farce.

A lot of the right-wingers' rage hinges on semantics regarding Secretary of State Clinton's rhetorical question about the motivations of the Benghazi attackers, ripped out of context and distorted to make it seem as if she were indifferent to the deaths of four State Department employees. It's a lie, but we're going to hear a lot of lies during the upcoming Stupid Season.

I think Hillary Clinton should flip the bird to all of her GOP opponents by choosing this as her campaign theme song:





I imagine a lot of Republicans will be getting cease-and-desist letters from The Moz.

Postscript: Truth to tell, I'd still be happier with an Elizabeth Warren candidacy, but that's just not going to happen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Ration of Abuse From a Goose

It's nesting season for the Canada geese again. While walking through a soon-to-be heavily trafficked area of the site, I wondered why a particular pair of geese were freaking out. Sure enough, mom was in the initial stages of building a nest... while there is no structure to speak of yet, she seems to have her heart set on the spot, and her gander has his dander up. He was angry enough to get right up in my face:




If you've ever had an angry Branta canadensis up close and personal, you'll know that they hiss like pythons. At times like these, they sure live up to their therapod ancestors' image.

Here's our heroic gander channeling the Rolling Stones logo or perhaps Miley Cyrus (another descendent of therapods):




Next week, we have a fundraising event, and there will be a lot of people on the site. I'm going to have a talk with the day crew to determine if we need to force these geese to relocate to a more secluded area before mother goose lays her eggs. As it is, they are immediately adjacent to one of the busiest areas of the site. I have no problem fending off an irate gander, but we'll have a lot of little kids running around, and they'd probably get clobbered.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Living with Gusto, Dying with Grace

This morning, after getting two hours of sleep, I headed down to Manhattan for a memorial service for my friend Richard Grace, who succumbed to a brain tumor three weeks ago. I knew Richard through the children's athletic program I volunteer for. He was a physical fitness trainer and the athletic director for the program. As such, he'd pop his head into the dojo every week to make sure the kids were getting to their activities on time, and to shoot the breeze with us coaches.

Richard was the very picture of health, six-foot-four and a fanatic fitness buff. He was the consummate ladies' man without being a cad, and if you want an indication of how handsome he was, he married a Rockette. He was most emphatically not the sort of guy you'd predict would not see the age of sixty.

About a year and a half ago, he fell. It turned out that he had a brain tumor that caused his finely-honed body to rebel against him. He had always lived with gusto, tempered with his sense of duty to the kids he mentored. When he became sick, he took on the challenge of fighting his illness with the same bravado with which he did everything.

Today, the eulogy was delivered by another one of the coaches of the program, who had known Richard since they were both seven. He had cut short a Hawaiian vacation to attend the memorial service, and had arrived at the church directly from the airport. His eulogy was perfect- a humorous yet poignant celebration of Richard's life. He recounted a visit to Richard after he'd gotten a craniotomy: "I told Richard, 'Even after what you've been through, you look better than me.' Richard laughed his inimitable laugh and I asked him if it hurt when he laughed. He responded, 'No, it hurts when I don't.'"

Richard came down every Saturday that he could, even though the right side of his body was paralyzed and he was wheelchair bound. When one of our sixteen year old counselors tearfully came up to him and said, "I'm so sorry", Richard took her hand and whispered to her, "No, be thankful." He fought his illness with bravery, and a determination to boost the spirits of his friends and family. Up until his final hours, he was a rock.

At today's memorial service, I sat with a bunch of my colleagues- soccer coaches, judo coaches, wrestling coaches, track coaches, swimming coaches, administrators- and families of children who were enrolled in the program. An entire church pew was occupied by old girlfriends of Richard's, which prompted my friend Frenchy to joke, "He really was a 'Hall of Famer'." Our taekwondo coach, who a year ago had been fighting for his life from a kidney ailment, made it to the memorial- he's another guy who had almost died, and his survival was due to the fact that he was in such incredible condition so that he could live until he received a kidney transplant.

The memorial service was uplifting and humorous, just as Richard would have wished. Even as he dealt with his weakness, he was a source of strength and inspiration for his friends. He was a guy who, as the cliche goes, "did everything right", but it wasn't enough. He was strong in middle age, he should have lived to a spry old age... the fact that he's gone is shocking and sobering. "Be thankful", he'd say. Every day is a gift. Every friendship is a gift. Before he died, we all made a promise to Richard that we'd be there for his young son. Remember the departed, but live for the living.