Vi Hart Weekly, June 12

“How profoundly refreshing to leave behind rules of designation, imaginary cases, or the cat’s cradle of possible world semantics and to learn that the complexities are not in our language but in ourselves and in the world.” -Arthur C. Danto

Welcome back to Vi Hart Weekly! This week’s topics: new improv and webVR toys, gender video and comment curation, Rachel Dolezal and transrace, and this week’s book reviews.

Improv and webVR: pulling out bits and varying them

Open this in a new tab to accompany your news reading experience with this week’s piano improv, and maybe also get stuck staring at it for 10 minutes: vihart.github.io/spinny/daisy

I decided to throw together a bit of music pulled out of a longer improv, with a bit of webVR pulled out of a bigger project, with variations on both.

The webVR stuff started with this virtual version of our office we’ve been working on. I can’t say I recommend it at this point, but if you want you can see it here [arrow keys to move, or webVR with oculus and gamepad].

As it is, it might take 10 minutes to load and have broken textures, Which is why when I made this spinny thing I liked, I decided to pull it out and give it its own page where it can load and run quickly.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 7.42.36 PM

The spinny thing itself is based on this thing in our office made by Toby Schachman [above, left]. When I was looking for inspiration for what to put in our virtual office, I said to myself “why, that looks mighty for-loopable!” So I looped. And it was easy and effective enough that I couldn’t help isolating it and making some variations: 1, 2, 3

Cyclicy offset things are mesmerizing and easy to code, and I’ve made a few related things in webVR before [wasd to rotate view, and these have mouse interaction]. One of the brainfoods involved is Gary Foshee’s Harmonic Pendulum. Another is Jim Bumgardner’s Whitney Music Box, which might be what made me think music belonged involved somehow.

After my improv session that evening, I could remember that something in there was catchy and melodic, but not what it was at all. Usually it’d just be lost back into the aether of infinite potential pretty melodies, but I’d recorded this session and listened to it while I was messing with this code and making variations. Indeed, somewhere in the middle of an hour was this nice 5 minutes of melody, and I thought it went quite well with the webVR thing. So that’s how that happened.

But as we talked about last week, things get stuck in my head and vary and stuff. It happened to the webVR spinny thing, and it happened to this bit of music. It drove me nuts all through dinner, so then I went back for an improvisation just on that theme, to get it properly out of my head. I think I might like the original better, but here it is anyway:

And thus ends a story of simple musical and mathematical objects being taken out of their larger homes to be treated as their own special thing, one that gets stuck in your head and demands variations and repetition, an obsessive thought divorced from its context and focused on until it is finally destroyed.

YouTube’d a thing, and Comments

Enough people gave good responses to last week’s section on gender and Caitlyn Jenner, and seemed to consider it important [and it was the jumping off point for this ridiculous twitter exchange which gives me warm fuzzies], that I went ahead and edited the script and made it into a video:

On the topic of things I used to worry about or not understand when I was a horrible teenager:

I’ve heard some people say that the “PC police” have made it impossible to talk about gender and stuff, that they’re afraid to express their opinions because they’re afraid they’ll get backlash for what they perceive as no reason, drama, etc. My teenage self might have agreed, and would have never believed that if a bunch of people told me a thing I said was sexist/transphobic/etc, maybe that’s because it actually was sexist/transphobic/etc.

So I made a video about gender and stuff and I did not get any backlash from any of the groups that angry reddit/4chan trolls like to pretend jump on anyone who says anything about gender. Of course, that does not mean there was no backlash. I banned several hundred commenters for making transphobic, homophobic, and sexist comments. Some of these even were aimed specifically at me and on the topic of the video, though most were the same comments you’d see anywhere. Often these comments also contained complaints about the “PC police” who censor them, as if complaining about how some people don’t allow transphobic comments would keep me from banning them.

Years ago, I would have felt weird, guilty, or conflicted about this. While it’s considered justifiable to tell someone they’re not welcome to come into your house and insult you, it’s still considered rude to ask a guest to leave. Do they deserve a chance to learn? Etc.

But after gaining a better understanding of systems, and experience with the sheer numbers involved when dealing with internet social phenomena, I realize that there is no way but to moderate, aggressively, or else take responsibility for the inevitable consequence.

In a system where common stereotypes are treated as equal to minority opinions, it is inevitable that the stereotypes overwhelm any chance of discussion. And while I understand that many people have simply yet to learn, in a system where common ignorance is treated equally to expert knowledge, it is inevitable that common ignorance overwhelms. I know there’s plenty of other places on the internet that would welcome those ignorant comments; indeed, they seem word for word identical to the same troll comments that inevitably fill every space that does not actively curate them out. And there’s many places specifically set up for learning, and those need a lot of rules in order to function, specifically regarding the authority and greater knowledge of teachers over students.

When I post a video, I create a space. And I choose what to fill it with. I could pretend to myself that I’m just letting it fill itself, letting people decide and express their own thoughts that I am not responsible for, but I know too much to fool myself like that.

When you let a space fill itself, it fills itself with whatever’s the fastest material. Ignorance is fast. Hate is fast. It takes a lot of practice to be fast at love and tolerance, so while there are those who are fast at it, there’s not enough of them. It also takes time and practice to get fast at cultural norms, but everyone gets that practice and becomes an expert, whether they realize it or not. People can judge what’s outside those norms really really quickly.

I created that comment section, and I’m the only one who can curate it. There’s no such thing as impartiality, only avoidance of responsibility and capitulation to those who are quickest to judge and spend the most time judging. The internet is not a 1-person-1-vote democracy. The only responsible choice is to either mute selectively, or mute everyone. Given the time it takes to curate comments, removing comment sections altogether is often the only choice.

Sometime I’ll make a longer deeper post about the systems involved in this sort of stuff. But on the topic of being a responsible curator of the internet spaces we create, I’m going to say a bit more about one particular sort of comment that I’ve banned many people for: anything equivocating gender and race to justify intolerance. Which brings us to:

This Week’s Trending Media Topic: Rachel Dolezal and “Transracial”

A lot of people don’t know what to make of the concept that someone might identify as a different race, as you might have heard Rachel Dolezal claims (not that anyone has any official statements on the matter from Dolezal herself, as of writing this). I am not interested in speculating on her genuineness or in judging her actions, but for those who are in the position of having to curate comments/discussions, I hope some of my lines of thinking can at least point you in useful thought directions regarding the discourse surrounding this whole thing.

Many people are asking the question of whether one can be transracial or not. Whenever you find some “this or that?” question exploding in the media, the first question to ask yourself is not “this or that”, but:

1. Out of infinite possible questions, why this and why now?

2. In what context does the question make any sense?

There is much more information in the questions we choose to ask than in their answers. Questions don’t come out of nowhere, and treating the question itself as an independent purely-logical object misses the entire meaning of it. The reason for this question’s existence, the entire context on which it depends, is transgenderism. Without appropriating that context, the question would make very little sense as posed, and certainly “transracial” would not be trending social media. Maybe Dolezal herself would be trending, but the questions, the media story, would be a very different one.

Being both a semi-internet-famous person and a known feminist in the tech industry, I get people from every hateful corner of the internet forcing their way into my consciousness, so transrace is something I’ve heard many times before. People on the internet have been using the concept of transrace for years, not as an identity for themselves but as a hypothetical “argument” that they feel simultaneously justifies transphobia, mocks the “liberal agenda”, and allows them to throw in some racist stereotypes while they’re at it.

“Wow, a man can just decide he’s a woman? Next think you know liberals will decide a white person can just decide they’re black and [insert stereotypes here],” so their argument goes. I’ve deleted many comments of that form. I am much more aware than I’d like to be that some people understand race and gender so poorly that they find it reasonable to switch them up, context be damned.

I don’t know what’s up with Rachel Dolezal, but I do know that the hateful corners of the world are having an absolute field day. They invented this thing they thought was ridiculous purely as an excuse to mock others, and now they have one more excuse to pretend that they were justified.

While everyone else is confused and unsure what is going on with this person, the people who have been mocking this situation for years have their responses ready to go. The quickest easiest comments necessarily dominate all uncurated conversation. The tiny judgmental minority gets the most votes.

Dolezal is an interesting case and there’s a ton of complexities in there, but we can’t see what’s going on if we’re looking at race through the lens of gender. Another great way to destroy any chance of understanding this in context would be to focus intently on Dolezal herself. I’m sure there are people who see it all much more clearly than I, whose voices are hard to find because their answer to this question does not fit the “identity politics” “liberals pushing their ridiculous liberal agenda” storyline that provoked the asking of it.

Reason alone can’t untangle cultural problems; for that we need truth and history, two things we are very bad at facing.

This Week’s Book Reviews: On Color and Philosophy

Continuing my research on color and philosophy, this week I read “Form and Content” and “Color for Philosophers”. And this time I mean color as in Roy G. Biv, not color as in Dolezal, though as we’ve just seen, racial color vision is also rife with philosophical quandaries and examples of form without content.

Form and Content, by Bernard Harrison

An interesting book of the kind where the first sentence is “It is often held that language can express only the form but not the content of experience.”

Harrison’s way of getting at content of experience, as with many previous philosophers, is with color experience as a shining example. Color seems irrefutably to exist outside the human mind; seeing is believing I suppose. This book was published in 1973, at a time when a lot of good science on color vision was known to scientists but still ignored by philosophers. As an argument about color specifically, it’s out of date, but as an argument about the expressibility of content, It’s interesting to see the third way out of arguments that seemed, without the benefit of science, to be either-or propositions.

Harrison has this concept of “color presentation,” the theoretical actual color presented, which may or may not reflect the color as we see it. Without science, it seemed only a question of how skeptical one was of experience: are the colors we experience the correct real ones, or might we be seeing the wrong ones, and how would we know? But now we know there is no such thing as the “true real actual color of a thing” in the first place, that color experience can come from many different physical and psychological properties, and that in fact not everyone interprets the same wavelengths in the same way. It’s a warning against taking skepticism in the wrong direction: the real questions are in a different direction than all the cases that had been considered.

Another concept: “natural nameables.” Things in the world that are things, basically. Is “Yellow” a natural nameable? Would all cultures name yellow “yellow”, or is which wavelength corresponds to which words an arbitrary choice, and yellow is only a particular thing by convention?

The concept of “natural nameables” is interesting, though the question is wrongly put. Turns out yellow is neither a cultural convention nor a real existing special wavelength; it’s in the physiology of our eyes, the tiny receptors and cells that compute the signals before they even reach the brain. But Harrison’s account of what makes these colors consistently nameable is interesting and may yet have some truth in it: he takes Wilhelm Runge’s double-cone color space (color cubes are more popular these days, I think), and then starts adding points that he thinks allow the greatest amount of color discrimination (most roundy and evenly-sized voronoi cells).

Berlin and Kay’s “Basic Colour Terms”, which found that different languages have different numbers of words for colors but that they start with the same ones (first black/white, then red, etc) did make a big splash on the philosophy of color when it came out. So Harrison comes up with a scheme where perhaps adding these colors one by one to the geometric color space, in a way that gives the most even color sectors as you go, is what arises to the apparently strange fact that all languages with at least three colors will place the third one in about the same space as our “red”.

It’s good mathy thinking and I like it. Though language is not what makes red and green highly visible and pure colors to our eyes, it is also not fair to say “it’s how eyes work” and leave it at that. Eyes could (and do) work differently, with small variations across humans as to which blue is “true blue”, and large variations across species. It would be better to ask why our eyes evolved this set of capabilities, and an efficient splitting-up of a color space makes more sense here.

He also tackles the infamous “could we invert red and green?” question. If I learned red is actually green, could we, by talking, ever discover that I’m seeing it “wrong”? Would it be “wrong”? If there’s no way to tell by talking about it, then a red/green switch would be “discourse neutral”, which is a useful concept. Perhaps many things where we see them very differently but think we’re talking about the same thing are in fact “discourse-neutral” differences between us.

Harrison argues the red/green spectrum switch would not be discourse neutral, because while the spectrum of possible colors is symmetric, the naturally nameable ones aren’t; we’ve got subtleties on the reddish side, like orange and pink and brown, that create an asymmetry in the linguistic form of our color names. He calls this the “semantic topology”.

It’s a great idea, that language must necessarily have asymmetric semantic topologies so that we don’t accidentally invert our discourse. Whether this linguistic idea has much to do with color, or with anything at all, is another matter.

Color for Philosophers, by C. L. Hardin

Finally, in 1986, a philosopher/scientist got frustrated enough with unscientific philosophy to write this book on the science of color vision, targeted towards philosophers. I almost didn’t read it because I figure I know quite a bit about how color vision works, but I decided to because:

1. It’s helpful to see it all written out at once like that, with good explanations and diagrams and connections to philosophy, and with all these other recently-read books in mind.

2. Apparently it was successful in its mission, and raised the level of discourse in the philosophy of color. I wanted to know what kind of book does that, as well as understand the context more recent philosophers are writing in.

The forward by Arthur C. Danto (quoted in this post’s epigraph) sums up much of the motivation and frustration. “The disease so much of philosophy consists of is the belief that it is philosophy when in fact it is something else,” in the case of color, “just bad science”.

The truth of the world actually has some bearing on theoretical discourse, and one must be suspect of any argument outside of mathematics that claims to get by on reason alone.

My fascination with the philosophy of color began with just how much science can actually bring to it. It’s a great example of where questions of philosophy actually got answered, or at least complexified. When it comes to real tough things like qualia, to have a standard example actually get revolutionized and make progress is pretty cool.

Why is there no reddish green? Not any linguistic form, just the opposition color theory that makes it so that the cells in our eyes actually cannot send a red and green signal at the same time! Why are brown and pink standard color words, but not dark and light greenish-yellow? Because our receptors physically treat yellow as having more achromatic content (so it seems brighter) and less saturation (so it does not have the range of perceptibly different saturation that an equivalent to brown and pink require).

Why would our eyes do that? Probably not for the benefit of an asymmetric semantic topology, and more likely because seeing subtleties in browns and pinks is a useful adaptation. Evolution is not covered or speculated upon, though.

Color for Philosophers also hammers home just how much context matters even in things that seem basic. Wittgenstein wondered why there’s no such thing as a brown light, and how black and white translucent screens or filters should behave differently from colored ones. Well, because brown and black and white actually do not exist in isolation and cannot be seen without context. A single brown pixel, alone in a dark room, is orange. A single pink pixel is red.

It’s not some deep psychology perception process; it’s in the very simple computations that the cells of the eye do before sending out the signals. And it’s less a quirk of physiology and more that in a world full of light and shadows, accounting for context is the only way anything can ever have enduring properties (or else the white thing actually turns black when in shadow).

Hardin also tackles the inverted spectrum question, and makes note of “phenomenal asymmetries”. Someone who sees red as yellow might be able to pass through life without noticing, just as it’s common for colorblind people to go a long time without noticing. But if we get them in a lab, it’s easy to tell with some simple tests. And someone who sees red as yellow would not have the chromatic range to differentiate pinks from reds from browns, Hardin argues.

This makes some amount of sense, though I’m not convinced that it would be impossible for someone to percieve reds as a more chromatically depthful version of yellows that do include an easily-differentiable supersaturated yellow, along with easily differentiable yellowish-greens as a side benefit.

His argument against a red/green switch seems to rest upon that reds are obviously warm and greens are cool, so we could break discourse-neutrality by asking someone whether they think red looks warm or cool. I find this pretty weak. If fire looked green and water looked reddish-purple and everyone called green warm and red cool, I’m pretty sure I’d think green was plenty warm, but Hardin seems to think a warm green is an obvious contradiction. Either he’s wrong, or I am, in fact, a red/green invert and Hardin has just found me out.

Anyway, that’s all I have time for in this week’s brain thoughts news. Maybe see you next time!