The dress is neither blue nor white

There’s currently a heated debate as to whether a particular dress is blue and black, or white and gold, with different people reporting that they perceive different colors. From the New York Times to Wired, every media outlet is publishing an account of the phenomenon, attempting to resolve the apparent paradox by appealing to how our visual system operates. However many seem to succumb to a kind of dualism in their efforts.

In the Times article, Jonathan Mahler discusses the seemingly insoluble problem, only to offhandedly remark that “The dress, as we all now know, is blue and black.” Adam Rogers of Wired also enters the debate, interviewing scientists and analyzing an image of the dress, only to conclude (perhaps facetiously) that “The people who see the dress as white are utterly, completely wrong.”

That there’s even a dispute at all reveals more about our intuitions on how the world works than how we perceive the dress. Indeed the entire paradox seems to dissolve if we accept that things do not actually have a color.

Most people would probably concede that nature does not construe some roughly cylindrical object, made of ceramic and attached to a loop, as a coffee mug. A coffee mug is a coffee mug because, in part, of how we use it. To nature, it’s not a coffee mug, nor is it even an object. Nature, we will concede, is not a person and doesn’t possess a mind, so such questions are essentially meaningless.

Similarly, notions such as how your toothbrush perceives the toothpaste you place upon it — whether the toothbrush believes it to be cold or moist or smooth — do not even arise. We all acknowledge the absurdity of such questions.

And yet, for some reason, many think it’s perfectly sensible to talk about what color an object really is, as if color were a property of things in themselves, as opposed to a product of the mind. We tend to assume that there’s some thing out there that’s interacting with our mind to produce these sensations. But in principle, the sensations may be induced by Descartes’ evil demon or a scientist with an electrode. Which of these is true, if any, doesn’t particularly matter for our purposes.

It’s easy to imagine a world where, upon being met with light of some wavelength, half the people perceive yellow, and the other half purple. If the difference in perception amounts to some innocuous difference between their visual systems, it would only be abusive for one to insist that the color in question is really what they say it is, and that the other is mistaken. One could formulate no rational argument for such a conclusion. We could ask how such differences exist, and perhaps learn something about the structure of our visual systems along the way, but there would be no coherent question as to the true color. A person could only conclude that they see yellow or purple, and accept that others seem to perceive a different color.

Thankfully, our brains are more similar than they are different, so communication is not altogether impossible. Even if sometimes it may appear so.

Homeownership and personhood

It’s been nearly two years since I purchased my house, and it’s increasingly resembling a home.

Houses are funny things. We spend most of our lives inside them, but the subject is almost solely discussed in connection with their financial value or their accoutrements. Comparatively few discuss their larger importance, or the psychological effect they have upon us.

This is not altogether surprising. Residing in some murky territory between asset and liability, our houses are fickle things, inspiring us with feelings of comfort and security, only to rob us blind and make us feel vulnerable. If houses were people, they would be shunned or imprisoned.

So how did I get ensnared by their siren song?

For me, it was about two things: Realizing potential and attaining some measure of security.

The potential I sought to realize wasn’t my own. It’s trivial to obtain a substantial mortgage if you have a steady job, and while there are certainly piles of forms to complete, any trained monkey can complete the process. There are even people who are paid solely to assist you in this, so while some might say that home ownership is a milestone in personal achievement, I didn’t particularly believe it. Not entirely anyway.

Rather, the potential I hoped to realize was that of the house. It was just sitting there, wasting away, in a neighborhood and in a city that I love. It was perhaps months away from being purchased by some fiend who would see in it only the potential for a quick buck. Alternatively, a more sensible person than I would purchase it, live in it, and let it remain in its current state. Maybe they’d sell it a few years later, and let someone else inherit the problem.

This sensible person would look at it, conclude that it was a lost cause, and lie there in wait until they got married or were ready to do something productive. Yes, it allowed entry into a desirable neighborhood at an attractive price, but this was to be expected. Just look at the thing: It was built almost 150 years ago, and hundreds of soulless alterations had accumulated over just as many. The exterior made it look like a sardine can, and the kitchen ceiling drooped to the floor. The carpet provided refuge to countless arachnids, and the basement — well, the basement contained a bathroom wholly entombed in walls built when Eisenhower was in office. Someone really should have burned the whole thing down.

They didn’t, and so I bought it.

In my short time here thus far, I’ve refinished, removed, and painted. Adjusted, patched, and painted. Refurbished, painted, and sanded. I even mowed the lawn a couple times.

Over the past few days, workers have unpacked the sardine can to reveal the original clapboard. It’s in remarkable condition, especially considering its long neglect, and it reminds me why I took on this project. As the ghosts of handcarved trimming were revealed, the house was exorcized, and I resolved to make it live up to its history. Because we’re all surrounded by history, and mostly let it turn to garbage, and I think it’s a crime.

The second reason I purchased a house was to obtain some measure of security. This security turned out to be hardly financial, one realizes after raiding their savings into oblivion. The very affordable mortgage that you were almost pleased to pay, you come to understand, would be utterly miniscule in comparison to the stupendous expense of compounding little things that you will incur. No, the security is primarily psychological, but it’s nevertheless real.

For the first time in my life, my walls do not resemble those of an asylum. Not moving any time soon means you can hang things on them, and even feel pretty good about this decision. It means that you can purchase interesting furniture, and maybe even a rug. Do you have a thousand books? You can take these out of storage, and actually read them again!

In buying a house, your precarious existence becomes marginally less precarious. You might even find yourself showering more often, and cleaning up your mess every once in a while. It’s outstanding.

As your house attains its potential, gradually becoming a home, and as you ponder its importance, you may find yourself coming to resemble a person. You sought to help the house, and you came to help yourself.

Three stupid words

From L. Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose (1939):

We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose.

I’ve noticed three words becoming more prevalent in political discussions. These are words that tend to promote “potted beliefs”, and I think it’s worth examining them, so that we may avoid them or use them more carefully. These words are “problematic”, “narrative”, and “offensive”.

Each of these words has a more literal meaning, which is frequently unused as it carries little of substance. Suggesting that something is “problematic”, a “narrative”, or “offensive” doesn’t really say very much. At best, each creates a very superficial kind of distinction, such as when people say that such-and-such apples are “real” apples, without suggesting that “fake apples” actually exist beyond the familiar plastic replicas you might keep in a basket. When used in this manner, they’re perfectly fine words. The problem is, they’re seldom used this way in fashionable discussion.

Rather, the way in which they’re often used is quite different. “Problematic” is often used apparently as a substitute for “untrue”, which as Bertrand Russell puts it has all “the advantages of theft over honest toil”1. Once something is said to be “problematic”, any further discussion is to immediately cease, or else one is liable to be summarily executed as a counter-revoluntary. To explore just why something might be untrue is an unnecessary complication that would only put a damper on breathtaking rhetoric.

It’s a rather strange notion, assuming that pursuing just why something appears untrue aids one in forming compelling arguments about the matter, which is presumably desirable by those who disagree with something. Therefore, I can only assume that those who find something “problematic” do so because they do not know why they believe something is untrue, and have merely inherited their views from others. If they were born in another era, perhaps they might believe that extending labor rights to children would be “problematic”.

“Narrative” is a word that’s used by people who have been so successfully abused by advertising that they believe the world is merely an arena in which competing fictions duel for the prize. Coca-Cola says they’re the best, while Pepsi says they’re the best, and so one must embrace intractable confusion surrounding matters of soda.

On such a view, “truth” is merely a construct formed by the powerful, rather than (say) lies mislabelled by the powerful. It’s unclear on what basis one should choose to propagate their favorite “narrative”, except for perhaps their chance membership of one insular group rather than another.

As for “offensive”, it is a word that can be used sensibly, but it can also be used in a vacuous manner similiar to “problematic”. When in doubt, a person should simply replace the word with the reasons for which they find something offensive. Sometimes they are quite reasonable. Otherwise, to state that something is “offensive” without much elaboration is to merely suggest that something stimulates a particular response in you, as if by reflex, and that others should share your response. Religious fundamentalists surely find all manner of fun offensive, as uncritically as pets yield to our commands. However, the question remains, “Why should we share your response?”

These are only a few words of many that are often used foolishly, and I don’t know the extent to which they actually shape our worldview. On the contrary, I tend to think their peculiar usages simply reflect some pre-existing stupidity which we all share. Nevertheless, after ridding yourself of them you may find yourself once again, as Stebbing puts it, “thinking to some purpose”.

  1. From Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.

On sharpening contradictions

In connection with the recent atrocities in Paris, Juan Cole has written an important piece on “sharpening the contradictions“, which Cole characterizes as a political strategy that may result in ordinary, generally decent people being co-opted by some very unsavory figures. As Cole puts it:

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Therefore, Al-Qaeda may find themselves emboldened by the anti-Muslim bigotry that’s likely to spread as an unfortunate yet foreseeable consequence of the Paris attacks, and then the cycle repeats itself.

The underlying concept is found somewhat more broadly, in my view, and its effects may follow regardless of intent. It’s not necessary that Al-Qaeda (or whomever) intends to so organize people in service of their goals. If reactions to the attacks only help to further polarize Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than produce actual solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, their specific intention might not matter very much.

The concept is also reflected in the French phrase, les extrêmes se touchent1 — that extreme acts, and the extreme reactions that follow, can sometimes lead to similar ends.

You can help prevent yourself from being turned upside-down by simply considering the actual (not ideal) consequences of your action or inaction. Is your response to the outrageous acts of others likely to promote broad solidarity, or is it likely to further isolate large groups of people? And if it isolates large groups of people, what happens to those people? Are they left to be organized by some charlatan? And if so, what’s likely to happen to the people with whom you ostensibly once found some solidarity?

  1. “The extremes are touching.”

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I’m pleased to see that Ferguson has made people more aware of police violence and the fact that it often goes unpunished.

However, I don’t believe anyone can honestly claim to be particularly surprised by the events. Ferguson is not unprecedented. It’s simply a publicized example of what happens with some regularity across the United States.

Anyone who has been to a demonstration isn’t unfamiliar with the sight of our militarized and aggressive police forces. It’s deeply troubling, and as violent and terrible as it is, it remains a fairly mild form of what the United States and its allies have brought to other populations for many years.

Recognizing all this is important, but it’s not enough.

Everyone should be outraged about Ferguson, and the failure of the prosecutor to secure an indictment, but we also have a responsibility to act, and this responsibility is proportional to our privilege.

Decent people with privilege — however that privilege manifests itself — cannot limit their political involvement to voting and expressing outrage. They are the barest things we can do to effect positive change, and there is plenty more that we can do.

The other things we can do often look deceptively minor. Important things like making donations, writing letters, convincing those who are mistaken, and offering our support to others in need may seem like trivial things that have no larger consequence. They can even seem hopelessly naïve. But this is a fatal mistake, and it’s one that only serves the status quo.

When you write a letter to your Congressperson, imagine that a thousand others will do the same. When you make a donation, assume many millions will follow. When you participate in a march, imagine everyone leaving their houses to join you. When you convince a confused person of their error, think about everyone else doing the same, and think about the incredible effect that could have.

Everything we enjoy is the consequence of many millions of tiny actions by people we do not know, and everything we regret is just the same.

Respectable beyond question

@ Jim Naureckas published an important observation about the news treatment of the numerous rape allegations that have been made against Bill Cosby. The observation is applicable not only to NPR’s interview, but a separate unedited interview recently released by AP. (It also applies quite generally to how the media deals with topics it deems unsavory.)

The rape allegations have received very little news coverage over the years, but their recent circulation in social media has made it impossible for mainstream outlets to ignore them. Now, AP and NPR want to take credit for being bold and vigorous in search of the truth.

The only problem is, consistent with their past inaction that effectively suppressed the years-old allegations, neither organization even bothered to explain what Cosby had been accused of in their initial interviews with him. A listener could be excused if they believed that Cosby had been caught in an extramarital affair or with unpaid parking tickets.

Instead, a couple of the more trusted news organizations made the most pained and obsequious efforts to tip toe around the issue, and in so doing, sought to preserve for Cosby that air of respectability that is not merely beyond reproach but beyond even the mildest questioning.

On optimism

@ I recently attended a discussion group on the topic of optimism. In it, we discussed the very real, and often substantial, general progess toward a more civilized and just world that vaguely accompanies the passage of time. When you look at rates of poverty, war, disease, murder, or illiteracy, you can see in broad strokes that humanity is becoming more humane (or less inhumane if you prefer). As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This is worth keeping in mind as an important and useful counterweight to our increasing awareness of the world around us, which includes an increasing awareness of human atriocities, and the feelings of hopelessness that often seem to come attached.

It’s tempting to read news or opinion and conclude the very worst about humanity. Judging from social media, it even seems to be in fashion. But no good can come from this. If we apply such a conclusion to ourselves, then we’re perhaps honest but will grow to despise ourselves. If we do not, then we’re hypocrites and will tend toward narcissism and dishonesty.

And so, challenging though it may be, it seems to me that the best course is to read broadly, and conclude from it absolutely nothing about humanity at large. Our view of humanity should follow from first principles, including hopefully our optimism. We should bring this to bear on our reading, and not allow the converse.

Should socialists eat brunch?

In Should socialists smoke good cigars? (1932), Bertrand Russell considers whether it is unethical to consume more than one’s share, if everything ought to be divided equally. Many would perhaps admit that it is unethical, but defy the principle anyway. However, Russell suggests it is not so clear.

If it were unethical to consume more than an equal share of the world’s income, then in order to live ethically, one would need to make do with about $10,000 per year. For many of those living in industrialized countries, this would be plainly impossible. So, if the principle holds, we’re left with the result that the majority of people in such countries are living unethically, and perhaps cannot do otherwise, including many of the very poorest in these countries.

Try to advocate for a more equitable world on that platform.

David Shaftel tries as he might in his Brunch is for Jerks, writing:

There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it. As rents have gone up, our area has become unaffordable to much of the middle class, and to young families who want more than two bedrooms — or can’t even afford one.

This leaves an increasing number of well-off young professionals who are unencumbered by children — exactly the kind of people who can fritter away Saturday, Sunday or both over a boozy brunch. Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.

Shaftel shows his concern for social justice by chastising those who have the resources to eat breakfast foods at lunchtime hours. Inequity is captured best by the endless stacks of starch and sugar that the Fortunate consume.

However, it would be a mistake to suggest that Shaftel’s disdain for pleasure is primarily motivated by his concern for social justice. He’s actually just feeling a little old:

For me, having a child — and perhaps the introspection that comes with turning 40 — made me realize what most vexes me about brunch: Once the domain of Easter Sunday, it has become a twice-weekly symbol of our culture’s increasing desire to reject adulthood. It’s about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation. It’s about reveling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture1.

So before you eat brunch, if you won’t think of the poor, think of the children.

  1. If anything shows that one is of the people, it’s a reference to some controversy in the New York art world.

Comedians and truth

@ Jerry Seinfeld on advertisers at an awards ceremony for advertising:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy. Because a brief moment of happiness is pretty good.

Seinfeld has a real talent for observing human behavior, locating the absurdity that often underlies it, and distilling it in almost clinical terms. If an anthropologist from Mars landed on earth and studied us, their conclusions would probably be indistinguishable from Seinfeld’s. Our reaction to them, however, would be quite different.

After Seinfeld made the remarks, the audience — largely made up of advertising professionals — laughed uproariously. People don’t ordinarily laugh when someone expresses contempt for their being, unless that person is insane or a comedian.

I wonder what that means. Do we laugh because the truth makes us feel uncomfortable? Or do we laugh because we think comedians are harmless liars?

I think the latter would be a mistake. Many comedians seem to me our greatest truth-tellers.

The Herd of Independent Minds

@ From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite […] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.