(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘perception

“Above all else show the data”*…


With the hope that your celebrations will be warm and peaceful, and with thanks for your kind attention over the last twelve months, (Roughly) Daily is going on it’s annual Holiday hiatus…  So here, to tide us over, The Economist Graphics Unit’s wonderful “2017 Daily chart advent calendar” (the first installment of which, above)– a collection of 25 of the years best infographics, each with a short accompanying essay.

See you in the New Year!

* Edward Tufte


As we revel in new ways of seeing, we might send terrifyingly (and at the same time, amusingly) insightful birthday greetings to Edwin Abbott; he was born on this date in 1838.  A schoolmaster and theologian, Abbott is best remembered as the author of the remarkable novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884). Writing pseudonymously as “A Square,” Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointedly-satirical observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. But the work has survived– and inspired legions of mathematicians and science fiction writers– by virtue of its fresh and accessible examination of dimensionality.  Indeed, Flatland was largely ignored on its original publication; but it was re-discovered after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity– which posits a fourth dimension– was introduced; in a 1920 letter to Nature, Abbott is called a prophet for his intuition of the importance of time to explain certain phenomena.



Written by LW

December 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places”*…


The visual system’s tendency to fill in the invisible parts of the objects we see before us can be exploited to create a wide range of compelling magical illusions: spoons bending, knives cutting through flesh, and solid rings magically linking and unlinking. The principle underlying all these tricks, as well as many others, is that the visual system convinces you that something is there, whereas in fact there is just a gap or a missing piece.

But our visual system doesn’t just fill in the gaps. It can also create a compelling impression that the space hidden behind an object in the foreground is empty. In most situations, this impression is correct, but in some cases, it is illusory and misleading. To magicians, this perceptually empty space is the perfect hiding place for the things they don’t want you to know about. It is a no-brainer that hiding things behind something else makes them invisible, but the illusion of perceptually empty space entails more than just invisibility: it makes you ‘see’ that that there’s nothing there, although there sometimes is – particularly when you are watching a magician at work.

The philosopher Jason Leddington at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says the experience of magic results from a failure of imagination. Our failure to figure out what the magician does results from the fact that we are unable to imagine it. This view neatly captures the essence of the illusion of empty space: it makes it difficult for us to even imagine that there is anything hidden behind the object in the foreground – be it the magician’s thumb, hand or anything else…

What magic can teach us about what we do– and don’t– perceive: “Now you see it, now you…

* Roald Dahl


As we confirm that there’s nothing up our sleeves, we might recall that it was this date in 1693 that is traditionally ascribed to Benedictine friar Dom Pérignon’s invention of Champagne.

In fact, the the good father didn’t actually invent sparkling wine:  The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by a different bunch of Benedictines in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531.  Then, over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation– six years before Dom Perignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers (where he did, in fact, make several improvements to the process of making bubbly) and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne.  Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed what is now called “méthode champenoise” in 1662.

Still, today’s a good day to raise a glass in thanks.

Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon



Written by LW

August 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”*…

Errors of judgment about large numbers can have a big impact on the way you view policies and government decisions. The rationale goes like this: The National Science Foundation received $7.463 billion for fiscal year 2016 through the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The total United States budget outlay for 2016 was $3.54 trillion. If you’re someone who perceives the difference between a billion and a trillion as relatively small, you’d think the US is spending a lot of money on the National Science Foundation—in fact, depending on your politics, you might applaud the federal government’s investment or even think it wasteful. But, if you understand that a billion is a thousand times less than a trillion, you can calculate that the Foundation got a paltry 0.2 percent of the budget outlay last year. (It may be more straightforward to think of the budget as roughly one-half to one-third of reported costs for the proposed US-Mexico border wall, and let your values guide you from there.)…

On the significance of scale: “How to Understand Extreme Numbers.

[The image above is, of course, from the ever-wonderful xkcd.]

* W.E.B. Du Bois


As we nudge ourselves toward numeracy, we might spare a thought for Sewall Wright; he died on this date in 1988.  A geneticist, he was known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. He was a founder (with Ronald Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane) of population genetics– a major step in the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis combining genetics with evolution.   He is perhaps best remembered for his concept of genetic drift (called the Sewall Wright effect): when small populations of a species are isolated, the few individuals who carry certain relatively rare genes may fail, out of pure chance, to transmit them. The genes may therefore disappear and their loss may lead to the emergence of new species– although natural selection has played no part in the process.



Written by LW

March 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination”*…


Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction…

The fantastic tale in full at “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality.”

[Image above source]

* John Lennon


As we question everything, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Beethoven wrote Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59 and Bia 515) for solo piano– better known as “Für Elise” (click to hear).

Some scholars have suggested that “Elise” was Beethoven’s mistress; but others have suggested that the discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, may have have misunderstood the Master’s handwriting, and transcribed the title incorrectly, that the original work may have been named “Für Therese”–  Therese being Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810… though she turned him down to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik.  Today, Therese is forgotten; Elise, celebrated. In any case, it’s a beautiful piece…

The famous opening bars



Written by LW

April 27, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference”*…


This unique self-portrait, also known as “view from the left eye”, is the creation of Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, noted for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number (which relates an object’s speed to the speed of sound) and the study of shock waves. The sketch appears in Mach’s The Analysis of Sensations, first published in German in 1886 as Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen, and is used to illustrate his ideas about self-perception.

The considerations just advanced, expressed as they have been in an abstract form, will gain in strength and vividness if we consider the concrete facts from which they flow. Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment. My body differs from other human bodies beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head. If I observe an element A within my field of vision, and investigate its connexion with another element B within the same field, I step out of the domain of physics into that of physiology or psychology, provided B, to use the apposite expression of a friend of mine made upon seeing this drawing, passes through my skin. Reflexions like that for the field of vision may be made with regard to the province of touch and the perceptual domains of the other senses…

More at “Self-Portrait by Ernst Mach (1886).”

* Charles Baudelaire


As we study ourselves studying ourselves, we might send ingenious birthday greetings to a man whose work gave Mach’s namesake speed measure a real workout: Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson; he was born on this date in 1910.  A storied aeronautical engineer, He contributed to the design of 40 aircraft, from the P-38 Lightning fighter and the Hudson bomber to the U-2 spy plane and the F-104 Starfighter interceptor.

But Johnson is probably best remembered as the founding leader of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, a development group that has become a model in the business, engineering, and technical arenas of an effective approach to innovation– a group with a high degree of autonomy within an organization, unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.


Written by LW

February 27, 2016 at 1:01 am

“An uninspiring canvas becomes a glamorous masterpiece when it is reattributed to a better-known artist”*…


Cornell psychologist James Cutting wondered why it is that when a work of art is considered “great,” we too often stop thinking about it for ourselves…

The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.

Cutting wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.

Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure”…

Get the complete picture at “Why the Mona Lisa Stands Out.”

* Arthur Smith


As we cathect on connoisseurship, we might send fantastic birthday greetings to Roger Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937.  Probably best known for his Amber series, Zelazny was a prominent member– with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Harlan Ellison– of the American “new wave” science fiction movement; he won three Nebula awards and six Hugo awards.  In 1976, Zelazny helped Philip K. Dick, who wasn’t able to continue on his own, finish Deus Irae; having learned in the process of Dick’s financial straits, Zelazny voluntarily reduced his royalty from one-half to one third. 



Written by LW

May 13, 2014 at 1:01 am

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