First Saturday Report: April 4, 2020.

Let’s see . . . I sent off a collection of short stories to a contest. Compared to previous winners, I don’t think I have a chance.

I’ve got my latest project out to beta readers, and already got back some comments. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that the comments confirmed some suspicions I have. Another lesson in learning to trust my instincts.

Or not. See the first paragraph.

I’m working on yet another revision of my literary tractate on literature. It’s keeping me from obsessively scrolling all the news feeds.

I’ve started reading The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber. It’s part of the Graywolf Press’ “Art of” series.

Rather than start a new book, I’ve decided to go back and reread Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion. I don’t remember how many times I’ve read it by now. Again, this is a comfort thing.

There’s some books I plan to get to, particularly the ones I have by Erika T. Wurth, and Lindsey Drager. Maybe, finally, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I have a copy I picked up shortly after it came out but never read it. Finally pulled it off the shelf the other day after a conversation with my old grad school friend, Laura.

If you haven’t yet, give the last episode a listen. I talked with my friend Evan Hundhausen. He’s an indie author out there doing his own thing and doing it the right way.

The show will be on hiatus for the foreseeable future. I’d hoped to get a live show organized this year, but that may get postponed until we’re clear of this pandemic.

I’m still looking into some topics for a short series and, as always, reading books with an eye toward talking to the author.

With the end of Picard season 1, there’s not much anymore that’s drawing my attention. Of course, my big hope is that Sir Patrick Stewart makes it through the pandemic, as do all cast members so we’ll have a season 2.

My watching is limited now to rewatching The X-Files. As I make my way through season three, I’ve been surprised by the young guest stars I didn’t remember seeing and who went on to bigger things. Jack Black, Ryan Reynolds, Jewel Staite, Lucy Liu, are a few that have stuck out so far.

I’ve been on a movie run. 1917, Yesterday, JoJo Rabbit, and Terminator: Dark Fate, have all been taken in over the last long month. There might be something else stuck in there, I don’t remember.

Yesterday sent me on a Beatles kick (see below). 1917 was excellent and subtle for a war movie. JoJo Rabbit was fantastic and pointed.

Terminator: Dark Fate deserves a bit of a special mention, especially in light of the Problematic Badass Female Tropes series from the podcast. Jenn and I had cast about for various things that thwarted or avoided falling into one of the seven tropes Jenn identified. Captain Marvel was one. Dark Fate is another, and it does so in a way that points out the male-centric takes of the previous Terminator movies (even as it resets the timeline to right after Terminator 2: Judgement Day)

I downloaded The Stone Roses’ first album. Another one of those things I missed when it first came out. I’d had the song The Funeral by Band of Horses for a while and finally bought the rest of the album Everything All the Time, and that’s been in pretty heavy rotation along with Greg Dulli’s new album I picked up—it seems like forever ago, but it was only late February.

Read a wonderful article by Dylan Jones (from Sept. 2019) about the song Wichita Lineman, so I picked up the original Glen Campbell version and the R.E.M version from their rarities album.

After watching the movie Yesterday, I finally bought The Beatles’ Red Album (1962-1966) to go with the Blue Album I picked up years ago and the Anthology Album I’d ripped from my sister’s copy way back in the day. I think I finally have all of the Beatles songs that live in my subconscious. They’d broken up by the time I was born in 1971, but my dad was a fan and their songs were still in regular rotation on the radio.

As always, there’s something interesting on the You Are Not So Smart podcast. The two-parter Socks and Crocs (Part 1 & Part 2) is absolutely worth a listen (or you can read the blog by the researcher who looked into it). It’s about the old internet debate over “The Dress.” Basically, the conclusion is this: the picture of the dress was taken in very ambiguous lighting conditions, and the reason some people saw it as “white and gold” and some saw it as “black and blue” had to do with whether they were a morning person or a night owl. You see, in ambiguous conditions, our brains rely on our “priors” i.e. our prior experience and knowledge, to fill in the missing or ambiguous information, and our brains do it without us knowing it. Morning people tend to have more experience seeing things in natural light, while night owls have more experience seeing things under artificial lighting conditions. So, the brains of morning people see this ambiguously lit picture and their priors read it as naturally lit, and so they see it one way. Night Owls read the picture as artificially lit, and see it another way. The mechanics have to do with color constancy and the structure of the human eye. The end result is what the researchers call SURFPAD (Substantial Uncertainty combined with Ramified or Forked Priors and Assumptions yields Disagreement).

We have our perceptions and, sometimes, we forget that other people have theirs. That leads us to assume the worst about others and their ability to recognize false information when they don’t perceive things the way we do.

In real life, the dress was black and blue. Sorry white and gold people, your priors lied to you, and you didn’t even know it.

FYI—until a couple of days ago, I saw a white and gold dress in the picture. Somehow, my priors have been updated. However, in the socks and crocs picture on the blog, no matter the color of the socks, I see grey crocs, even though I know the crocs, in normal lighting should be pink. In fact, in the GIF on Pascal’s blog, when the lighting shifts the SOCKS (which are white) appear to me, for a second or two, to be tinged pink before becoming white. Again, the crocs stay grey for me no matter what. It’s weird and leads me to . . .

Random Thoughts

As someone who is considerably obsessed with perception, empathy, and why people believe and act on, well, stupid shit, David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart podcast has explained a few things to me.

Pascal Wallisch’s work on what caused the disagreements over The Dress also helps explain most of our other disagreements and divergences. Then, in a kind of backward synthesis look, there are other episodes of YANSS that add to my understanding of how and why we have this particular NOW in the world. Partisan Brains, Prevalence Induced Concept Change, The Elaboration Likelihood Model, The A/B Effect, Pluralistic Ignorance, and Narrative Persuasion. There are many, many more, and I think I’ve mentioned a few of them in posts before (I’ve made a curated list down at the bottom). They all seem extremely relevant to figuring out how to get back to normalcy and sanity–and why some people are so fact resistant and susceptible to tyrants and narcissists.

Things right now are strange, and dangerous. And that feels like an understatement.

We are in a period of substantial uncertainty. And that feels like an understatement, too.

And what I can’t stop thinking about is this: I knew The Dress was, in fact, black and blue, but I until a few days ago, I could only see it as white and gold. I know the socks are white and the crocs are pink, but even when the lighting conditions are changed to show me the true colors, the crocs are ALWAYS gray to me. Even though I know my brain is lying to me, I still can’t perceive the crocs correctly.

What does this tell us about things we ASSUME to be irrefutably true, and about our actions that stem from those assumptions of irrefutable truth?

SURFPAD principles have finally organized something about myself I’ve always tried to explain to my therapists and never succeeded to get across. I do not trust my assumptions or my perceptions about anything, and I constantly test and question myself: is this emotion I’m feeling really love/hate/fear, etc.? Is this conclusion I’ve made about someone accurate? The truth is that I’m never certain of anything. Substantial uncertainty is built into my psyche, but even when I’m aware of the uncertainty, and even when I trust the facts I’ve been given, I always fear there are still things I can’t see correctly.

SURFPAD tells us that yes, even when we know all the facts, we might be unable to see and perceive things clearly. And this is true for every single one of us.

Life is full of uncertain, ambiguous situations. We don’t always have all the information we need to make a decision. When that happens (there is no “if” it happens—it will happen) our brains rely on our prior knowledge and experience to fill in all the uncertain, ambiguous, and missing information—and the brain does that without telling us it’s doing it. Because The Dress (here’s Pascal’s actual research article if you want the science) was photographed under conditions that those of us who ONLY SAW THE PICTURE could not know and our brains—without our knowledge—filled in the informational blanks with what we’d previously experienced in the world. Larks (morning people) looked at the picture and their brains interpreted the ambiguous light conditions as if the light source were daylight and so they saw a white and gold dress. Night owls looked at the picture and their brains assumed artificial illumination and saw it as black and blue.

The thing is, if a Lark and a Night Owl had been standing in the room with the dress when the picture was taken, they both would have seen a black and blue dress because they both would have been experiencing and interpreting the lighting conditions in situ, and their brains would have color corrected the object they were seeing to maintain that color constancy. Those of us who didn’t know the actual color, and only saw the picture are, in fact, making an assumption with limited knowledge. Those who rightly assumed the dress to be black and blue aren’t “better” people, or “smarter” people, they simply got lucky that their brains applied the proper lighting assumptions.

Think about what that means for our current social and political situation. Think about what that means for the disagreements we have with those challenging family members. When their conclusions or opinions about something seem to be incongruent with the known facts, it’s probably not out of maliciousness. They’ve simply filled in the gaps with their own set of priors, and those priors might be lying to them about what is actually in those ambiguous gaps.

Here is the conclusion from Wallisch’s post about SURFPAD (In case you don’t want to read the whole article on his site) (I’ve emphasize certain parts).

“To summarize, it is clear why the brain has to make these assumptions in order to operate effectively in an uncertain world. The necessary information to act is not always available, so it is prudent to make educated guesses. Under normal conditions, this works reasonably well, which is why we are all still here. However, what is nefarious about this is that your brain does not tell you when it quietly jumps to – unwarranted – conclusions by over-applying assumptions, much like autocorrect is often largely aspirational – it isn’t actually correct all that often.
In the area of politics, this is dangerous, as different people will apply different sets of assumptions (or priors), and there are now entire industries dedicated to the ramification of these priors. We have to come to terms with the ongoing and intentional forking and ramification of priors and its deleterious impact on civil discourse in one way or the other if we are to avoid the downside of this process. Given uncertainty and forked priors, disagreement might be inevitable, yet conflict might be avoidable. We suggest to achieve this by bringing about a new culture of disagreement on the basis of SURFPAD principles.”

Our brains can lie to us. Our past experience can lead us to bad choices even when we know our past experience is inadequate for the current decision. Other people’s disinformation (lies, omissions, spin), laid out for us like little landmines to activate our worst assumptions about unfamiliar, unknown things means that we are often fighting a loosing battle against a whole lifetime of unexamined and possibly erroneous beliefs within our own heads—and in the heads of those we talk to.

We have to be able to stop, test and verify our prior assumptions. That means we have to reject our love of hot-takes by fellow ill-informed people and look for the facts from people who are experts.

It’s the only way we’re going to survive.

Here’s that curated list of YANSS shows:

Not A Scientist about how politicians mangle and misrepresent science, sometimes intentionally and with malice and sometimes simply out of ignorance

Bad Advice about how politicians aren’t your best source for health related information—particularly relevant now.

Uncivil Agreement about how “Our conflicts are over who we think we are, rather than reasoned differences of opinion.”

Behind the Curve a look at the Flat Earth Movement and how they manage to maintain their beliefs.

Status Quo Rationalization about how, “when faced with an inescapable and unwanted situation, we often rationalize our predicament so as to make it seem less awful and more bearable…”

Active Information Avoidance which is exactly what it sounds like like – actively avoiding information that is useful, that we know is out there, and is free to obtain but we’d rather not learn. —Kind of like all the information in this post that you’re not going to pursue.

Tribal Psychology about how we value our group membership more than we value being right about something (pair this with Pluralistic Ignorance)

The Backfire Effect (part 4) about how the originally observed Backfire Effect (the effect of someone being presented with information counter to their beliefs becoming even more entrenched in their beliefs) isn’t exactly what researchers thought it was. (pair this with Partisan Brains)

Optimism Bias about how when we try to determine the outcome of future events, we reduce the possibility of negative outcomes for ourselves, but not others — i.e. I’ll get through the pandemic OK, but not that sad fucker over there. (goes well with with Prevalence Induced Concept Change, Belief Change Blindness, and Desirability Bias)

Belief Change Blindness about how, when we do change our minds on a topic, we simply erase any memory that we once believed otherwise.

Desirability Bias the nifty psychological trick braided in with confirmation bias, that makes our past beliefs and future desires match . . . even if they actually don’t.

The Half-life of Facts half of everything you know now to be true will be false in the future, but we don’t know which half.

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