Month: August 2014

Perception and Misperception of Movement

grangeThe general concept of visually perceiving and misperceiving movement in scenes is similar to the perception and misperception of still images (see previous post). The viewer’s eyes take in a limited amount information (limited by viewpoint, optical abilities, etc) and physiologically/mentally translates the information into a perception. The human uses its complex mental template to make the final perception, or judgment of what is going on. The template was formed by experience, knowledge, genetic tendencies, physiological abilities (your visual template is literally blind to the ultraviolet light that birds see, and the infrared light snakes see), personal bias, aesthetics, etc. Often the final interpretation, or perception, is a correct representation of what is being viewed. Sometimes the perception is off.

Except for more extreme situations (very slow movement, very small objects), the human eyes/mind is good at detecting the presence of movement in its field of view. The misperceptions most commonly happen in the interpretation of the movement. Humans can correctly detect the presence of movement, but misinterpret the speed, the direction, even what is moving. A human can think object A is moving, when it is object B moving (see ‘Parking lot prank’ below).

As with still images, viewers are often faced with ambiguous situations. The viewed information can be perceived in different ways, often opposing ways. The ambiguity can be because we have a limited view of a scene. A limited view can be cause by our point of view (viewing from the left or right, close or far), because the view is partially obstructed, or the capabilities of our eyesight is stretched (object is too far away or it’s getting dark). Even with still images, these types of limitations can cause illusions.

With ambiguous, multiple choice information, the human uses its template to pick which choice is correct. Often times the template’s pick is correct, while sometimes the pick is wrong.

The following are examples of being presented with ambiguous information and making the wrong choice about what is going on.

Parking lot prank
A prank you may have heard about is where the two pranksters park their two cars, one on each side of a parking space. Sometime later, the unsuspecting victim parks his car in the space. When the unsuspecting victim is fiddling with his keys or checking the contents of his wallets or looking in the glove compartment, the pranksters suddenly drive foreword or backward in unison. The victim gets the instant sensation that it is his car moving and panics. He soon figures out what happens, and is embarrassed. This is an example where a person correctly identifies the presence of movement, but misinterprets what is moving. Also note that his misperception was instinctual, and soon corrected when he figured out what happened (“Damn kids.”).

Change of speed pitches in baseball.  In baseball, pitchers use a so called changeup pitch to fool the batter. A changeup is intended to resemble a fastball but is slower. The changeup is typically thrown after a fastball, often consecutive fastballs. Then, seeing the identical fastball arm and body motion from the pitcher, the batter believes the ball is again coming fast and swings accordingly. When the changeup works for the pitcher, the unexpected speed results in the hitter making feeble or no contact with the ball. A batter can look the fool swinging with all his might at a slow pitch.

In this case, the batter correctly perceives that the baseball is moving, but incorrectly guesses its speed. Also note that batter’s perception of speed was not based on ball movement itself, but the batter’s expectations, expectations based on past experience.

famed changeup pitcher, Greg Maddux

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Duly note that a wrong pick doesn’t always mean it was a bad one. If it looks as if someone’s about to throw a brick at you, it’s a prudent move to react as if he will even if he wasn’t going to. When a car is moving towards you, its not a bad idea to overestimate its speed. These and other perception choices are more about self preservation than statistical accuracy. Also not that many instances, for example with the parking lot prank, a person must react instantly to the ambiguous information. Humans wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth if they weren’t able to react to movement automatically, instinctually, even if sometimes incorrectly.

Also note that many of the misperceptions were corrected with time and knowledge. Both the parking lot patsy and the baseball hitter corrected their misperceptions. Humans aren’t omniscient svengalis. Our perceptions are honed, corrected and filled in by knowledge, experience, new viewpoints.

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How we judge movement in motionless images

Judging and perceiving movement in still images illustrates how we judge movement using things other than movement itself. We use the overall scene, our experience and expectations about what is going on. Discussing the movement in motionless images (which of course is oxymoric) reveals aspects of our template– what motionless conditions and qualities indicate movement in our minds.

Even though they are motionless, we see dogs in the act of running. Blurred ground, field, open mouths and hanging tongues, ears titled back, all evoke the sense of movement.

Movement and direction is inferred by the blurriness of ball and background, and even how the image was cropped.

We not only perceive wind, but wind moving left to right

The tree was motionless at the moment the photo was shot, but have a story about the tree’s past and future movement. We assume lightening knocked down the tree during a storm. We can also umagine the tree being chopped up and taken away.

Ambiguous movement: The Barber pole illusion

There are instances where, due to limited including obscured viewpoint, one cannot determine the direction of movement. A standard example is the candy striped barber pole.

A barber pole has diagonal stripes and is rotated to the left or right. Looking from a particular angle it can look as if the stripes are moving straight up or down (depending on direction of rotation). Faced with different plausible choices (moving up or rotating), humans unconsciously pick one. The pick may or may not be correct.


Strobescopic Effect and Ambiguous movement

While humans perceive realistic movement in the quick flashing of still images that is a movie, there is a strange, unrealistic movement they sometimes notice. In old time Westerns, the wheels of a moving wagon sometimes appear to be still, rotating slower than they should or even rotating backwards. This happens when the rotation speed of the spokes is not in synchronicity with speed of the film.

The below three still images of a wagon wheel look to show the wheel in the same position, but they show the wheel at different rotations. The middle picture is rotated 90 degrees from the left image, and the right is rotated an additional 90 degrees. That each spoke is shaped and colored identical to the others is essential to the illusion. If these were the stills in a movie the rotating wheel would appear to be motionless. If they were the stills in a movie but the rotation was 80 degrees instead of 90, the wheels would appear to be going backwards.

The wagon wheel illusion in a movie is an example of the stroboscopic effect. In the dark, a strobe gives off intermittent flashes of light. The viewer views a moving object though short intermittent snapshots rather than a continuous view. This can lead to misperception of movement, such as with the movie wagon wheel.

Say you are watching a swinging pendulum under stroboscopic lighting. If the strobe flashes a quick burst of light once every second and it takes the pendulum exactly one second to swing back and forth, the pendulum will appear to be motionless. Each flash catches the pendulum in the same position, the pendulum having done quite a bit of moving in the dark. If the flashes catch the pendulum at its extreme right position, the pendulum will appear to being pulled or blown right.

This is an example of the human making an Occham’s razor perception from the limited information. The information is ambiguous, there are different possible explanations for what you see, and the viewer chooses the simplest explanation, the one that seems to make the most sense. If you and others saw no movement in an object, it would be considered bizarre for you to proclaim that the object was moving. However, this bizarre proclemation would be correct with the pendulum. This should offer some insight into the limitations of Ockham’s razor (see early blog post).  Sometimes the simplest explanation is wrong because it formed from limited information.

The human’s perception of flashing still images, including with movies and strobes, bring up interesting questions about how human perceive and about our understanding of very fast objects.

Do the above snapshots show a moving or still pendulum? One can’t tell.

Animated advertising signs that use a grid of flashing lights give an example of how humans interpret changing information. When you look at the above, it soon appears that there is a single yellow dot moving around and around. However, it is many dots changing color (the equivalent of lights turning on and off). Bank signs and sport stadium scoreboards use this technique to create apparent animated words and characters. When one doesn’t know what is happening (of and on lights), the information can be interpreted different ways, but is usually perceived as one light moving. Even when one knows what is happening, it is still perceived as a single moving light. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as the Phi phenomenon.

There is a different but related phenomenon of the Phi phenomenum, called the Beta phenomenon. An example of this is when two different, but same looking pictures of balls or dots or whatever are flashed one after the other on a screen. Even though they are two distinct pictures, humans commonly perceive it as one thing moving. Whether the two images are flashed in quick succession or with longer delay, the perception of a single object moving is the same.

Movies as quasi strobe images

When watching a movie, the people or horses on the screen appear to move realistically, but are stroboscopic-like flashes of still images. To the mind, this quick succession of still images of a horse most closely matches real movement. The mind is faced with information that can be interpreted different ways. To the mind, real movement may not be the perfect choice (the eyes and detect the shuttering of the film), but it seems better than other choices.

“Close enough counts”
As the movie motion shows, visual information that is close enough to what the brain’s template detects as real can be perceived as real. When judging ambiguous information, the brain chooses what the information most closely resembles. The motion picture running horse information closely, if not totally, matches up with brain’s template for a running horse, so is perceived as a running horse. Close enough is good enough. The mind often interprets the images from movies and illusory strobe flashed objects to be moving differently than they are, because the illusory movement seems more plausible.

Neurons in our unconscious brains are used to identify and interpret movement. They help identify not only the presence of movement, but judge the direction and speed. There are still images with patterns that the neurons interpret, if only briefly, as motion. The below are examples.

Narrative and the Perception of Still Information

1657 painting by Jan Vermeer. What's the story here?

1657 painting by Jan Vermeer. What’s the story here?

What's the fox doing?

What’s the fox doing?

What do you suppose was going on here when the photo was shot?

What do you suppose was going on here when the photo was shot?

Narrative is an integral part of how humans perceive, identify and judge information. A narrative is the conscious and non-conscious story we see or tell about our lives, attach to observed situations and still objects. Narrative includes perception of time, plotting, mood, point of view, emphasis (what is important. what is not), character motives, etc. When we look at a still photo or painting or a distant stranger couple standing at the light we perceive a story in progress. We may not know the story, but we know there is one. A cup on a table isn’t just there, there is a story of how it got there. Presumably, a human walked up to the table and placed the cup there, perhaps drank from it. Perhaps it will soon be takend to the sink or dishwasher. We know the earlier fox image was an observer’s snapshot of a real living animal in mid movement. A good guess is the fox is/was chasing prey.

If you change the narrative to an image, you change the meaning of the image, at least the perceived meaning. This is why narrative issues are so important. A single still image of a man with a knife is generally defined by the narrative– what he is going to do with the knife, what he did with the knife. If the narrative is he just cleaned a fish and is taking the knife to the sink, the still image has one meaning. If the narrative is he just killed someone and is looking to hide the weapon, the same still has a distinctly different meaning.

The accuracy of the narrative obviously is no small issue. It also brings up the question of if the still image can be viewed independent of the narrative. The two knife narratives were for the same image. Can the cup on the table’s identity be determined as it is? Is how it got there essential to its meaning?

Much of our narratives are speculative, theoretical. We can guess but don’t know the whole story. The judgment of significance, motives and movements of the players is influenced by our biases and personal experience.

Consciously and non-consciously predicting what will happen is a necessary part of human function. To catch a ball, you don’t need to know just where the ball is at any given moment in flight, but where it will be at later moments in time. This is particularly true considering there is a very slight delay in light processing in our eyes and mind. What we see in our mind actually about a 10th of a second old. Good physical function requires prediction. Further, in many acts like catching a ball in a baseball mitt or hitting a baseball, the ball is not seen the entire duration. In the last portion of batting, the ball is not seen by the batter. Thus, good anticipation of movement is a requirement.

Many visual illusions involve false narratives, concerning what is happening in the viewed moment, what happened before the viewed movement and what will happen. The observer’s narrative differ from the reality. With movies we view a series of still images and non-consciously perceive them as realistic, flowing movement. The mind creates, and often cannot escape, this false narrative.

 Narrative is an expression of human’s philosophy of time, cause-and-effect. To most humans, nothing is static– but a part of a flow of time. To most humans, even still things and still images of things are to be viewed as part of a time-based narrative. The meaning of that still image of the fox is based on the narrative.

What is particularly interesting is humans apply narratives to abstract images and other information where it is not clear there is a real narrative.

Describe what going on above.  Even though this is an absctract combination of dots and lines, most will say this shows two balls racing towards each other. Viewers can even describe what they see as happening before and after this image. However, unlike a movie still or snapshot photo, there neither is nor was any before or after. As I am the one who created this design, I can assure that thia is the only image, the one and only existense of these dots and lines. There is no narrative with this image other than as speculated by the viewer. That it shows balls on a line is itself a product of the viewer’s imagination.

Whether there is a real narrative to the earlier Vermeer painting is debatable. It’s not a photographic snapshot where we can reasonably assume there was a real before and a real after. The narrative and resulting meaning exists in the viewer’s imagination.

As you can see artistic experience is speculative, theoretical. Art is a symbol and metaphor for something larger. Movement is imagined in the below Matisse, but it doesn’t literally exist. Even the artist imaging or symbolizing movement doesn’t make it literally exist. Duly note that artists often anticipate that different audience members will interpret the work differently from each other, including that which is not shown in the work but percieved to be implied.

A question to consider is is narrative the correct way to judge information? Is it always the correct way? And if it is correct to view information with narrative, is the human narrative the correct narrative? Does all human narrative, even by scientists of scientific information, inherently involve imagination and subjective speculation. Of course, many of these questions we can’t answer.

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Aleatory Narrative in Art

Any path is right, if— as according to Bach– it leads to the divine”— music historian Paul Epstein on J.S. Bach’s fugues, to which Bach never gave a playing order.

Aleatory art is art where the finished result is substantially out of the artist’s hands. It can involve chance or the musicians’ or audience’s choice. Many games are aleatory. Monopoly involves the roll of the dice. Poker involves the shuffling of the cards. Aleatocism in art can create fresh, inventive, unexpected results. If the results defies the conventions of plot, narrative and order, that’s the point.

J.S. Bach’s fugues are aleatory in that he never communicated which order the short musical pieces should be played. They can be played or listened to in any order, take your pick, randomly program the CD player. In the above quote, Epstein is saying an overall sublime aesthetic result justifies whichever fugue order lead to it. It’s reminiscent of the Hindi saying, “Any path that leads to God is correct.”

Novelist William S. Burroughs used the so called cut-up aleatory technique. Pages of text were physically cut up and randomly pieced back together, sometimes with text by other authors, creating new and often profoundly surreal meaning and narrative. Burroughs believed this type of collage more closely represented the human experience. Despite the conceit of linearity, humans don’t think or experience things linearly, one’s thoughts constantly flipping back and forth between past, current and future. Random little events and objects trigger memories and provoke speculation of the future. When you consider buying a can of beans in the grocery isle, you think about past meals and the future meal where these beans might be used. The human ability to identify flowers, shoe brands and people involves comparing the present to memory. Human intelligence and reasoning involves mentally flipping back and forth through time.

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Broken Glass is the name of an aleatory computer storytelling technique that intentionally scrambles the tradition linear narrative. It is a computer web page made up of a plethora of small assorted images, often resembling a stained glass window. Each image is linked to a small piece of the story– a plot, a description, a picture, characterization, whatever. The story’s order is determined by the reader blindly clicking on the images.

The facts, scenes, characters, events and days of the week are always constant in Broken Glass, but the aleatory order in which the pieces are read affects the complexion, aesthetics, psychology and meaning. As any great novelist or film director will tell you, how facts are revealed can be as important as the facts themselves. A story told straight foreword is markedly different than the same story told in flashbacks. Knowing what will happen to a character, what she will do and how she will change, effects how you view her in the present. Knowing versus not knowing how the romance will end (or will it end?) effects how the movie goers view the lovers when the first meet, interact. Jumbled up order in and of itself has psychological meaning and symbolism.

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Even with a physically bound paper book, the reader chooses the order in which the book is read. Whether or not they realize it, readers are as responsible for the order as the author, though the author usually gets the blame.

William S. Burroughs said the chapters of his novel Naked Lunch could be read in any order. That a reader read them 1, 2, 3 had nothing to do with him.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias are aleatory. Excluding the editors and writers, it’s possible if not likely that no two people have read the word definitions in a dictionary in the same order.

William S. Burroughs felt that the cutting up and shuffling together of different texts, included by different authors, revealed hidden information.















When does 1 + 1 not equal 2?

Is a bag of potato chips one thing? Many? Both? Neither? Other? Depends on how you look at it.


A basic part of mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, economics and daily life is counting. Counting is popularly considered to be an objective activity. In the field, however, it involves subjectivity. Not over whether 1 + 1 = 2, but over what is 1. Both scientists and non-scientists have personal and varying views of what is 1 and what is 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Humans mentally, even nonconsciously, individualize things, isolate, group and count things— whether or not the things were designed to be individualized, isolated, grouped and counted. To humans a dog is one thing. A cat is one. A dog and a cat are two. This numbering is not just intellectual, but often psychological, aesthetic, moral, religious, political and philosophical. A human being is popularly regarded as a single thing, a proverbial island unto itself. Some will be morally offended if you count a human differently. Two humans, even if physically connected by holding hands, are not considered one human, but two.

A distant snow capped mountain of one billion stones is commonly referred to as one thing, not one billion things. Yet three of the stones removed and held in one’s hand will be labeled as three. This shift is a reflection of the counter’s mind and eyesight more than the counted. Mountains and stones existed fine before humans were around to count and individualize them. How or whether or why we count them makes no difference to mountains and what they are. The counting is a human exercise.

When a long cloud briefly separates in the middle many call it two things, two clouds. What is the legitimacy of this representation? Could it just as well be called one? Is either number an arbitrary choice, a definition of terms?

A lake and connected creek that share the same water and fish are commonly considered two things. Is this the correct representation? Could they instead be considered one? Is 1, 2 or any number a true representation of the body of water, or merely a convenient representation for humans?

Perpendicularly intersecting roads are often considered two things, while a wooden cross is commonly considered one. What is interesting about this example is that the roads are more physically one than two boards nailed or glued together. If you stand at the middle of the intersection, the two roads at that point are physically the same. It is not one road or the other road, it is both roads simultaneously. A piece of asphalt belongs to both. The two cannot be separated or distinguished from each other. At the intersection of the cross, on the other hand, the two pieces of wood are easily distinguished and can be separated. Physically at least, the roads could be considered more one thing than the cross.

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My sandbox of stones

Say I have in my front yard a sand box filled deep with an unchanging amount of stones. Just as with a sandbox of sand, no matter how I fiddle or play or scoop or make stone castles there is never a gap with no stones.

In this ever unbroken sea of stones, I make two tall mounds of stones on the surface. If I pull someone off the sidewalk, point to the box of stones and say, “How many things do you see?,” she likely will say two. She may even point out that the two things she sees are the mounds. If I had instead made three mounds, it’s likely she will say there are three things. If there was one mound, it’s fair to assume she would have said one. If the surface was flat (no mounds), she may say there is one thing. Even if her answers aren’t as I just said, they likely would change depending on the number of mounds.

Duly note that my question was ‘How many things do you see?’ I didn’t ask how many stones or how many shapes or how many mounds. I let the woman define what was a thing and count as she see fit.

There are two interesting aspects about her counting of things in the box. First, it is not clear that the number of things in the box ever changed. There was always a body containing an identical amount of stones. The body was constant, other than the changing surface shape. No one I know counts lakes by counting the number of surface waves. To most people, a strong wind doesn’t create more lakes. People don’t count triangles as objects differently than squares, or two humped camels differently than one hump camels (“Guess what, Mom. I saw two camels at the zoo today. One one-humped camel and one two-humped camel.”) There was never any separation that created isolated islands of stones. It was the changing surface shape that caused different number answers. Her counting was personal. A different person looking at the same stones might come up with different numbers, as he defined things differently.

The second interesting thing was that, even if accepting her definition of surface mounds as the things, the woman’s math was goofy. When there were one, two, three mounds, the woman counted things by the number of mounds. But when there were no mounds, she didn’t say there was nothing. She likely would have said there was one thing (the body of stones) or been confused as to what she was supposed to count or perhaps said “There are a lot of stones. I can’t count them all.” Her definition of what is a thing and her method of counting was inconsistent. In her math, removing 1 thing (mound) from 1 thing did not equal 0, and in fact may have equaled more than 1.

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The act of counting the box of stones, or land or clouds or a herd of wildebeest, has at least as much to do with the counter, her biases and perceptions and idiosyncrasies and choices, as with the subject being counted. That the woman’s definitions changed and different people off the sidewalk may count the box of stones differently demonstrates this. Many people believe that the individualizing and counting of things is intrinsic to the things being individualized and counted, but there is no evidence this is true. The human counting of a mountain may have nothing to do with what it is. Is a cross 1 or 2? Why does it have to be either?

Many will point out that counting is essential for humans, an important tool for functioning. This is correct, but again demonstrates that counting is about humans. Having a practical use doesn’t make an subjective and arbitrary rule any less subjective and arbitrary.




The Fiction in Science

   “All models are wrong, but some are useful”– statistician George E. P. Box

Scientific representations are different than the things they represent. A representation, model or description is a limited view of the subject, made for a specific purpose, edited by the scientist and translated into a form the scientific audience can understand and use. As scientific representations are made by and for humans, they are part about the scientific subject and part about the humans using them.

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A world map is a useful device, but one with a plethora of differences than what it represents. To start with the obvious, the world isn’t flat and it isn’t paper thin. These unrealistic qualities are for the convenience of the user.

For easy understanding, maps are artificially colored and marked (latitude and longitudes lines, for example). Road maps usually make roads appear proportionally wider than in reality, and remove unwanted details.

All world maps have proportional distortions. For an example see the map on the following page. Translating anything three dimensional into two dimensions requires distortions, as three dimensions and two dimensions are mutually exclusive. Compare your world map at home to a globe and see the differences for yourself. There are different methods of mapping the earth, each method creating its own distortions.

Distortions on maps. As with all types of world maps, this common mercator projection map has significant distortions. Greenland is incorrectly shown as being bigger than Africa. Alaska is shown as being as large as Brazil, when Brazil is really multiple times larger.

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The above representation of an atom is different than a real atom in an abundance of major ways. To start, it’s thousands and thousands of times larger than a real atom. If it wasn’t you couldn’t see it.

The representation hardy resembles an atom, and the artist would agree. The intent was to make a dummy model for students to learn about the different atomic ‘parts.’ The unreal balls, outer ring and cartoonish appearance are designed to engage the audience, simplify things.

As with the map, this representation is part about the subject and part about humans. It is in a form students can understand. In this case the form students understand looks more like a Saturday morning cartoon character than an atom.

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 Any human representation of something complex (and all things are complex) is simplified and distorted, focusing on a specific area, quality, layer or angle, made from a limited amount of information, interpreted by the maker’s sensibilities, presented in a way the maker and audience can understand.

As a means of communication, a representation will include conceits of the scientist, audience and even general culture. These conceits include expected form (pie charts, graphs, book, magazine article), style, shape, measurement method (volume, height, meters, liters), color associations (hot = red, cold = blue, forest = green).

It is similar to art, where following the genre’s conceits, even shallow ones, are constraining but necessary for communication. The conceits create an artificial representation, but without them you might as well be communicating in a foreign language.

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Just as the creation and perception of art involves human psychology, so does the creation and perception of scientific representations.

Whether they admit it or not, scientists and philosophers view the universe and the things in it psychologically. A scientist and his work can no more escape human psychology than the scientist can escape being human.

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All one has to do is to look at a scientific representation, any representation, and find the human imprint- the human sensibility in form, style, color, language, balance, aesthetic choice. A representation of water may be a magazine article in English. English language and magazine articles, of course, have to do with humans and communication between humans. The article’s subject may be about water, but its form is human. The article will be read as a work of human literature, as it is a work of human literature. As an artifact, the article shows about as much about humans as it does about water.

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This illustrates an essential human problem that goes beyond science. Humans must translate a subject to understand it, but what they understand is the translation.

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 A scientific representation is a product of the scientist’s purpose. A different purpose will produce a different representation of the same subject.

I own three maps of North America. One represents the altitude (mountains, valleys, etc), one shows the traditional aboriginal tribal regions and one is a road map. Even though they are of the identical place, each map is different. It’s not so much whether the maps are right or wrong, but that they were created from different purposes.

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 Many to most scientific representations aren’t intended to be the be all and end all. Scientists usually consider scientific models to be works in progress, to be studied, tested, reworked, changed and even tossed aside as necessary. Science is a continual work in progress.

For testing purposes, models are often intentionally made to be overly simple. One purpose of such simplification is that errors are more easily identified and corrected. With a more complicated, muddled model, it’s harder to identify what is working and what is not. Another reason for simplification is the scientist may be studying only one aspect of the subject. The other aspects are excluded. If a dentist is studying the teeth and gums, there may be no need for her computer model to be full-bodied, including detailed feet, fingernails, hair color and bellybutton. It may not even include eyes and nose, even though people with teeth and gums also have eyes and noses nearby. She may consider these details distracting and “beside the point.” A scientist will often be the first to say his representation isn’t a duplication of the subject, and was never intended to be an exact duplication of the subject.

As with communicating of scientific ideas to others, reducing a subject into a simplified if unrealistic model has practical purposes. Scientific progress would be stunted without simple, artificial models.

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Knowing that all representations contain fiction, a question to ask about a particular representation is whether the fiction is a device required for communication of ideas, testing or other practical use, or is it wrongly portrayed as part of the subject’s innate meaning. If you are well aware a fiction is fiction, there is no big issue. If you confuse fiction for fact, that is a problem.

While fiction, the size of the earlier representation of an atom is needed for humans to see the representation. If the representation was life size, it would useless to instructors and students. Similarly, artificial color coding for a diagram or map can make for easier and quicker understanding. It’s easier to find countries on a map if each is distinctly colored. These are examples of where the inclusion of artifice is fair and understandable.

A related question is how seriously is the fiction taken, both by the creator and the audience. Students and even seasoned scientists can become too comfortable, too enamored with clichés of color, shape and words. Through repetition, superficial conceits can become false idols.




Logic Versus Art in Communicating Advanced Ideas

Two lovers were cursed, he to be a wolf at night and she to be a hawk during day. They could not be human together.

Humans view, interpret and mentally explore their world on many levels. Humans experience things rationally, irrationally, consciously, subconsciously, emotionally, intuitively, directly, indirectly, aesthetically– in a varying combination of these and more all at once. A human can think logically one moment and be emotionally swept up by a song the next. Math professors fall head over heals in love and abstract painters calculate their taxes.

A human’s best possible exploration, understanding and expression of the universe uses all the levels. An expression of the universe through only mathematics or only music is inherently limited. Many things in the world can’t be explained with mathematics, love and beauty for examples, just as mathematics can’t be explained with love and beauty. An explanation using just one level is flawed.

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 This brief essay looks at the nature of two standard and distinct methods for making profound explorations and representations of the complex world: the logical philosophical essay and art. One is based on reason (logical essay). The other has its meaning in the irrational (art). Each is a legitimate method of communication yet limited in what it can express.

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Logical essay

A logical philosophical essay uses reason and logic. It intentionally tries to remove emotion, whims, logical fallacies, subjectivity and, except when clearly identified as such, the author’s opinions. The language itself of the logical essay is expected to be free of logical fallacies and similar linguistic muddiness.

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Logical essay

In proofing the logical essay, the writer and reader makes sure that statements are consistent. As statements are built upon statements, even small logical fallacies can undercut the entire essay.

The following are elemental examples of checking the logic of statements that might be found in an essay.

Statement #1: “Jenny has only one brother. Thus, her brother has only one sibling.”

Analysis of statement #1: Uses false logic and should be rewritten. If Jenny has a sister, then the second statement would be untrue, as John would then have more than one sibling. While John may indeed only have one sibling, the first sentence does not prove the second.

Statement #2: “Jenny’s favorite type of fruit over all other fruit is the orange. Thus, the banana is not her favorite fruit.”
Analysis: The statement is logically correct.

Writers of logical essays will have others read the drafts to check for logical accuracy.

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Opposed to the logical essay, the essential meaning of art is based in irrationality. While a work of art has an underlying and often even logic-related structure, the essential meaning is irrational (sublimeness, profound beauty). Art produces a profound emotional and psychological effect on the audience and it is here where the meaning exists.

This irrational meaning is illustrated by the wordless music you love. There is nothing logical or rational in the sounds or the emotional reaction you get from them. Art’s meaning exists beyond logic and reason.

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Artists intentionally subvert logic, reason and reality to produce the desired psychological effect in the audience.

Many paintings intentionally distort reality. Look at paintings by Picasso, Dali, Cezanne, Jackson Pollock or Renoir. Even the ‘realistic’ paintings of the 1400s have strange dimensions, characters and visual stories.

Painting by Paul Cezanne

Classic movies and novels have unrealistic plots, characters, timing and effects. Some are fairy tales or science fiction. Action space and sound.

2001: A Space Oddysey

To produce the desired emotions in the audience most movies have music sound tracks. In real life many of the scenes portrayed would have no full symphonic accompaniment. Washington crossing the Delaware, man lost alone in the middle of the desert, Humphrey Bogart walking a deserted street, Rocky Balboa running up the Philadelphia steps. Most movie music is an intentional distortion of reality for artistic purposes.

Even a literal-minded scientist will complain that a documentary about physicist Werner Heisenberg didn’t have a music soundtrack, or that the music wasn’t what he would have chosen. If asked, he might tell the director he would have preferred Beethoven over the used Bach, perhaps mixed with some Mozart.

Fiction and non-fiction distorts time. A person’s or a country’s life will be shrunk into two hours. To compensate for the time limit, the movie or book will focus on certain areas, omit others, often altering facts.

2001:  distorting time and space

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Art is so different than the ‘real world’ that its meaning, its truth some will say, is derived from lies. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is fiction. Of Mice and Men is a figment of John Steinbeck’s imagination.  Picasso said “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” 

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An inherent conflict exists between art and logic. One requires rational thinking and the other requires irrationality. Each subverts the the other.

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An inherent problem with the logical essay is that, despite the author’s intentions, it can never be entirely free of the things it wishes to be free of– bias, irrationalness and arbitrariness.

The author has personal and aesthetic views about writing style, structure and overall presentation. A writer can’t write or think without using a plethora of conceits, some chosen, some subconscious, some inborn. A writer can’t visualize things in his mind without biases. Writers take into consideration the biases and conceits of the audience, as point of the essay is to communicate to others. Logical essays distort time as much as novels, spending more pages on one decade than another, writing about an earlier historical period before a later historical period, cutting up history and reassembling it into a collage. This distorted representation is often in part due to aesthetic taste.

If the writer and audience have a bias about the color and shape of paper the essay is to be written on, they should not assume that they are free of bias and artificial thinking elsewhere. Small biases are indication of the presence of larger biases.

Human logic has its own fiction

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Facts versus art in the biography

The subject of the biographical movie or book is or was flesh and blood, a life filled with measurable facts: dates, times, durations, heights, geography, quotes, tests, employment records, hair color, postal addresses. Yet a simple recitation of external facts will not accurately represent the person and her life. The recitation will be dry bones. A person is much more than facts and dates. Character, complex personality, aesthetic vision (perhaps the subject was a great artist or actor), beliefs, faiths, conflicts, contradictions, urges, dreams, fears, subjective experiences.

A famous composer might say, “If you want to know who I am, listen to my music. That’s all you need.”

A woman might say, “If you want to know about me, forget about my high school transcript and the conversations I have with my boss. Watch my favorite movie. If you don’t get the movie, you’ll never understand me.” Her favorite movie probably was made by someone she never met, perhaps who died before she was born, isn’t about her, perhaps takes place in a country or a planet she’s never been too and may not have a single character that resembles or acts like her or even speaks her language.

Even when distorting facts and logic and time, a biography that is a work of art, can be a better representation of the subject, his deeper personality and vision. This type of biography is a figurative representation of the person, as the above Cezanne painting is a representation of a landscape.

The obvious problem is that to create this figurative truth, one must distort the factual truth. And to tell the factual truth, one destroys this figurative truth.  The biographer needs the two to exist together, but they cannot.




The ambiguity of language, and the answer to history’s most famous philosophic riddle

Our daily language is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. Words have multiple meanings, definitions change and multiply over time, phrases are interpreted differently by different people and differently by the same person in different situations. Voice intonation, pacing, grammar and facial expressions communicate meaning. The audience uses its experience, education and culture to guess what is meant.

John and I went to the food court. We ate at Taste of India.

The above everyday sentences seem straight foreword but can be interpreted in many ways. The ‘we’ of the second sentence commonly is read to mean John and ‘I,’ but this reading is a guess. It could mean the narrator and someone else than John, or perhaps the narrator, John and someone else or multiple people. It’s very plausible the two caught up with someone else on the way to the Taste of India.

Most read the second sentence to mean that Taste of India is at the food court and they ate there soon after they arrived at the food court. However, this is also assumption. There’s nothing in the sentence that says the Taste of India is not far away from the food court and their eating didn’t take place days if not months later.

It is even an assumption that the two sentences relate to each other. They could just happen to be sitting next to each other, like strangers on a bench. For all you know, I lifted them from different books, published 15 years apart.

“Even when in Kyoto how I long for Kyoto when the cuckoo sings”

In the above you can’t go home again line by famous 1600s Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, the word Kyoto has different meanings. The first Kyoto indicates the physical city and the second refers to a past life in the city, perhaps a childhood. Or at least that’s how readers commonly interpret it. Basho died over 300 years ago and no one today knows what he meant.

* * * *

Comedy regularly plays on the ambiguity of language:

— Lt. Frank Drebin: “Miss, I’m Lt. Frank Drebin, and this is Captain Ed Hocken, Police Squad.”
— Buxom Female Shop Assistant: “Is this some kind of bust?”
— Lt. Frank Drebin: “Well… it’s very impressive, yes, but we need to ask you a few questions.”

— Naked Gun 2-1/2 (1991, Paramount Pictures)

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Categories and definitions in language

Language is a common way to organize, label and perceive objects and ideas. Native language is something we learned as infants, talk, think and even dream in. Our native language has profound influence on how we look at the world. Different languages give different emphasis, meaning, aesthetics, sounds and, perhaps most important, categories to things. As one perceives and thinks in part through categorizing (cats belong as one group, dogs belong as one group, magazines as another), native linguistic categories influence even nonconscious perception. It influences how we imagine things when our eyes are closed.

An elemental example of difference between languages is when a person in Atlanta Georgia and a person in Rome Italy read the same word ‘pizza,’ yet imagine different things. A pizza in Georgia is different than a pizza in Italy. If you asked the two to identify a pizza at a market, they might point to different objects. The Italian may say of the Georgian’s choice, “You’re crazy. That’s not pizza. Let me read the label … Tombstone … Do not defrost before cooking … remove cellophane … Glenview Illinois … You Americans might know Slim Whitman and Gilligan’s Island, but you know nothing about pizza. Come to Rome and I’ll show you pizza.”

Many differences are more subtle. For example, different cultures do not always categorize color alike. Different languages can and do have a different number of names for colors. This means a particular name, say red or green, will apply to a different range of wavelength on the visible light spectrum. It’s the same total light spectrum of color for both cultures, but the different numbers of names divide the spectrum into a different size pieces. Like cutting two identical pizzas, one into nine pieces and the other into seven. The pizzas are identical except one has fewer and bigger pieces.

In one culture, ‘red’ can cover a different range of color than the equivalent word ‘red’ in another culture. What you call red, a person on another continent may or may not call red. Even within a culture, people often categorize colors differently. This is commonly done in the marginal areas, such as aqua blue, dark orange versus red, magenta versus pink. It is probable that you perceive some borderline colors differently than your spouse, friend or co-workers. If two friends define colors differently, they may believe they are talking about different cloth swatches when they are talking about the same one. Or they may believe they are talking about the same swatch when they are talking about different.

This between friends difference can be because they don’t have the exact same color vision and that they never had a serious discussion about what are the boundaries of aqua blue, or what constitutes badious, brunneous and gamboges. I don’t recall ever having an instructor teach the exact boundaries of aqua blue, aqua marine or magenta, not even in art class. I doubt I ever had an instructor who knew the exact boundaries.

* * * *

As humans commonly communicate, learn and conceptualize the abstract through words, different interpretations of words often lead to conflicts. What may at first appear to be a visual illusion or even mental illness in a person may be a difference in culture.

An American joke is “Never ask for Squirt on an English airline.“ To Americans, Squirt is a brand of lemon/lime soda pop. To the English the word means urine.

I think it’s safe to order 7Up.

* * * *

If a tree falls when no one’s around does it make a sound?


Many arguments are not caused by disagreement over the main ideas, but that the arguers unknowingly define terms differently. Arguers may have different definitions of war, peace, work week, formal attire, animal, automobile, tall, stiff drink and sexy, even though they both assume they are using identical definitions. Once the parties mutually set the definitions (which they didn’t do in the beginning), they are often surprised to discover how much they agree with each other. Many arguments, many conundrums, many philosophical debates exist simply because parties never thought to mutually define terms.

An age old question is “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?”

The answer to this question depends on what is the definition of sound, and a key to the discussion is the determination of what sound means.

Is sound defined by the act of a human or other animal hearing? Or can a sound exist with none around to hear it? It would seem the smart thing to start by looking up the word sound in a dictionary.

I looked in one dictionary and two encyclopedias. One encyclopedia said that sound is defined by the ear detecting (hearing) the vibrations in the air. This would mean the tree in the question would make no sound if no one is around. The other encyclopedia and the dictionary defined sound as the vibrations itself, whether or not someone is around to hear them. By this definition, the tree would make a sound even if no one was around.

As you see, the famous tree debate isn’t a matter of philosophy but of word definition. The difference between “Yes, it makes a sound” and “No, it doesn’t make a sound” can come down to the arbitrary choice of definition, the outvoting of 2 reference books to 1, the flipping of a coin. Depending on what definitions used, the answer of Yes and No can describe the same forest scene. Is one sound definition superior to the other? Not that I can see. They’re just different.

People also have differing definitions of the word one in ‘…no one is around to hear…’ Some people think deer, birds and mice count as ones, while others think only humans count. The definition of one can also determine whether the answer is Yes or No.

* * * *

Certain words have strong connotations in a culture, and people intentionally play around with the definitions so they can apply words as they desire. If patriot is a popular label, people will fiddle with the definition so that they are defined as patriots and their enemies are not. If patriot is an unpopular label, the same people would define the word so that their enemies are patriots and they are not. These shameless self serving manipulations of definitions are common during political campaign season, but also during our daily lives. What may be a lie when someone else does it is a fib if you do it.

Notice these instances involve people being emotionally attached to a word no matter how it is defined. It’s word numerology.

When I was in high school, the quarterback for the football team came to school wearing a pink sweater. He spent the day saying, “No, it’s coral.”