Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality

Why do we see this image of the Penrose Stairs as being impossible? Optical illusions, such as this one, and magic tricks function because of at least two structures, perhaps we should call them limitations, related to our perception of reality, namely bodily structures (our sensory system) and conceptual structures )the frameworks around which we organize those perceptions). Considering these limitations becomes important not only for our perception of illusions but also for the work of observation and description that informs much scholarship and public discourse.

These reflections came out of watching David Blaine perform his ice pick trick in a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson with Pharrell Williams and Scott Vener in their OtherTone Studio. Continue reading “Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality”

On Metaphors


“. . . . We know (or think we know) that history is a perplexing, incessant web of causes and effects; that web, in its natural complexity, is inconceivable; we cannot think about it without resorting to the names of nations.”

From “A Note on Peace” 1945 by Jorge Luis Borges, included in Selected Non-Fictions.


Photo “Jorge Luis Borges 1951” by Grete Stern, public domain

Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit

dig13623-230The recent selection of Miss World Japan has created a stir. The BBC headline “Miss Japan Won By Half-Indian Priyanka Yoshikawa” forefronted only the aspect of her heritage that some found problematic because they do not see Yoshikawa as “pure” Japanese. Last year’s crowning of Ariana Miyamoto as Miss Japan (in the Miss Universe franchise) faced similar responses, as Miyamoto’s parents are Japanese and African-American. While it is easy to see these controversies as signs of the insularity and even xenophobia of some Japanese (which ironically reinforces particular stereotypes of Japan as foreign), that designation is unfair in two ways. First, these two Japanese women and their supporters have challenged such attitudes in Japan, thus refuting the generalizability of the stereotype. Second, such preferences for ethnic purity among some in Japan are not as different from common attitudes in the United States. Continue reading “Miss Japan and the Structures We Inhabit”

Making the Arbitrary Natural


Despite the rhetoric about the Olympics bringing the world together peacefully to celebrate athletic achievement, the competition is oddly divided according to “their genitalia and the patch of land on which they were born” (as colleague Craig Martin put it on Facebook). We see some wonderful examples of international goodwill, certainly (some listed here), but the arbitrary divisions dominate, both through the flag-waving spectators in the stands and the daily medal counts according to nation in the media. Whether it is people in India cheering P.V. Sindhu, who reached the Badminton women’s individual finals last Friday, or people in the United States cheering for Simone Biles’ five medal performance in gymnastics, the division into nationalities takes on the appearance of being a natural description.

The organization of the Olympics, demonstrated from the Opening Ceremony Parade of Nations, and the media coverage that focuses on the nation’s athletes make the nation appear to be a natural division, an obvious identifier (a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). We often cheer for people from our own country because their victory brings us status, even though we have little if anything in common with the athletes, potentially being from different regions, living within different social networks, holding different commitments, etc. Continue reading “Making the Arbitrary Natural”

The Stakes are High, in Australia

myrResponding to census questions is not simply reporting already self-evident identifications. The process of asking the questions creates those identifications and the groupings that organize the census data. The current census effort in Australia, scheduled for today, illustrates this point quite clearly. Due to the increasing number of respondents reporting “No religion” on the voluntary religion question, census officials have shifted that response to be first on the list of possible responses, which has generated competing campaigns to influence how people identify themselves, and thus the results of the 2016 Census. Continue reading “The Stakes are High, in Australia”

Directed Hearing

2349283746_7ed48c9423_bBoos and chants of USA! interrupted both political conventions over the past couple of weeks, generating significant comment and analysis. The FiveThirtyEight live blog (one source that I perused) noted that the prevalence of the chants and interruptions varied between different parts of the convention halls and on different broadcasts. While this illustrates the problem of assuming such an event can be described as a singular experience, it also raises a much broader point about what we hear. One contributor on FiveThirtyEight explained the influence of directional microphones.

directional mic

The assertion that any broadcast filters what people hear, whatever the intention, is not something new, though it is worth being reminded. But, this point is analogous to much of the information we encounter. The FiveThirtyEight blog focuses on statistical analysis, particularly of election polls, discussing the trends and the limitations of the quantitative data. I have been critical previously of the analysis of polls and surveys and the ease with which a statistically significant difference becomes the basis for broad generalizations. My specific example has been the discourse about those who express no religious affiliation on surveys (commonly identified as the Nones) and how the survey analysis constructs a group and analyzes their traits based on generalized answers to one question. Like the directional microphones, the creators of polls and surveys determine what questions to ask and typically what type of answers are allowed (or how they code divergent answers). In regards to election polling, the FiveThirtyEight blog notes the differences, for example, between general election polls that allow respondents to select third party candidates and those that do not.

We need to push such nuances further. For example, dissecting polling results according to race or ethnicity typically forces everyone into a set number of categories. Those who identify as multi-racial either must choose one racial category or generally have their voice ignored in the absence of sufficient numbers marking multi-racial to be statistically significant. This mechanism serves to reinforce the dominance of a singular racial category when many, whether they identify as such or not, have a multi-racial heritage. Similarly, these racial/ethnic categories generalize about diverse collections of people, such as placing people who identify with Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti together into a single Hispanic group, despite significant differences between and within those national groupings.

This directional mic effect is not limited to polling and quantitative studies but influences qualitative, in-depth research, too. The researcher can operate like a directional mic, hearing particular assertions clearer than others. Researchers are attuned to the general issues informing the topic, so that they hear answers relevant to that topic, even answers that challenge their preliminary conclusions, more clearly than answers that may be less obviously central to it. This effect is in addition to other effects (also present in quantitative research) about whom they interview, what questions they ask, who is willing to be interviewed, and how the interviewee represents his/her own story

In this sense, whether our research and analysis focuses on quantitative data or qualitative interviews, those conducting the research and analyzing the data become a directional mic, intentionally or not controlling what they hear and, in turn, what they present to everyone else. The research can be vitally important, but we should not lose sight of the humility to recognize that any discussion of human activity, whether based on quantitative or qualitative sources, is filtered through a series of directional microphones that ultimately simplify what is highly complex.


Image by Matthew Keefe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Narratives We Like

PlotmountainGun fights, political intrigue, and a race against time. Reading fiction is one activity that provides a little excitement. While I enjoy a range of authors and styles, my favorites are the pulp espionage and legal thrillers from authors like David Baldacci, John Grisham, and Steven Martini. The exciting plot keeps me highly engaged and turning the pages to see how the hero or (sometimes) heroine fight off or outwit the dangerous, enigmatic threat. Like many people, I appreciate a good narrative, and that desire for a manageable, linear plot is not limited to reading novels.

Reading in Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse (yes, I also read some academic works during the summer) has prompted me to reflect on these preferences and their connection to my own writing. White argues that the construction of a historical narrative has important similarities to fiction writing, as the historian selects data from the range of sources she peruses and pieces them together into a narrative, choosing particular “modes of emplotment” (such as romance, comedy, or tragedy) that generally correspond to particular explanatory approaches in the field of history. Continue reading “The Narratives We Like”

Profitable and Harmful Fear

I-5_north_approaching_I-10_east_split-_long_viewDo you remember when a few people suggested that Obama would crown himself dictator, run for a third term, confiscate all of the guns, etc., etc.? Now that the primaries and caucuses for the election of his successor are virtually complete, those fears seem to have dissipated, replaced with new fears, of course. And stoking fear happens across the political spectrum. Someone is taking away our opportunities (whether identified as immigrants or the superrich). Someone is trying to take away our vote (whether a particular party or campaign, SuperPACs or legislators through redistricting and new voting requirements). If the other party (whichever is other within the conversation) comes to power, they will take away vital rights (reproductive choice, second amendment, privacy, etc.). We are repeatedly told to be afraid. With all the talk of fear, it appears that the freedoms and quality of life in the United States hang by a thread.

And yet, if we step back and think about it, our way of life is not as tenuous as some would lead us to believe. The horrific shooting in Orlando this past weekend is both tragic and scary, fanning our common fears of mass violence, especially among communities who feel targeted. While people discuss various aspects of the shooting and propose potential policies that might prevent it (depending on which cause they emphasize; homophobia, religious zealotry, access to guns, mental illness, . . . ), we need to remember that we are more likely to die in a traffic accident (as the signboard counts of YTD fatalities remind us) than in a mass shooting, yet that fear is not as visceral. Continue reading “Profitable and Harmful Fear”