Bizarre Illusions

post by MrHen · 2010-01-27T18:25:54.834Z · score: 11 (21 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 310 comments


grey square illusion
Illusions are cool. They make me think something is happening when it isn't. When offered the classic illusion pictured to the right, I wonder at the color of A and B. How weird, bizarre, and incredible.

Today I looked at the above illusion and thought, "Why do I keep thinking A and B are different colors? Obviously, something is wrong with how I am thinking about colors." I am being stupid when my I look at this illusion and I interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors. My expectations of reality and the information being transmitted and received are not lining up. If they were, the illusion wouldn't be an illusion.

The number 2 is prime; the number 6 is not. What about the number 1? Prime is defined as a natural number with exactly two divisors. 1 is an illusionary prime if you use a poor definition such as, "Prime is a number that is only divisible by itself and 1." Building on these bad assumptions could result in all sorts of weird results much like dividing by 0 can make it look like 2 = 1. What a tricky illusion!

An optical illusion is only bizarre if you are making a bad assumption about how your visual system is supposed to be working. It is a flaw in the Map, not the Territory. I should stop thinking that the visual system is reporting RGB style colors. It isn't. And, now that I know this, I am suddenly curious about what it is reporting. I have dropped a bad belief and am looking for a replacement. In this case, my visual system is distinguishing between something else entirely. Now that I have the right answer, this optical illusion should become as uninteresting as questioning whether 1 is prime. It should stop being weird, bizarre, and incredible. It merely highlights an obvious reality.

Addendum: This post was edited to fix a few problems and errors. If you are at all interested in more details behind the illusion presented here, there are a handful of excellent comments below.

310 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T01:26:42.546Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do I keep thinking A and B are different colors?

Meanwhile I am thinking 'Wow! My brain can automatically reconstruct a 3D image from limited 2D input and even compensate for shadows and lighting. That is orders of magnitude more complex than the reverse, generating such images from a model such as those we add 3D cards to computers for'.

I don't particularly consider this an 'illusion', especially when it is not simultaneously acknowledged that it is an 'illusion' that A and B are squares on a 3D 'square X a bit' thing that also has a cylinder on top of it.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T16:11:25.345Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, good point! I never thought about it like that. It raises the question: Why are people amazed when you say, "Tiles A and B are actually the same color -- check for yourself!" but they roll their eyes when you say, "There are no squares in this image -- check for yourself!"? In both cases, you can respond with, "Well, yeah -- if you don't interpret it like the scene it's trying to represent!"

I'm not a very good artist, so learning about how to create these illusions sounds like a good reason to take an art class, and help me appreciate what artists are doing. (Why didn't the first major breakthrough in cognitive science come from painters and sketchers?)

Of course, it probably wouldn't do much to help me understand why they can count random smears on a canvas as "art"...

comment by Cyan · 2010-01-29T01:53:09.332Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why are people amazed when you say, "Tiles A and B are actually the same color -- check for yourself!" but they roll their eyes heir eyes when you say, "There are no squares in this image -- check for yourself!"?

It's about expectations. People expect to be able to take (physical) objects that appear to be different colors, examine them under a variety of contexts, and always perceive them as different. People incorrectly extrapolate that expectation to images, and thus find the fact that removing the context reveals these images to be the same colorRGB surprising. They also expect to be presented with representations, so pointing out the fact that they're looking at a representation seems silly to them.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T20:39:50.096Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course, it probably wouldn't do much to help me understand why they can count random smears on a canvas as "art"...

By way of reversing the ADBOC concept, I disagree denotationally but confirm your connotation. As you explain in the cousin several times removed post, many kinds of art are bullshit. Cultural preferences that would not be particularly likely to be rediscovered if all trace was removed. This differs from other forms of art which are more specifically directed at aesthetic preferences intrinsic to humans.

Of course, immersing yourself in a culture and experiencing the flow of status first hand is the perhaps the best way to get an intuitive anthropological understanding. I found, for example, that having done a research degree in a subfield of AI helps me understand how peer affiliation by persisting with researching silly ideas can be counted as 'science'.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/1om/bizarre_illusions/1iub

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T16:41:10.571Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That last line is coming from a decidedly unrational state of mind!

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T19:22:56.636Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How so? I wasn't spouting the usual greedy/fake reductionist cliches; I was talking about the paintings that look like a 3-year-old made a mess, yet get classified as art, and noting that an art class probably wouldn't convince me this is appropriate.

What specific criticism of that claim do you have?

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T19:48:56.689Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was talking about the paintings that look like a 3-year-old made a mess, yet get classified as art, and noting that an art class probably wouldn't convince me this is appropriate.

What specific criticism of that claim do you have?

Short version:

High art is about a lot of things, not least of which is impact on the viewer.

In the case of Pollock, for instance, a lot of the interesting thing that was going on there, was that he depicted a process - not by painting a representation of himself doing it, but by actually doing it. You can look at a Pollock and see how he constructed it without being distracted by exactly what he was trying to construct. And being able to see that aspect of art and be aware of it, will in turn give you a greater appreciation of medieval cathedrals and Greek sculpture.

Possibly related: no one knows what science doesn't know

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T20:34:00.356Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To add to this with a similar example, consider that some people prefer listening to foreign language vocalists because it allows one to appreciate the sound of the vocal instrument without focusing on the words.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-01-29T23:42:46.792Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To me, most music sounds like a foreign language (though one that sounds exactly like English), unless I'm familiar with the lyrics beforehand, in which case I can "hear" them just fine.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-01-29T23:49:08.030Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Like this?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-01-31T05:41:34.074Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T23:54:02.391Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, most people don't care much about the actual lyrics. Which explains the phenomenon thomblake was trying to use for tenuous support of another hypothesis, yet remains modded to 3 for some reason (7 if you include his parent comment).

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T21:54:01.496Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, because the words (i.e. the lyrical semantics, as differentiated from the qualities of the sounds the words make) are a small, perhaps negligible component of what people like about many of these songs.

If you were trying to draw some other inference from this fact, you're going to have to be more specific about why that inference follows.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T20:06:12.105Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely related: Truly Part of You

If I erased your knowledge (and everyone else's) of what the kewl kids had classified as "good art", would it grow back? Would you eventually re-recognize the same works as being good, with the same relative merit, for the same reasons?

If your answer is no, that's a big red flag that you're dealing in bullshit.

(The correct reaction to the parable of The Emporer's New Clothes is not, "Well of course a kid isn't going to see the clothes! What's your point?")

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T21:48:14.333Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I erased your knowledge (and everyone else's) of what the kewl kids had classified as "good art", would it grow back? Would you eventually re-recognize the same works as being good, with the same relative merit, for the same reasons?

I imagine that the answer to this is yes for a great deal of art. I don't know much about it myself, but when I think about art that I like I can find reasons aside from cultural significance or peer pressure.

This assumes the question is ignoring the lens created by my limited expose to art. I highly doubt that any of the artists I like would have been experienced by me if others hadn't considered them worthwhile.

Music is an easier analogy for me to make. I can more accurately describe what I like in music because I know a few more terms. But also, when I listen to a song, I find that my opinions are more distinct. I assume this is because my tastes are becoming refined; I am open to other interpretations.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T20:20:10.069Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's not related.

If you took away everyone's knowledge of English, and someone laid King Lear at your feet, what would you do with that? The fact that art is rooted in culture and context, some of which is the result of stochastic processes, does not mean you're dealing in bullshit.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T20:37:27.064Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be very surprised to discover that a King Lear in an unfamiliar language had been produced by an ape. I am not surprised by hoaxes like this. I think that is indicative of a meaningful difference.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-28T21:51:46.469Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From the link:

After Peter had created a number of paintings, Axelsson chose what he considered to be the four best and arranged to have them exhibited in an art show at the Christina Gallery.

Emphasis added to indicate flaw in experimental protocol.

Edit: This point is much weaker than it appears at first glance. See responses.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T22:03:00.200Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would still be surprised if the monkey King Lear was chosen as the very best of the monkey's literary oeuvre.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-28T22:06:23.748Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, you're right - odds of a monkey producing a King Lear to choose are quite low.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T21:57:37.413Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I noticed that too. I felt that it was still a valid test of critics' ability to interpret art considering that most artists will do the same thing with their collection before entering an exhibition.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-28T22:01:39.068Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And, on reflection, selection is a very weak form of optimization.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T20:45:51.353Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a far cry away from "eventually re-recogniz[ing] the same works as being good, with the same relative merit, for the same reasons."

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T20:49:43.230Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Erasing everyone's knowledge of English is a far cry from erasing their knowledge of "what the kewl kids had classified as 'good art'".

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T21:07:58.359Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

? Was this supposed to be a separate reply to my earlier comment? I think it brings up a valid point, but looks a bit like a non-sequitur where it's at now.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T21:12:56.300Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a reference to that earlier comment, which is its great-grandparent, but also a direct reply to its parent. I think it makes sense if you read the full thread.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T20:44:28.112Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But it does mean that the writing of King Lear is less of an epistemic achievement than, say, the laws of physics, which are not dependent on a particular species' form of communication.

If King Lear is (claimed to be) a good work, given a certain language (humanity? evolutionary history? political history?), does the recognition of its supposed greatness survive deletion of the knowledge about what the kewl kids think is great?

If people continued to speak English, but King Lear fell out of fashion and later was found, but disconnected from anyone's recommendation, would people still decide it was better than most other works? Would they decide it for the same reason?

Do children spontaneously flock to King Lear at a certain age, even when it's not recommended to them by a True Literary Authority?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T20:49:32.601Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If King Lear is (claimed to be) a good work, given a certain language (humanity? evolutionary history? political history?), does the recognition of its supposed greatness survive deletion of the knowledge about what the kewl kids think is great?

Of course not. It doesn't even come with 3D special effects!

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T20:16:28.792Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your answer is no, that's a big red flag that you're dealing in bullshit.

I seriously doubt that the correct answer is "no".

Obviously, there would be a little bit of wobble - I might not care who Pollock is, but I expect there would be something else I'd find that would illuminate the same aspects of the aesthetic experience. But I think being the first to do it that way counts for something.

Thanks for the link - I read that article a while ago, but I hadn't realized Drew had been referenced here.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T20:36:23.744Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, all I got out of that was a name-drop and (what seemed like) a dodge.

Could you answer again, and this time maybe explain it a little differently? Specifically:

-Are you claiming that Pollock discovered a way of satisfying the aesthetic senses that allowed generalization of the method in other forms?

-Let's say I knew a wacko who believed that "By historical accident, Pollock became a focal point for people of high-status to identify each other, despite there being nothing special about his work." What evidence would you point me to that has a low Bayes factor against that hypothesis?

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T21:25:04.421Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just realized we seem to be arguing over wine again. I fold.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T21:34:15.537Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, we are.

If you spend ten years associating wine with a good time, and are expected to have a refined palette for wine to be part of the kewl kids club, then guess what -- you can make yourself like wine! The fact that you like wine in such a scenario does not, to me, count as a genuine liking, in the sense in which I judge beverages. Any substance, even bat urine, will find connosieurs under those conditions!

What I want to do is, find out what's good about something, that isn't simply an artifact of practices that can make anything look good.

That's why I'm not impressed by "enjoy this because people are telling you to enjoy it", which the support for much high art and alcohol amounts to.

Instead of refusing to engage the issue, maybe you should start to think about the recursivity of your criteria for quality?

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T21:49:27.473Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I want to do is, find out what's good about something, that isn't simply an artifact of practices that can make anything look good.

This seems exceedingly arbitrary. The exact evolutionary processes that made ice cream taste good gave rise to the connoisseur phenomenon. Our ability to "predict" evolution and make something "taste like victory" doesn't make enjoyment of those things less real, let alone less "good."

Besides, we could keep following this rabbit hole to the end of time. What makes it enjoyable for you to not succumb to the trends of status? Why is the good-feeling reward that gives you better than the good-feeling reward that some other activity gives someone else?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T22:02:37.111Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So wait -- are you conceding that art is just about signaling that you like whatever-high-status-people-like? Or that "you will get higher status for saying you like this" is a valid reason to judge a work as being art?

This seems exceedingly arbitrary. The exact evolutionary processes that made ice cream taste good gave rise to the connoisseur phenomenon. Our ability to "predict" evolution and make something "taste like victory" doesn't make enjoyment of those things less real, let alone less "good."

It matters for the same reason the placebo effect matters. Pills can make you better, merely by virtue of believing they'll make you better. But, for a rigorous science of curing people, we want to know what makes people get better even more reliably than just believing they will.

Likewise, there are practices that can make people like something. But there's no point to saying, "Hey, after this practice, people like it!" That conveys no information -- it's true for everything. Like with placebo cures, I want to know what is good above and beyond that that results from standard "make something seem good" tricks.

And there is a difference: I liked chocolate before I knew what anyone thought about it. In contrast, very few people liked alcohol before they found social or non-taste reasons to drink it.

If all you care about is the final level of liking, why not spend all this effort making yourself like healthy foods? And why the broad reluctance for people to admit, "okay, wine is really just about showing off status"? Why do I have to pry teeth to get anyone to talk about this?

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T15:09:44.191Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The reason people are reluctant to admit it is because you are simply wrong. I like beer better than wine, even though wine has higher social status and greater psychological effects. I would drink beer in private if it had the same taste but no alcohol, and I would definitely prefer it to a milkshake, on taste alone.

What makes you so reluctant to admit that some people might have different tastes from you?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T16:14:55.402Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What makes you so reluctant to admit that some people might have different tastes from you?

The investigation documented here led me to reject that initial, more obvious and probable theory.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T17:14:49.274Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My question was somewhat rhetorical, in response to your "Why the broad reluctance..."

In fact I read through the thread that you link to and found it quite unpersuasive.

It's true it's somewhat surprising that so many people said they preferred the taste of milkshake. But in reality that's partly a question of context. If you're comparing the taste of sweet things with the taste of non-sweet things, it can depend on what you feel like at the moment. Sometimes you have a desire for sugar, sometimes you don't.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T18:04:33.791Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you read it all? It wasn't just the milkshake comparison. It was the fact that, if you ignore the question "do you like alcohol?" and simply ask about the supposed implications of liking alcohol, my answers match up with everyone who claimed to like alcohol. Yet I characterize my state as "not liking alcohol", while others characterize it as the reverse.

See the checklist.

Again, the point is to subtract away the influence of factors that can make you like anything. If applejuice made me happy and killed my usual inhibitions, I'd "like it". I might even get over the taste. I might even show off my pickiness about which apples must be used before I will consider to drink it.

But this is a HUGELY different sense of liking than exists for a milkshake. Or milk. Or smoothies. Or mocha peppermint frappucinos. Or any of the other things that I didn't have to consume many, many times to finally decide I like the taste of.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T19:38:01.201Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The checklist doesn't seem very strong evidence to me:

"-Think milkshakes are better tasting than the best alcoholic drink." I don't think this. And even for people who do, many people like the taste of some things more than others, without disliking the taste of the latter.

"-Enjoy the taste of alcoholic drinks when it is drowned out with some other flavor." Sure, if it's a good flavor. But I also enjoy the taste of the alcoholic drinks when it isn't drowned out at all.

"-Believe it changes our mental states in a good way." Possibly, but this doesn't show that it wouldn't taste good without this effect.

"-Could not comfortably chug down a alcoholic drink the way we might a milkshake." I think this happens with strong drinks because the alcohol causes a coughing reflex, not because of the taste. But I can definitely drink a beer comfortably just as fast as a milkshake, and I can do the same with wine if a little water is added (and it still tastes like wine, indicating that it isn't a question of taste.)

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T19:53:48.067Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"-Could not comfortably chug down a alcoholic drink the way we might a milkshake." I think this happens with strong drinks because the alcohol causes a coughing reflex, not because of the taste.

Okay, I hope statements like this show what I'm dealing with on this topic. We have substances that provoke the choking reflex in people, as your body protests against this substance entering you, just as it would for toxic smoke, cleaning fluid, and engine oil, and yet people casually ignore that and say with a straight face, "oh, what a pleasure it is for me to drink this delicious beverage! Why would not others so enjoy it?"

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-29T19:55:35.261Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

...then why do I put hot sauce on my burrito?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T20:21:48.683Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you drink the hot sauce directly? Do you put so much on that it provokes a choking or wincing reaction? Then I don't think it's comparable.

ETA: Oh, one more rhetorical quesiton: Do you act surprised that there are people who aren't willing to pay insane prices to injest burritos with so much hotsauce that they have to suffer through eating it?

Because that's what it would take for me to have the same perplexion as I do about alcohol.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-29T21:31:10.461Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't - I'd choke or wince, and I don't want that. But I still like hot sauce on my burrito.

What I am arguing - and I believe this was Unknowns' argument - is that the effect of increasing rate of intake is not indicative of whether a substance is enjoyable at the lower rate of intake. I wouldn't eat a tray of lemon squares, but I'd eat one piece.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:00:00.978Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I am arguing - and I believe this was Unknowns' argument - is that the effect of increasing rate of intake is not indicative of whether a substance is enjoyable at the lower rate of intake. I wouldn't eat a tray of lemon squares, but I'd eat one piece.

Okay, give me a little credit here. I "get" that much -- I mean, even a milkshake will give you a brainfreeze.

The point is (and I admit I've had a hard time expressing it with examples because of the confounding factors), people strangely start to use a definition of "enjoy drinking X" that expands to cover aspects that they admit are very displeasurable. Hard liquors will induce the coughing reflex (the beginning of it), for example, even at very low rates of consumption.

This would seem to dominate the experience, but then, even in the midst of what is quite clearly painful, they enjoy it -- and are somehow able to discern "good" hard liquor from "bad" hard liquor.

Taking the whole experience into account, I can accept that there's a lot to like -- just not the act of drinking.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-29T22:03:48.799Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Might dill pickles be a useful example? I had to be coerced into trying them several times before I came to find them edible, but I enjoy them now, and there's not much if any status involved there.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:13:04.430Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dill pickles don't have nearly the same perplexity factors that alcohol does, so I don't think they're a useful example.

  • People aren't ultra-particular about which dill pickles they like, beyond them not looking gross.
  • People don't claim to be able to discern all the differences.
  • The taste of dill pickles doesn't serve as a convenient excuse for getting high.
  • Dill picklers aren't regularly used to get high, and aren't in danger of being banned or overregulated.

You get the point.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-29T22:54:41.105Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that those factors can be fully, or even partly, separated from status signaling. For example, I expect that I could tell the difference between different kinds of pickles, and develop a favorite among the brands that exist. I have no particular reason to do so, and if I did, I wouldn't talk about it, but if pickles became trendy, and the pickle companies started making subtly-different types to satisfy the demand for signaling tools, I probably would at least try the varieties and pick a favorite. (I have a favorite brand of mayonnaise, after all, and am that picky about which brand of Macadamia nuts I'll eat.)

comment by gregconen · 2010-01-29T22:52:36.173Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You assume that the bad effects will dominate, but I'm not sure that would be the case. If you like the taste itself enough, that might balance the bad effect. And "good" hard liquor might (and does, in my limited experience) reduce the bad effects.

Further, comparatively few people like (neat) hard liquor, and the direct unpleasant effects are significantly reduced in beer, wine, and mixed drinks.

I agree with you that status considerations will often make people inclined to get an Irish Cream when they'd prefer a milkshake or fool themselves into thinking that expensive wine tastes better. But you're apparently making a strong claim (nobody really likes the taste of alcoholic beverages), on weak evidence.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-29T22:06:39.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is (and I admit I've had a hard time expressing it with examples because of the confounding factors), people strangely start to use a definition of "enjoy drinking X" that expands to cover aspects that they admit are very displeasurable. Hard liquors will induce the coughing reflex (the beginning of it), for example, even at very low rates of consumption.

And hot sauce will induce a burning sensation at even very low concentrations of capsaicin. Like BDSM, sometimes people actually do like that.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:25:17.560Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right -- sometimes. Not "the overwhelming majority of the adult population, which also happens to get high while doing so." It's the ubiquity, not just the strangeness, that confuses me.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-29T23:13:16.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're sure of that ubiquity part? I just think you should put off endorsing complicated beliefs until you are sure they are based on good data. In this case, I believe that means a proper sociological study.

Edit: Such a study may also make it easier to confirm the extent of various proposed motivations.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T23:21:23.711Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think we're going to need a sociological study to verify that the vast majority of adults drink, and claim to like it when they do. That's all I meant by ubiquity. I should have said "commonness" or something equally awkwardish.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T23:27:46.469Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, you seem to be claiming that they're doing it for the taste. They do it in spite of the taste, or indifferently to the taste, and add sweet flavors to mask it. However, people can grow to like the taste over time, and some of the flavors in the taste are good by themselves, though not as good as, say, a chocolate milkshake.

You also seem to be assuming that a taste has to be repulsive or delicious, instead of just neutral, or all right in certain contexts, or occasionally desirable.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T23:34:29.936Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, you seem to be claiming that they're doing it for the taste.

Er, no, that's pretty much the opposite of what I'm claiming. I'm claiming that they say they do it for the taste, but mainly (or solely) want the psychoactive effects.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T23:39:33.241Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm claiming that they say they do it for the taste

Sorry for getting it wrong. Anyway, I don't think they say that they primarily do it for the taste, which is an empirical question.

I think they say they "like" it, and they mean they like the overall experience, and you're interpreting that to mean that they like the taste. Or they say they like the taste because they grew to like it over time, or because they mix it with other flavors, and you're interpreting that to mean they primarily drink it for the taste.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-29T20:28:32.558Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you act surprised that there are people who aren't willing to pay insane prices to injest burritos with so much hotsauce that they have to suffer through eating it?

I am not surprised when someone does pay to do such a thing to their burrito.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T20:36:11.628Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if it were very common, and a practice concentrated in the top 10% wealthiest people?

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-29T21:09:10.670Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is quite common for people to eat food that is hot enough to cause discomfort or even pain, at least in some cultures. The uncomfortably-hot curry is a British tradition that often goes hand in hand with the consumption of beer. In my non-scientific personal experience willingness to eat (and enjoy) food with levels of heat that cause discomfort correlates somewhat with wealth/status - it can be seen as a marker of openness to experience and embracing cultural diversity.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-01T21:17:18.004Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People get desensitized to hot sauce after a while; it takes more to cause discomfort in someone who routinely eats hot sauce than in someone who doesn't.

I'm fond of spicy food. (My father, who I suspect is a supertaster, isn't.)

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-01T21:44:37.305Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People do get desensitized to hot/spicy food over time but I think people who enjoy the sensation tend to increase the dosage to compensate. Speaking from personal experience, I still like hot food to burn slightly, it just takes more chilli than it used to to achieve that. The burning/discomfort isn't an unfortunate side effect of the pleasant taste of chillis for me, it's an essential component of the enjoyment of eating hot food. I've heard that the reason people enjoy spicy food is that chilli stiumlates pain receptors and causes the release of endorphins and it is the endorphin release that people crave but I don't know if that is true.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-01T22:18:53.414Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People do get desensitized to hot/spicy food over time but I think people who enjoy the sensation tend to increase the dosage to compensate.

Yes, that's what I meant.

Another thing I've noticed is that some hot peppers have good flavors in addition to the burning sensation (jalapenos, for example), but others seem to be practically tasteless apart from it.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-29T20:40:52.404Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mmm... I think I missed something. How I would I stop being not surprised if it were a common practice?

Uh, I mean, why would I start being surprised if it were a common practice [to pay insane prices to inject burritos...]?

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T19:58:32.751Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I grant the reflex is a way of your body protesting. I just don't think it has to do with TASTE. And I gave evidence for that from the the fact that if it is diluted, it has the same taste, but not the same protest.

Also, this reflex is different from nausea, which I would admit would be a protest to the taste, and if I dislike the taste of something sufficiently, it causes nausea in me. Nothing like this happens with alcoholic drinks.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T20:06:25.838Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dilution doesn't change the taste of a drink, and alcohol doesn't cause nausea ...

And I'm the one that's rationalizing a refuted position?

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T20:10:59.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1)dilution weakens the taste (and the other effects like the choking protest), but it doesn't change it to another taste; 2) I'm not talking about getting drunk, I'm talking about the effect at the moment of drinking it.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-29T20:20:05.593Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would someone like to make a falsifiable claim about how a person is likely to react to alcohol over their first few instances of drinking it? If so, I'd be willing to be a guinea pig.

The only times I've had alcohol were over a decade ago, and involved either having communion at church or my father insisting that I take a sip of his beer. I've never experienced an alcohol buzz. I dislike being in the kinds of situations in which one would drink socially, but am curious about how alcohol might affect me separately from that. I do find the smell of wine and beer aversive (but not nauseating), which I understand might affect the outcome, but I'd be willing to try them anyway. (I'd been considering trying wine coolers, but, hey, it's for science.)

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T20:27:27.750Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given that you don't like the smell of beer and wine, you likely won't like the taste at first either. But some people do like the taste even the first time, so this isn't strong evidence for SilasBarta's position.

You might like wine coolers which tend to be a little sweeter. Actually, one thing correct in Silas's position is that many people like sweet drinks because they are sweet, not because of the alcohol, and they are sometimes unwilling to admit this for social reasons.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:53:52.505Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, I'd love to make such a prediction, but those who disagree with me know all too well what the result will be and will try to rationalize away the predictable results of you trying alcohol ... oops, too late.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-30T17:59:36.412Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think anyone disputes that people usually don't like alcohol the first time they try it. I'm disputing that, after liking it, there's a difference between this liking of alcohol and the liking of your apt example, milkshakes. The two likes are the same.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T18:02:14.127Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, they're not the same, because you have to go through a process to like alcohol, which would just the same cause you to like bat urine. You don't have to do that for milkshakes.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-30T18:03:45.272Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

After that process has happened, they're the same.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T18:07:41.902Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, once you use a process that will cause people to like ANYTHING, including bat urine, it will cause them to like alcohol.

If you look closely, that statement has no information content, and it's equivalent to yours.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-30T18:11:46.392Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Anything" is too broad. If you made drinking bat urine sufficiently high-status, or gave it some reward other than taste, then yes; otherwise, no.

EDIT: Taste in this case = "pleasure from first taste"

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T18:15:04.411Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good thing alcohol doesn't have other rewards (like pleasant mental states) or impacts or your status.

Otherwise, the situations might be parallel!

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-30T19:38:03.874Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are bringing your own assumptions into it, as well, like that "anything" isn't cyanide.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-30T21:20:51.648Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So make predictions about what will happen after I've had N drinks. Or what would happen after I had N drinks of near-beer, if it's the psychological effect you're concerned with and not just the social one.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T18:35:01.959Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

my answers match up with everyone who claimed to like alcohol.

I completely agree with you about wine tasting specifically. But there are those of us who actually like the taste of some alcoholic drinks, even without the psychological effects, signaling, or need to acquire the taste. It doesn't look like your answers match up with that.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T22:53:47.010Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I made my main point in the other comment, and I don't want to include these two comments together because I don't want the other to be ignored, but health is an objective measure, whereas pleasure is not.

First of all, I think you're ignoring that there are some practices that, despite making some people like an activity, will not make other people like the activity - i.e., that placebo will work on some people, but not other people, so to that extent, there is something marginally "real" (under your definition) there.

I understand what you mean very much; I've spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about it over the past decade. Cognitive dissonance seems like a weak trait when you notice it in someone else, either to change your values to dislike the inaccessible or the reverse, to change your values to like the accessible.

But why? I tend to like things I'm better at than most of the people I know, like math and arguing and pointing out other people's cognitive dissonance. Why should I expect other people to be any different?

In the end, the "liking" part is really, like you pointed out, liking the taste of status more than the taste of alcohol. But I enjoy spicy food, despite not liking it originally, either. I didn't like hip-hop, but I figured there must be something there that attracts so many people; now I like some. I didn't like a bunch of popular TV shows, but I didn't want to assume that all the ways I'm different from people who did like those TV shows were ways I was better; what if they were ways I was worse? So I watched a bunch of them. Most of them still suck, but I found I like House and Big Love, despite thinking beforehand only idiots could like those shows.

I agree with you to some extent - if I have to have someone telling me I'm cool for me to enjoy it, I don't want to partake. But that's not because it's less "pure," it's because I've done activities like that before and it's not fun not being in control of when I can enjoy myself.

I have been telling people for years that the difference between people who like alcohol and people who don't is that the people who don't didn't have a peer group to pressure them to drink their first 5 beers. That's true with me and with almost everyone I know (although there are some who claim they liked beer right away, and I even believe a few of them).

But now even when I'm alone, do I enjoy having a beer and relaxing? Yes, very much. Would I like beer if it weren't for the alcohol's effects of relaxing me? Probably not, no. But that doesn't change that the alcohol has changed how much I enjoy the taste of beer, because now it actually tastes good. That doesn't seem disingenuous to me. I don't experience the enjoyment any less, so it's hard for me to discredit it due to the fact that the way I got to that point was through trying to not look stupid to my friends when they gave me a beer for the first time.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:00:20.832Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have been telling people for years that the difference between people who like alcohol and people who don't is that the people who don't didn't have a peer group to pressure them to drink their first 5 beers. That's true with me and with almost everyone I know (although there are some who claim they liked beer right away, and I even believe a few of them).

Yes, I think that's what my point comes down to: so you like beer after being pressured by friends to drink it for five years. Then, by simple force of habit, you come to like it -- your tastes change.

But I say: so what? What does that tell me about beer? Like I keep saying, if you go through this (five years of drinking it with friends who pressure you to drink it) with any drink, you will end up "liking" it. So there's nothing about the hops or the special microbrewery or the yeast or this or that. It's completely arbitrary.

I would much prefer to drink something that actually tastes good. If I want to further enhance this with a group of friends, great. But stop telling me beer tastes good. Keeping up with habits you've developed in pleasant situations is what "tastes" good. The psychoactive effects of a socially-acceptable product "taste" good. Beer, however, does not taste good.

ETA: Similarly, Homer's The Odyssey isn't good. Rather, a bunch of people have a tradition of reading it that they pass on and get the next generation to perpetuate. But what the heck am I supposed to learn about good writing from that, other than:

1) Here are some references you can make that you can expect people to "get"

2) If you want to start a cult, here are some things you can do that will trick people into liking your holy texts.

comment by loqi · 2010-01-29T02:26:55.790Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would much prefer to drink something that actually tastes good. If I want to further enhance this with a group of friends, great. But stop telling me beer tastes good. Keeping up with habits you've developed in pleasant situations is what "tastes" good. The psychoactive effects of a socially-acceptable product "taste" good. Beer, however, does not taste good.

It looks to me like you're trying to curry the 2-place predicate "tastes good to X" into a 1-place predicate "tastes good", without really specifying the X that you're supplying as an argument. Surely X isn't "everyone". And it can't just be "many/most people", since you've attached other conditions (like "psychoactive taste changes don't count").

In my experience, most things taste different the second or third time around. The stomach and intestines are connected to the nervous system, ya know - you get direct neural feedback on the things you put in your body. If that feedback is negative, you might find that substance A isn't quite so tasty the second time around. Does any modification of a taste count as a "refinement" in your eyes, rather than an arbitrary change?

Anecdote: I concluded long ago that coffee tasted like dirt, and I wanted no part of it. Once every few years, someone would say "oh, try this, it's good coffee!", and I'd try it, and it tasted like dirt. Then a couple years ago I was eating breakfast at a diner and decided to just choke down some free caffeine. It tasted like dirt, but it did the job. A few days later, I forced down another cup of dirtwater. The next day I felt a sudden, sharp craving for coffee. That third cup of coffee tasted vastly better than the first two. I think the mechanism is obvious enough.

But the drug-induced shift in my perception of coffee wasn't as simple as "it used to taste bad, now it tastes good". Previously, all coffee tasted the same to me. As soon as coffee stopped tasting like dirt, the differences between types of coffee became much more noticeable. I'm no connoisseur, but you'll have a hard time convincing me that I prefer a French-pressed Sumatran blend to the drip coffee available at my job because of peer pressure.

There was a TED talk (I don't recall which one) where a neuroscientist spoke about some fMRI research done on monkeys performing a task requiring dexterity in the hands and fingers. They found that the region of the monkey's brain mapped to its relevant digits basically grew with practice. This "adaptive resolution" aspect of perception means if you restrict X to "tastes good the first time" in an attempt to filter out noise from status games, you'll also throw away everything that can't be easily perceived with the initial chunk of allocated brainspace.

To summarize, your version of "tastes good" appears to be an oversimplification. Our taste sense seems to be quite inherently adaptive. So I disagree that "there's nothing about the hops or the special microbrewery or the yeast or this or that". I think your perception of the subtler qualities of beer is probably just too low-res, because your initial reaction to the taste of alcohol is preventing your brain from allocating additional resources to flavor decoding.

Incidentally, chocolate is one of the foulest-tasting things I've had the misfortune of placing against my tongue. Dark, milk, cheap, fancy - it all tastes the same.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-01-29T02:54:40.149Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Incidentally, chocolate is one of the foulest-tasting things I've had the misfortune of placing against my tongue. Dark, milk, cheap, fancy - it all tastes the same.

Heresy!

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-01T21:07:41.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Incidentally, chocolate is one of the foulest-tasting things I've had the misfortune of placing against my tongue. Dark, milk, cheap, fancy - it all tastes the same.

I hate a lot of chocolate, too! I can't stand Hershey's Kisses, chocolate cake, chocolate milk, M&Ms, or chocolate ice cream. I do like hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, Three Musketeers bars, and Nestle Crunch bars.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T03:13:07.204Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, thanks for explaining all of that. It really sheds light on the dynamics at play here. My thoughts:

1) Even if what you're saying is true, about the brain allocating more mass to a given activity the more you do it, giving a plausible mechanism for greater ability to distinguish coffees, that still doesn't differentiate it from bat urine. We can expect the same thing would go on there. Once you're accustomed to bat urine, you'll be able to tell all the different kinds apart, you'll have a newfound appreciation for its "taste", etc., all because of your neural plasticity.

So it still comes back to my original question: given this strange path to a person's judgment that they like wine/coffee/bat urine, what is the appropriate way to describe this kind of liking? Are we usefully carving conceptspace by putting this kind of liking with milkshakes, which most people like the first time, and all subsequent times? Is the liking-bat-urine a different phenomenal experience than liking-milkshakes?

2) Even though your account of the changing taste for coffee may be right, are you sure about the sensitivity to nuances? Have you given yourself blind taste tests for random beans? Keep in mind, that when scientific controls are in place, wine "experts" inevitably fail miserably to make the distinctions they claim are important.

It's actually not that unexpected to dislike the office's coffee in favor of your own. I'm still at the stage of not liking coffee unless it's ultra-sweetened (frappucinos ftw), and even I can tell what's bad coffee. Not necessarily the taste, as the fact that bad coffee, um, doubles as a laxative.

3) My taste in beer hasn't changed despite drinking it for ten years. The best I can say about any beer is that it "doesn't hurt that much going down". (Guiness wins in this regard.) The best explanation seems to be that my "supertasting" ability makes me very sensitive to the alcohol, blurring out any other taste, and keeping me from adapting to the nuances. The problem, though, is that supertasters are estimated at 25% of the population. So why aren't 25% of people voicing my opinion on alcohol? Why would they stay silent about hating it, while drinking it for social and psychoactive benefits?

comment by loqi · 2010-01-29T08:14:17.429Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1) Even if what you're saying is true, about the brain allocating more mass to a given activity the more you do it, giving a plausible mechanism for greater ability to distinguish coffees, that still doesn't differentiate it from bat urine. We can expect the same thing would go on there. Once you're accustomed to bat urine, you'll be able to tell all the different kinds apart, you'll have a newfound appreciation for its "taste", etc., all because of your neural plasticity.

I don't think liking is inherently tied to differentiation. It seems more like shifting your focus - you're perceiving fundamentally new taste data, some of which you may find pleasant. I doubt that becoming an expert bat urine taster would impart much love for the urine relative to doing the same for coffee or beer. If Seth Roberts is right, we enjoy the complex flavors of fermented stuff like beer because they're markers for valuable biotic diversity. The same is probably not true of bat urine.

2) Even though your account of the changing taste for coffee may be right, are you sure about the sensitivity to nuances? Have you given yourself blind taste tests for random beans? Keep in mind, that when scientific controls are in place, wine "experts" inevitably fail miserably to make the distinctions they claim are important.

I wouldn't call the things I'm sensitive to "nuances" - the difference in flavor between "Sumatran" and "other" beans I've tried seems pretty major. There are probably other similar beans that would be indistinguishable, my preferences on the subject are quasitransitive at best. I haven't tested it, nor have I tested my ability to distinguish ale from lager.

The problem, though, is that supertasters are estimated at 25% of the population. So why aren't 25% of people voicing my opinion on alcohol? Why would they stay silent about hating it, while drinking it for social and psychoactive benefits?

Interesting, I'd never heard of supertasters before. I don't see what the problem is here, though. You appear to be seeking a concept of "genuine" flavor, and you've ruled out psychologically adapted tastes. But that's a bit tangent to the situation where someone starts out disliking beer and acquires a taste for it from psychoactive reinforcement. They still probably end up with higher-res perception of it than someone who hates the taste of it and drinks it anyway. Note the difference between "drinking for psychoactive effect" and "drinking because previous psychoactive effects led to a modified perception of flavor". People in the latter category have no cause for complaint (except for alcoholics, of course).

If they're really drinking it for social benefits, the motivation to stay silent is probably also social benefits.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T19:08:45.545Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think liking is inherently tied to differentiation.

I didn't say it was. I accept that you also started liking the taste itself; I just claim that this would happen for anything, including bat urine, so I don't put it in the same class of stuff that tastes good before significantly molding your mind to make it so.

If Seth Roberts is right, we enjoy the complex flavors of fermented stuff like beer because they're markers for valuable biotic diversity. The same is probably not true of bat urine.

Sounds like a despised "just-so" story to me. You can just as well find markers of biotic diversity in bat urine (at the very least, diabetic bat urine) that derives from the variety in their diet, and the different kinds of bats, etc.

I wouldn't call the things I'm sensitive to "nuances"

I know. I was referring to your newfound "ability to distinguish differences to a higher degree of precision" and didn't know a shorter term. Please don't criticize someone's terminology unless you offer an alternate, superior term that you would not object to. Like what I did in a different discussion over here in point 2.

I haven't tested it,

Okay. Scientists have, though, and usually you can get away with swapping out "high quality" stuff for low quality stuff and people won't notice. They will throw a status-driven hissy fit if they find out what you did, though.

If they're really drinking it for social benefits, the motivation to stay silent is probably also social benefits.

So would you agree that my thesis is at least accurate for a portion of the population? (The thesis was, "People don't really like the taste but use the supposed taste and other reasons as an excuse for getting high in a socially acceptable way and keeping it legal to do so.")

comment by loqi · 2010-01-30T10:08:10.686Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think liking is inherently tied to differentiation.

I didn't say it was.

True, what you said was

Once you're accustomed to bat urine, you'll be able to tell all the different kinds apart, you'll have a newfound appreciation for its "taste", etc., all because of your neural plasticity.

which I read as implying that differentiation causes "liking" ("inherently tied" was imprecise terminology on my part). What did you actually mean?

Sounds like a despised "just-so" story to me.

Uh, taste as an evolutionarily-shaped nutrition-detector isn't exactly a novel just-so hypothesis. If your real objection is with the assertion of complex flavor preferences or the link between such flavors and biotic diversity, I don't know what calling it a "just-so story" even means. You were probably looking for a slightly less general retaliate button.

You can just as well find markers of biotic diversity in bat urine (at the very least, diabetic bat urine) that derives from the variety in their diet, and the different kinds of bats, etc.

Valuable biotic diversity. The kind of stuff that garners positive feedback from the tract.

I know. I was referring to your newfound "ability to distinguish differences to a higher degree of precision" and didn't know a shorter term. Please don't criticize someone's terminology unless you offer an alternate, superior term that you would not object to.

I wasn't "criticizing your terminology", I was attempting to correct a perceived misunderstanding in progress. You used the word "nuance" and then went on to talk about double-blind taste tests, which taken together led me to believe that I hadn't effectively communicated the scale of distinction I had in mind. Hence the comparison to ale and lager. I'm well-aware of wine snobs and their embarrassing track records.

Assuming that my terminological correction is some ineffectual, off-topic criticism of your choice of words is assuming I'm basically acting in bad faith. Not very productive.

So would you agree that my thesis is at least accurate for a portion of the population?

Yes.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:44:51.814Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, what you said was ... which I read as implying that differentiation causes "liking" ("inherently tied" was imprecise terminology on my part). What did you actually mean?

I was listing the differentiation, and the liking of taste, as two separate phenomena, with any possible causal relationship, not necessarily the differentiation causing the enjoyment.

Uh, taste as an evolutionarily-shaped nutrition-detector isn't exactly a novel just-so hypothesis.

Yes, we do have (what can be called) nutrition detectors, but none of them work anything like what would have to be present for the one you posited: 1) in the EEA, we didn't normally taste the ingredients of beer, 2) 25% of the population is distracted by the taste of alcohol and unable to use the information, 3) the nutrition detectors we do have evoke pleasant responses in almost everyone, from a very young age (i.e. aren't acquired tastes).

I call it a "just so story" because it doesn't pass many obvious sanity checks.

Valuable biotic diversity. The kind of stuff that garners positive feedback from the tract.

None of the things in beer "garner positive feedback from the tract". And knowledge of what fruits and meats the bats in the area are able to eat would definitely signal the diversity in the area. If you meant GI tract micoorganisms, beer came around way too late, and is way too dissimilar to other things we consume to have been adapted for as a gauge of useful diversity.

I wasn't "criticizing your terminology", I was attempting to correct a perceived misunderstanding in progress.

What is the brief appellation you believe I should have used to describe what I was referring to? If you don't have one, you should have accepted the specificity/brevity tradeoff I made in trying to summarize what you just said, and responded to the substance of the point, saying what I got wrong there.

If you do have one, you just passed up your second opportunity to be helpful by telling it to me. What's your goal here?

Assuming that my terminological correction is some ineffectual, off-topic criticism of your choice of words is assuming I'm basically acting in bad faith.

No, telling me what I did wrong without telling me what would have been right, is bad faith, because it leaves me in the position of having to get permission from you every time I want to briefly refer back to something you said.

So would you agree that my thesis is at least accurate for a portion of the population?

Yes.

Okay, thank you. I just wish I didn't have to pull teeth to talk about these things.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-30T17:48:47.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"None of the things in beer "garner positive feedback from the tract"".

Not true. One of the things I like about beer is that when I'm hungry, it tastes REALLY good. It tastes like I'm eating a meal. This doesn't happen with wine, which is just a drink.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:57:13.068Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

LOL! What's funny is, this isn't the first time I've heard this line of "reasoning".

"Okay okay, high-carb substance X might not taste good, but it tastes REALLY good when you're energy starved (in contrast to all those high-carb food/drinks that don't taste really good in such a circumstance)."

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-30T18:10:01.218Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mention it because it tastes better than other high carb food and drinks in those circumstances. That's a fact, at least regarding my taste.

And there's really something wrong with your manner of argument, since you could say something similar about any reason why anyone would say anything ever tastes good. You might as well say you dislike the taste of milkshake, but just like the effects of fat and sugar on your body, or something like that.

comment by loqi · 2010-01-30T21:11:39.145Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[replying separately to this tortured meta sub-thread]

What is the brief appellation you believe I should have used to describe what I was referring to? If you don't have one, you should have accepted the specificity/brevity tradeoff I made in trying to summarize what you just said, and responded to the substance of the point, saying what I got wrong there.

Look, it wasn't clear to me at all that you were making such a trade-off. I wouldn't have mentioned the word "nuance" at all if I thought you were you just abbreviating my intent. Misinterpretations are a dime a dozen in these sorts of conversations, no need to take a retransmit so personally.

What's your goal here?

To have a clear exchange of ideas. Do you suspect another?

No, telling me what I did wrong without telling me what would have been right, is bad faith, because it leaves me in the position of having to get permission from you every time I want to briefly refer back to something you said.

Emphasis mine. You're taking it personally. It could just as easily have been poor phrasing on my part. I'm more interested in ensuring that the thing you read is the thing I'm trying to write than I am in figuring who's to "blame" for some terminological "error".

comment by loqi · 2010-01-30T21:10:49.546Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1) in the EEA, we didn't normally taste the ingredients of beer

Not sure what you mean here. In the EEA we could still probably taste the rough signature of a fermentation process.

2) 25% of the population is distracted by the taste of alcohol and unable to use the information

Again you imply that supertasters are unable to get past their initial reaction to the taste of alcohol, despite the utter plausibility of psychoactive reinforcement leading to a modified sense of taste.

3) the nutrition detectors we do have evoke pleasant responses in almost everyone, from a very young age (i.e. aren't acquired tastes).

Source? My tastes changed slowly but continually as I aged. Is your assertion that none of the common shifts from childhood to adult food preferences are linked to nutritional content?

I call it a "just so story" because it doesn't pass many obvious sanity checks.

If the above ordered list constitutes your "obvious sanity checks", then I question their adequacy. If you're referring to some other sanity checks, I'd be interested in hearing them.

To clarify, I'm not actually advocating Roberts' theory. I brought it up because I think it's plausible, which is all that's required to doubt the counterintuitive assertion that developing a taste for bat urine is akin to developing a taste for beer.

If you meant GI tract micoorganisms, beer came around way too late, and is way too dissimilar to other things we consume to have been adapted for as a gauge of useful diversity.

Came around way too late? Dietary adaptations can be pretty rapid (e.g., adult lactose tolerance). But I doubt your assertion that beer is too dissimilar to other things we consume - getting a message like "this is fermented, caloric, and not obviously toxic" from your tongue is probably good enough.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-31T04:29:10.306Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure what you mean here. In the EEA we could still probably taste the rough signature of a fermentation process.

Then you'd have to show how it has selective power. What information is gained from the fermentation stage, and why would it shift our makeup so quickly?

Again you imply that supertasters are unable to get past their initial reaction to the taste of alcohol, despite the utter plausibility of psychoactive reinforcement leading to a modified sense of taste.

Not one that just happens to line up with a convoluted mechanism that just happens to justify liking beer.

Source? My tastes changed slowly but continually as I aged. Is your assertion that none of the common shifts from childhood to adult food preferences are linked to nutritional content?

We change what we like, but we keep the category of sweet (detection of sugars). There is no scientific substantiation for a "fermentedness" category detector: just sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and the recent meaty one. That gives a serious presumption against this kind of mechanism.

To clarify, I'm not actually advocating Roberts' theory. I brought it up because I think it's plausible, which is all that's required to doubt the counterintuitive assertion that developing a taste for bat urine is akin to developing a taste for beer.

Then I just have to show equal plausibility of the usefulness of bat urine, which I've done. Diabetic bat urine contains sugar, which in turn contains sweetness, which in turn contains information information about the plants in the area. This result can be extended to normal bat urine, in which the fruit content of the area will determine bat urine bitterness, which we would then "enjoy" drinking, just as people learn to "enjoy" beer's bitterness.

And, as a bonus, urine was consumed for a sliver of our evolutionary history.

Sure, it's convoluted and implausible, but good enough to keep consumption of bat urine nice and legal, which is really all it has to do.

comment by loqi · 2010-01-31T07:29:42.768Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then you'd have to show how it has selective power. What information is gained from the fermentation stage, and why would it shift our makeup so quickly?

Why would it need to be a quick shift?

Not one that just happens to line up with a convoluted mechanism that just happens to justify liking beer.

Huh? In earlier comments you seemed to have no problem with the idea that people developed a taste for things that got them high, but now the idea is suspect because it supports an explanation for liking beer?

We change what we like, but we keep the category of sweet (detection of sugars). There is no scientific substantiation for a "fermentedness" category detector: just sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and the recent meaty one. That gives a serious presumption against this kind of mechanism.

And there's no need for a "fermentedness" category detector, any more than there's a need for cones that selectively perceive yellow.

Sure, it's convoluted and implausible, but good enough to keep consumption of bat urine nice and legal, which is really all it has to do.

Ah yes, the "grand social conspiracy to ward off prohibition" hypothesis emerges again. I'd be interested in hearing more about how you think this is supposed to work.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-31T13:56:56.349Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah yes, the "grand social conspiracy to ward off prohibition" hypothesis emerges again. I'd be interested in hearing more about how you think this is supposed to work.

A large fraction of the population is hugely enthusiastic about something, and acts to preserve it? It worked for chocolate - what makes you think alcohol inspires less enthusiasm?

comment by loqi · 2010-02-01T07:25:33.851Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Enthusiasm alone doesn't solve coordination problems, especially when there's no problem to be solved in the first place.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-02-01T11:55:12.164Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On retrospect, I would argue less "keep alcohol legal" than "keep alcohol available".

comment by Cyan · 2010-01-31T04:50:17.938Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the recent meaty one

It's called umami.

Then I just have to show equal plausibility of the usefulness of bat urine, which I've done.

You haven't shown equal plausibility for your "bat urine" hypothesis as Roberts has for his "fermented food" hypothesis. Go ahead and scan his blog under the categories fermented food and umami hypothesis. (I don't agree with everything Roberts has written on the subject.)

That said, I think it was an error for loqi to bring up Roberts's ideas at all -- when he talks about fermented food, he means things like yogourt, soy sauce, natto, miso, fish paste, and kombucha, not the products of alcoholic fermentation. (ETA: No, apparently he includes alcoholic fermentation.)

comment by loqi · 2010-01-31T07:11:44.454Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2010/01/17/lindemans-lambic-framboise/

comment by Cyan · 2010-01-31T15:31:34.722Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My mistake.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T19:25:40.054Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So would you agree that my thesis is at least accurate for a portion of the population? (The thesis was, "People don't really like the taste but use the supposed taste and other reasons as an excuse for getting high in a socially acceptable way and keeping it legal to do so.")

I think people usually either find a taste they like when they drink (sometimes mixing in sweet drinks), or drink just for the alcohol and grow to like the taste over time. I doubt many people claim to drink solely for the taste: I've never heard anyone say this, though people who enjoy the buzz of alcohol also say they like the taste.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T19:32:45.263Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people usually either find a taste they like when they drink (sometimes mixing in sweet drinks), or drink just for the alcohol and grow to like the taste over time.

Again, this is something that could make anything taste good -- it's no evidence of liking the alcoholic drink. It's one of the very reasons I rolled my eyes at when people tried to convince me that I must actually like alcohol, because I like a certain drink that heavily dilutes the alcohol taste through sweetness.

I doubt many people claim to drink solely for the taste: I've never heard anyone say this, though people who enjoy the buzz of alcohol also say they like the taste.

I've certainly seen people put on that pretense, and, in any case, they certainly claim it's a driving factor, if for no other reason than the vastly varying prices for the same amount of alcohol.

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-29T21:04:35.426Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not particularly like the high of alcohol. However, I really like Belgian beer, and it has alcohol in it, sometimes large amounts, and it's a side effect I am willing to handle for the taste! Unfortunately, that side effect does mean I am forced to limit myself to about 3 beers in one sitting.

I wonder if you have never drank sufficiently good beer. It doesn't have to be that expensive even, super-high end beers are much cheaper than super-high end wine. $5-7 for a normal bottle, $30 for a bottle of the best beer in the world. http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/westvleteren-abt-12/4934/

If you're ever in Pittsburgh, I'll buy you a real beer at the Sharp Edge.

I also admit that your point is probably correct and I am something of an outlier -- and it's really just Belgian beer that I would drink despite the alcohol; most other beer and wine and liquor is nothing special.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:29:23.358Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the offer, and your input.

Pay attention, everyone. This is what it looks like when you really like drinking something, rather than its effect on your mind:

I do not particularly like the high of alcohol. However, I really like Belgian beer, and it has alcohol in it, sometimes large amounts, and it's a side effect I am wiling to handle for the taste! Unfortunately, that side effect does mean I am forced to limit myself to about 3 beers in one sitting.

When you start running into hard limits about how much of the stuff you can consume before deleterious effects on your body, and this is a downside to you, that definitely sounds like a serious enjoyment. (That's where I am regarding ice cream and many other sweets.)

In contrast, when there are very narrow situations in which you enjoy its "taste", and drink "just enough" to accomplish mild relaxation when you want to, um, mildly relax, well, then I start to get skeptical.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T19:52:34.266Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've certainly seen people put on that pretense, and, in any case, they certainly claim it's a driving factor, if for no other reason than the vastly varying prices for the same amount of alcohol.

I think I understand. We're talking about two different things.

You're saying, if I understand correctly, that there's a great deal of snobbery in alcohol drinking: people claim that expensive wines or liquors taste so much better, and this claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Outside of this snobbery, though, just in terms of friendly social drinking, almost everyone agrees that they drink because they enjoy the feeling, and the taste is just something they grew to like over time, or they mix it with something sweet to make it taste better.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T19:59:38.063Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Outside of this snobbery, though, just in terms of friendly social drinking, almost everyone agrees that they drink because they enjoy the feeling, and the taste is just something they grew to like over time, or they mix it with something sweet to make it taste better.

Um, no, and that's the problem. I have never been able to get people to admit that it's just about the mental effects, and that they have to find ways to make themselves tolerate the awful taste. Not without a lot of teeth-pulling, and people telling me about all the wonderful arguments against this position.

Again, it's the insistence that they like "this particular drink" because it's "so good" that bothers me. No, it's about getting high, and no one will talk about this.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T20:43:59.431Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised by this experimental result. In my experience most people say that it's about the mental effects as well as the taste. Just to be clear: over half the people you ask say that they don't drink alcohol for the mental effects at all, and it's solely about the taste?

I wonder if part of this is due to the way you're asking. You use language like "tolerate the awful taste", "suffer through", and compare it to hot sauce and engine oil. Obviously you strongly dislike the taste of alcohol. Not everyone does though; while I drink primarily for the mental effects, I also enjoy and have acquired a taste for some different types of alcohol, and I like some combinations of flavors when having a beer with food.

So maybe you're getting strong reactions in contrast to your extreme statements that alcohol tastes awful and no one could ever like the taste.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T20:51:49.149Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's more like this:

me: I think I'm strange. I don't like alcoholic drinks. I mean, I like the effect on me, but not the taste, not the process of drinking it.

them: Yeah, that is strange. I mean, I like margaritas.

me: Oh really? What do you like about them?

them: Well, I like them when I go out dancing...

me: No, I mean, like, about the taste.

them: Well, I like those really frozen ones with lots of different fruit flavors.

me: So you like the taste of those margaritas? What is it about the taste?

them: Um, well, it helps me to relax. [Alternate: It's kind of a social thing/social lubricant.]

me: *falls out of chair* Okay, so about the taste. Do you like the taste more than that of a milkshake?

them: Hm, that's a good question, I've never even thought of that. No, I like the milkshake much better.

me: *loses hope in humanity*

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-29T21:03:05.433Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would happen if you asked someone this:

me: So you like the taste of those margaritas? What is it about the taste?

And they answered your question? Specifically, would one good response cause you to rethink your theory on the subject? How many responses would you need to be convinced?

I am not saying I have those responses. I am just curious.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T21:08:11.434Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like the person here is saying he drinks for the mental effects ("it helps me to relax"), and that he doesn't mind the taste because it's mixed with things he likes ("fruit flavors"). This seems like the answer I'd expect.

Whereas it seems like you absolutely despise the taste, most people who drink don't mind it, and sometimes like it, especially when mixed with fruit or sweet tastes.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:04:03.772Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But they don't like it, "especially when mixed with fruit or sweet tastes (and taste-bud numbing ice, but whatever)". Rather, they like sweet, fruity, cold drinks, and still find them good, even if it is worsened with a little alcohol.

That, I think is the appropriate way to characterize it.. Again, remember my incessant point about baseline comparisons: if someone likes fruity sweetness, it's going to make pretty much anything (that doesn't clash) taste good. But so what? That doesn't mean they like the stuff its mixed with. It just means they like that fruity sweetness, and their enjoyment may persist even if the drink is degraded with other, worse flavors.

What's more, conversations like these (alarmingly typical) reveal that people aren't even thinking about the distinction between liking a drink for its taste, and liking it because they like getting high -- and nor are they interested in learning.

comment by AndyWood · 2010-01-30T01:02:05.837Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been watching this thread for a while, and as a frequent alcohol-drinker, I thought I would try to report my experience as honestly as I can manage:

  • Beer: In an absolute sense, I don't like the taste. Since some beers taste less bad - or more interesting - than others, I will sometimes comment that a particular beer tastes "really good". What I mean though, is that it tastes "really good" for a beer. I drink quite a lot of beer, because I usually prefer the slower, gentler, more controllable buzz to that of harder alcohol. I've heard plenty of women say they don't like beer. In some circles, it's considered unmanly for a man to say he doesn't like beer, and I expect that's why I hear it much less from men. In some situations, I take the praise of beer as shorthand for "I know we all don't have much in common, nor any real reason beyond company for hanging out, so lets go through the motions of affirming our mutual love for something that is safe to affirm mutual love for."
  • Wine: This is definitely all about the taste, but it's not at all the same category of taste as sugar or a milkshake. This is all about the complexity of dozens of interacting flavors. It is a kaleidescope that you "see" with your tongue. It's a taste experience by definition, but that doesn't mean that it is anything like the tastiness of a milkshake. The thrill is in the richness of the patterns that exist in the taste. Importantly, I find that only certain wines at certain ages produce this effect to a worthwhile degree. Lousy wine tastes lousy. A really good cabernet franc, say, can be the kind of amazing that makes me bolt upright in my chair and go wide-eyed. Really. As far as the alcohol component, it is such an intrinsic part of the taste-orchestra that I, unfortunately, find it impossible to speculate on whether I'd still drink wine without it. I think I would still drink it if it did not produce a buzz, although there would be one less reason. I think I would still like swishing it around, even if I was only going to spit it out. Needless to say, I find it to be an extremely pleasant way to get buzzed.
  • Mixed drinks/Hard alcohol: As far as I'm concerned, these have always existed solely as a fast-track to getting buzzed or drunk. For me, they might as well be an IV drip. I, however, administer them in the normal way, because it is normal and practical. Also, sipping lets me roughly calibrate my dosage to match others, and the situation.
  • Bat urine: I don't think this is a fair argument at all, because you cannot separate your disgust reaction from pure taste, in the experience of drinking something. Several bodily fluids have little/fairly neutral taste, but the experience of drinking it would still be disgusting.

I agree that most alcohol consumption is mainly about the buzz. I like different states of consciousness. The one induced by alcohol is not my favorite, but it's one I can enjoy without having to sneak around or worry about prison, so I make do with the (somewhat personally disappointing) political freedoms I have. I do drink wine for the taste - it just isn't the same kind of taste as anything else. It's a sensory-overload experience that happens to be delivered by the tongue.

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-29T22:34:17.911Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't it possible that a little bit of complex, astringent bitterness can actually make a sweet fruity drink more palatable? I wouldn't drink a virgin margherita; I honestly believe the tequilla and triple sec make it taste better.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:42:25.287Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't it possible that a little bit of complex, astringent bitterness can actually make a sweet fruity drink more palatable?

Hey, if that helps keep it legal and socially acceptable to get high ... sure, why not?

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-29T22:08:47.444Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like this whole argument is motivated out of a wish to make it socially acceptable to say "I don't like the taste of beer" by trying to paint everyone who disagrees as liars.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T22:30:43.495Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I think he simply hates the taste of alcohol so much that he can't conceive that someone could honestly like it.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:40:48.597Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You need to read my history again, for the first time. I initially did believe that I was just weird in not liking alcohol, or that it would come with time. It's the obvious, favored, simple hypothesis.

But I can only hold belief in it for so long until the shower of disconfirmatory evidence hits. When I look behind the veil and find out what it means for other people to like alcohol, and find that it matches up with what I consider not liking alcohol, well ... if anything, I held on to the belief too long.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-30T05:16:02.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you notice that I said that I don't match up with your criterion? Besides the fact that even that total list didn't seem to show that a person necessarily didn't like the taste of something.

You could at least modify your belief to "some people don't like the taste of alcohol but claim that they do for such and such reasons..." and then it would become more accurate, since surely this is likely true of at least some people, while it is surely not true of all who claim to like it.

For example, an area where your position has some truth is that there are guys who basically dislike any type of alcohol except sweet drinks, and these they like only because of the sweetness, but they are unwilling to admit it because this is thought to be "girlish". But at the same time, this is definitely untrue of many others.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T22:37:15.185Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I ask that you take serious note of the sympathy with which I've characterized these liars. I completely understand why they have to put on a show: anything that does to your mind what alcoholic drinks do, but doesn't have wide-scale social support from respectable people, is going to get banned or otherwise given severe restrictions. Such a pretense doesn't strike me as so wrong here.

What bothers me is the widespread refusal to acknowledge this, even in private.

comment by gregconen · 2010-01-30T17:48:50.671Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're missing a significant factor.

Many people don't drink alcohol primarily for the mental effects. Rather, there is a strong status penalty to drinking non-alcoholic beverages. Most non-alcoholic beverages are strongly associated with children, at least in the afternoon (juice and milk are OK at breakfast, not at dinner). Adults can't order them without sending an undesirable signal about their maturity.

Among the acceptable drinks, you're left with other "acquired tastes" (coffee and tea) or drinks that often give other low status signals (water alone is cheap, soft drinks are lower-class).

Once you've established that it's a status issue, the refusal to admit it is understandable, since open concern for status is generally a low-status trait. I don't agree with all of Robin Hanson's status explanations, but it makes sense here.

The mind-altering effects play into it as well. Even then, there are important signaling effects in play (Robin put up a post on that a bit ago). And ignoring taste totally is a mistake. Even if I might prefer a milkshake to an Irish creme, I definitely prefer an Irish creme to Everclear.

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-30T10:55:44.101Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Btw, I think your milkshake comparison needs to be between equal caloric portions.

I'd prefer 600 calories of milkshake to 600 calories of beer. But I would rather have one beer than one milkshake. For certain values of beer, beer is more delicious than milkshake per calorie.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:20:47.032Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why could per-calorie be the relevant metric? And why would a metric requiring you to consume the full five beers be helpful?

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-29T23:35:10.691Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

anything that does to your mind what alcoholic drinks do, but doesn't have wide-scale social support from respectable people

I'm confused. Are you saying that alcohol doesn't have wide-scale social support from respectable people? What society are we talking about?

I would guess that of the adult population in the US who drinks, at least 75% drink primarily for the mental effects and would have no problem saying so.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-29T23:51:51.364Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have trouble reading a full clause?

anything that does to your mind what alcoholic drinks do, but doesn't have wide-scale social support from respectable people, is going to get banned or otherwise given severe restrictions.

Understand now? If alcohol didn't have the social support it does, it would be Just Another Mind Altering Substance that would be banned, or that you'd need a prescription for.

Please, finish sentences before responding to them

comment by arundelo · 2010-01-30T14:39:12.371Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

SilasBarta, I too am puzzled at why Blueberry misunderstood you, but your response was needlessly rude.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:19:48.216Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you say it was more or less rude than clipping a sentence in two and responding to one that misrepresented what I said?

Do any of you intend to criticize/mod down Blueberry for his/her rudeness, or do you just reserve your rebukes for the diligent?

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-30T00:08:35.578Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have trouble reading a full clause?

I submit that

a) you're not really curious, b) expect any answer to come back negative, and c) aren't interested in arguing whether he can read a full clause anyway.

comment by loqi · 2010-01-30T10:36:52.592Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If alcohol didn't have the social support it does, it would be Just Another Mind Altering Substance that would be banned, or that you'd need a prescription for.

I find this difficult to swallow. Alcohol prohibition was a widely acknowledged disaster (or does this collective memory also count as "social support"?). The "Joe Sixpacks" of the nation aren't crooning over Miller's exquisite blend of hops, but they'd be up in arms if you tried to take it away.

And drug policy (at least in the US) isn't particularly consistent - if you don't believe me, feel free to conduct your own experiment with some high-potency salvia extract.

I doubt most people are worried even subconsciously about the reintroduction of prohibition. Why postulate a coordinated social response to such a non-threat?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-30T17:26:34.735Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find this difficult to swallow. Alcohol prohibition was a widely acknowledged disaster (or does this collective memory also count as "social support"?).

Yes it was a disaster -- because of alcohol's widespread social support, that led to the black market, inability to enforce, etc.

Hence my statement

If alcohol didn't have the social support it does, it would ... be banned, or ... need a prescription.

You also said:

I doubt most people are worried even subconsciously about the reintroduction of prohibition. Why postulate a coordinated social response to such a non-threat?

There are many measures short of prohibition that restrict alcohol. In trying to impose them, as society imposes restrictions on mind-altering substances, legislatures butt up against the social support for alcohol. Retaining this support is necessary for preventing these (otherwise reasonable) restrictions on alcohol.

comment by arundelo · 2010-01-30T14:28:50.828Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Salvia is both new and little known in comparison to marijuana, LSD, cocaine, heroin, meth, etc.

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-30T10:52:37.610Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is getting perilously close to politics, but the difference with alcohol is the great history of human use. Alcohol was one of the first drugs regularly consumed by humans. A lot of culture has developed around that. Prohibition failed because it tried to outlaw the culture. Cannabis and psychedelics were also used by pre-modern humans, but the government could outlaw the other drugs without a people's revolt because the average person didn't use cannabis and psychedelics. The average person did and does use alcohol.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-29T15:52:41.926Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Guiness wins in this regard.)

Of note, Guinness has a lower alcohol content than most beer.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-29T14:28:46.135Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem, though, is that supertasters are estimated at 25% of the population. So why aren't 25% of people voicing my opinion on alcohol? Why would they stay silent about hating it, while drinking it for social and psychoactive benefits?

More anecdotal evidence: Over 1/4 of the people I know do not drink alcohol in any form. The society I am from is probably atypical in this regard.

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-29T03:21:11.628Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would think training yourself to like chocolate would be a lot easier than training yourself to like coffee.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-01T21:13:55.924Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Manipulating coffee into a good tasting form isn't too hard; just add a lot of sugar and dilute it with enough milk, and it'll probably taste pretty good even if you think black coffee tastes like dirt. (And then, if you want, you can reduce the amount of milk and sugar over time.)

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T23:33:02.572Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think that's what my point comes down to: so you like beer after being pressured by friends to drink it for five years. Then, by simple force of habit, you come to like it -- your tastes change.

[...] But stop telling me beer tastes good.

I like the taste of a particular beer and came to that conclusion after having about 4 beers before it in my lifetime. Not 4 servings of that particular beer, but 4 servings total. I understand acquired taste and claim that this does not qualify for that label. I liked it. I though it tasted good.

I assume you are not saying, "beer always tastes bad for everyone until they get conditioned by society." That is what it sounds like to me, however. Is beer just an example for the sake of convenience?

ETA: Similarly, Homer's The Odyssey isn't good. Rather, a bunch of people have a tradition of reading it that they pass on and get the next generation to perpetuate. But what the heck am I supposed to learn about good writing from that, other than:

Is it plausible that it is good? Or has that scenario been completely rejected from your worldview? I haven't read it, personally, so I really have no idea if it is or isn't.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-02-01T20:58:35.616Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are adaptations of The Odyssey that are pretty fun to read. I agree that direct translations tend to have issues, though; thousands of years of cultural change, the loss of lyrical elements through translation, the change in medium from oral recitation to print, and many other factors I can't think of at the moment all make the story much less impressive than it must have been back in ancient times.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T22:06:41.089Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Likewise, there are practices that can make people like something. But there's no point to saying, "Hey, after this practice, people like it!" That conveys no information -- it's true for everything. Like with placebo cures, I want to know what is good above and beyond that that results from standard "make something seem good" tricks.

Is it fair to say that you are looking for a way to predict "good" art before it enters the cultural status stream?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T22:49:48.728Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not in the sense that I want to predict the next big thing.

What I'm looking for is, what portion is due to actual merit of the artwork, that people would appreciate even in the absence of others pressuring them to like it, or the signaling effects of displaying it to others?

I have often focused on scenarios where you can get a judgment before cultural effects interfere, but these aren't strictly necessary. Like with the placebo example I keep giving, there are ways to see what is due to some effect that will make anything look good, and what effect is due to the actual merit. The hoaxes that others have referenced are good examples of this.

Does that answer your question?

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T23:20:45.894Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this does answer my question.

The followup question: How useful is being able to identify "bad" art? Is it a step toward the same direction of identifying merit?

(Good and bad as I am using it means value from actual merit and ignores all peer pressure or signaling effects.)

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:28:05.203Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very useful: in the future, we want to have machines that can make the same (peer-pressure-free) art classifications that humans would, so they can pop out art themselves. Bad art is nearly as useful as good art in helping to train such a machine and identify the algorithms humans use to make these judgments.

But when the field of art has been corrupted to the point where it's just a pure status game, there is no such classifier that can be learned. The only machine you're going to be making is one that looks human, and hobnobs its way up the social ladder so that it can learn what the elites think, and render judgments in that way.

(I made the same critique about some Japanese researchers' quixotic attempt to build a machine that determines how much humans will like a given wine, based on chemical analysis. Hey guys -- it ain't the chemical composition of a wine that makes people like it!)

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T23:37:36.203Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cool. Yeah, I pretty much agree with everything here and don't have anything to add. I think this comment nails the subject on the head.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T22:11:49.699Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My point is that it doesn't matter if it's about signaling or not. Quests for status pervade every aspect of human life and are inescapable. These people believe what they believe and get upset when you bring it up for the same reason that you will object if I said you're only interested in pointing out their status-questing for your own status-questing. "I don't care about status" is everyone's conceit.

EDIT: Just to expand on this a little bit - I'm saying that the desire to point out their cognitive dissonance is motivated by status, as well, and that further, neither of these is worse than the other when rating by sincerity or honesty.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T22:35:21.559Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My point is that it doesn't matter if it's about signaling or not. Quests for status pervade every aspect of human life and are inescapable.

Yes, and the placebo effect in cures is inescapable. But there's still a part of the cure that is due to genuine biochemical effects from the medicine rather than the belief that it will work.

Likewise, I want to know the portion of art -- and alcohol -- that is due to more than just those things that could rook anyone into liking them. If, as it seems, in many cases, there is no such portion -- if it's all about being conditioned to like it in a way that could work for bat urine -- then I don't consider those things good, and I wish people would stop putting on the pretense that they are.

Science passes this test with flying colors: no amount of phony, meaningless papers by status jockeying scientists and engineers is going to get an airplane off the ground (without ripping apart) or an extremely powerful bomb to go off. The buck stops somewhere. Where does the art buck stop? Where does the drink quality buck stop?

These people believe what they believe and get upset when you bring it up for the same reason that you will object if I said you're only interested in pointing out their status-questing for your own status-questing. "I don't care about status" is everyone's conceit.

Yes, that would explain why someone's won't say to my face the real reasons they drink. But in an online discussion with 90% anonymous handles: what's holding them back?

Just to expand on this a little bit - I'm saying that the desire to point out their cognitive dissonance is motivated by status,

That may be a part of it. But read the link thomblake gave to my earlier thread: I was experiencing really weird data. People seemed to be experiencing the same internal state as me, but using different labels for it.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T23:04:25.330Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The buck stops with you, because art isn't a competition. Maybe it is for the artists, but not from your end - it's just what you enjoy.

I have a copy of a painting hanging in my living room that I won't name here, but it's very popular and famous (and therefore kind of stupid to have hanging in my living room, because it doesn't really show off my taste as refined). But I get a lot out of it. I love looking at it.

If an art student came in and wanted to try to condescend to me about my taste in art, what could I do? I'd look at him and say, "This painting does for me what art is supposed to do for people. I don't have the time or energy to devote to refining my taste. I admit your taste in art is more refined and you might get more out of a Picasso than I do, because I don't get much."

If he still wants to look down his nose at me, who gives a shit? Get out of my house, right? But I think the true art-lover will say, "I'm glad you experience something that's so meaningful to me, even if your taste is blunter and cruder than mine."

I think this is analogous to if the art student came to me and said, "I never realized how cool the Pythagorean theorem is before. It's amazing." Do I look at him and say, "Wow, you're an idiot"? I would hope not; I would hope to think to myself, "Well, it's a start," and say, "Right?!"

ETA: I'd be calling him an idiot because he's only getting it now, and not back when he learned it for the first time in high school and I realized how cool it was.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:17:09.249Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The buck stops with you, because art isn't a competition. Maybe it is for the artists, but not from your end - it's just what you enjoy. ... If he still wants to look down his nose at me, who gives a shit? Get out of my house, right? But I think the true art-lover will say, "I'm glad you experience something that's so meaningful to me, even if your taste is blunter and cruder than mine."

I'm sorry, but that's a very naive view of "how it works". The elite art cadre certainly promotes the belief that there's a lot more to art than what you or I personally like. They're the ones that influence, by their status, what students will be indoctrinated in, and what artworks they will be expected to deem good, even as construction workers mistake the "good" stuff for trash. (This has happened before.) Even as the "art" in front of public buildings, under the full endorsement of the art elite, is a blight on the landscape.

If it were just a matter of "enjoy what you like", I'd have the same view as you do. But there is significant money spent indoctrinating students in one view of art -- which unlike science, lacks a stopping-buck. There is the pretense that you have to enjoy Shakespeare, or the latest splotches on a canvas, to "truly" appreciate art. And as long as they promote their priesthood that decides which art is blessed, and gets the huge grants for museums to "study" and promote it, even as they cant substantiate their opinions ... well, then I have a problem.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T23:25:24.858Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But why do those things bother you, except in that you don't like being told you're low status unless you jump through certain hoops?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:31:09.749Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do I really need to explain why it's bad for people to be wealthy and high status depsite never having produced anything of value, and spend all their time perpetuating what is essentially an information cascade?

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T23:42:16.967Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quite a judgment there, "nothing of value"! Because people have to be trained to appreciate it, it's of no value?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:48:18.408Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not just the fact that people have to be trained. After all, people must be trained in order to read or use a computer.

The problem is that there's no clear standard for what counts as successful training. You can check for whether someone can read (at a given level) using tests that everyone will agree about for the results. How do you know when someone's gotten the right "art appreciation training"? "Oh, well, you see, you have to join our club, and hand around only our people for years and years, and then we still get fooled by monkeys ..."

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T23:56:28.660Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you know there's no clear standard? You're not an artist.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-28T23:58:16.794Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Falsifiability, basically. Or lack thereof.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:57:33.916Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, my first hint was when the work of a monkey was mistaken for that of an award-winning artist...

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-29T00:08:52.517Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Why shouldn't I?

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T23:33:55.179Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Arts funding with tax dollars is one particularly direct example.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-29T15:22:06.441Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"But in an online discussion with 90% anonymous handles: what's holding them back?"

Once again, this is simply very strong evidence that you are wrong. The reason people are insistent is because they happen to know what they like.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-29T02:39:00.940Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where does the art buck stop?

With, in the absence of anything better, bucks.

Where does the drink quality buck stop?

Well, there's always the blind taste tests where people of various degrees of drink quality naivety rank drinks. Which reliably produce a negative correlation with the elite feedback loop!

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T21:07:47.826Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm claiming that Pollock's work demonstrated easily-neglected and valuable parts of the aesthetic experience.

As for evidence against that hypothesis, I think that depends largely upon how seriously you take some of the relevant premises in your wacko's model. According to some, there is virtually nothing to all of culture other than status games (though in this case the clause "despite there being nothing special about his work" would make little sense). According to others, there really is quite a bit to aesthetics, and perhaps it's worth listening to the folks who've spent their lives studying it.

There are a lot of different kinds of things in the world, and many of them are valuable in unexpected ways.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T21:28:01.236Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So you really can't think of anything that is less likely to be observed if "it's all bullshit" than if it's not? There isn't any kind of aesthetic feeling you could feed to the wacko that he couldn't help but burst out in appreciation for?

As for evidence against that hypothesis, I think that depends largely upon how seriously you take some of the relevant premises in your wacko's model.

Not when I'm asking for evidence with a low Bayes factor, rather than a guaranteed low posterior.

Maybe an example would be in order. Let's say Bob is the wacko, but about quantum physics. Bob believe that the claims of quantum physics are just a big status game, and so are the results of the particle accelerators and everything. I could point to evidence like the atom bomb. If they were just arguing over meaningless crap the whole time, and assigning truth purely based on who has the most status, how did they ever get the understanding necessary to build an atom bomb, Bob?

There are a lot of different kinds of things in the world, and many of them are valuable in unexpected ways.

Right, like Halo. Except that millions of people like Halo even in the absence of a well-funded indoctrination campaign, and the fact that expressing appreciation for Halo won't endear them to the kewl kids of art.

It's not very impressive if people start to enjoy something after they've

spent their lives studying it.

You have to adjust for stuff like that.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T21:09:51.313Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well said!

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-01-28T19:53:01.943Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand...

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T20:05:11.178Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meh.

Never trust a site with that many banners.

I, for one, have never heard seriously disparaging things about 19th-century or Academic art in general, and the essay sounds a bit... rabid. It seems like the writer was operating under the common heuristic "I don't understand it, so it must be stupid."

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T22:53:51.462Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And I never trust anyone that says, "No, no, this stuff is good, it really is! Just pay for 10 years worth of education in this specific area, and then you'll see the light!"

(Note the similarity to Scientology practices...)

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-01-28T23:04:32.898Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But then what do you do when something really does take that long to explain? People say category theory is beautiful; is the nonmathematician supposed to call them liars?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:09:41.828Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Category theory doesn't take 10 years to explain. You should be able to explain to a willing, intelligent friend in two full days, and get them to a point where they see the beauty.

I've done similar things, like explaining the elegant beauty of aircraft component structural analysis -- got a decent appreciation across in 10 minutes. ("You know how a chain is as strong as its weakest link? A component is as strong as its weakest failure mode...")

The point is, you can explain it. That's a lot more than you can do for (much of) art, it seems.

comment by komponisto · 2010-01-28T23:23:58.685Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is, you can explain it. That's a lot more than you can do for (much of) art, it seems.

Art can be explained. There just aren't that many people capable of explaining it; explaining things is a difficult skill.

comment by loqi · 2010-01-29T02:38:23.822Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you know that art can be explained, then presumably you've encountered an explanation of it. Any chance you could point us in the direction of it?

comment by komponisto · 2010-01-30T03:57:11.146Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See my other comment.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-28T23:35:22.676Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How are you so sure that's the problem? What distinguishes the state of art right now, from one where there is no justification for why one work is more artistic than other, and it's just the blind leading the blind, everyone eventually claiming they can see the Emporer's clothes?

And FWIW, there really aren't many things that are hard to explain (given enough time) -- just people who don't understand their own fields.

comment by komponisto · 2010-01-30T03:52:31.118Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How are you so sure that's the problem? What distinguishes the state of art right now, from one where there is no justification for why one work is more artistic than other, and it's just the blind leading the blind, everyone eventually claiming they can see the Emporer's clothes?

The world is big and complex, and contains lots of different things. There is plenty of pseudo-art out there, no question -- just like there is plenty of pseudo-science. But for reasons that aren't immediately obvious (though some hypotheses do suggest themselves after a bit of thought), people regard pseudo-art as diminishing the credibility of Art as a pursuit, while not doing the same with pseudoscience vis-a-vis Science.

I should admit that I'm really only expertly-familiar with one particular art form (music), so the following is largely extrapolation as it applies to others -- but I can't imagine that the situation isn't similar.

There is a direct analog of inferential distance in art. In fact, "analog" may not be the right word; it may just literally be a form of inferential distance. Experience and training make a huge difference with respect to how a work is perceived. This is an effect quite independent of social clique-formation; it's simply the result of one's brain working along a certain path for a long time, after which it becomes difficult for others who haven't traveled the same path to follow one's thoughts. Unfortunately, this fact is not sufficiently appreciated; people simply expect inferential distances to be short.

Given this, it's clearly possible that one could slowly retrace the path for the benefit of others, in many small steps, eventually bringing them along to where one is. But most people with advanced artistic knowledge do not have this skill, and most people without advanced artistic knowledge don't expect them to, because they don't expect art to need to be explained. So it shouldn't be surprising that there aren't a lot of really good art explanations around.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-31T04:15:32.312Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be careful with invocation of inferential distance. It's not a get-out-of-explanation-free card you get to use whenever you have a hard time justifying a belief (not that you were trying to use it this way, but some standards have to be met -- see below).

There are many reasons why you could have a hard time explaining a concept to someone. It could be that the concept is mush to begin with, and only kept afloat by a common agreement by insiders not to call anyone out. It could be that you don't actually understand it, in the rationalist sense of having a moving-parts model, where black boxes play a minimal role, and which is connected deeply to the rest of your understanding of the world.

And finally, it could be that there are many intermediate concepts that you mistakenly, but reasonably, assumed others were familiar with, and which take a lot of time to explain. That is the problem of inferential distance. But you have to first rule out the first two possibilities. Then -- and only then -- do you get to cite inferential distance.

You say that most people who claim to understand art just can't bring others through. But why can't you point me to one who has? Isn't it kind of strange that there are sources that can take you through the inferential distance for all of those topics that aren't BS, but you don't even know of the existence of one that could close the gap for art? And that you don't believe you can close the gap?

And if it were truly clique-independent, why would we see things like monkey art hoax, where the art expert -- and it was some identified in advance as an expert -- violated pretty basic conservation of evidence principles. On being informed it was a monkey rather than someone the entire community has given awards to, her reaction was: "Well, I guess it looked kind of rushed."

Why don't these experts have the understanding necessary to say, "you liar"?

You say you are an expert in one area of art. I accept that you have a broad knowledge of music. I accept that you have passed the standards typically required to count as an expert in music. What I question is whether you pass the criteria here to count as an expert, which are about whether you have made it truly part of yourself:

If you deleted your knowledge of art in this area, would it grow back? By some method other than someone giving you the blankly solid facts about which pieces are an aren't art? Would you rate them the same way, for the same reasons? If you harbor any doubts you need to go back to the first two hypotheses I mentioned before you can start appealing to inferential distance.

comment by komponisto · 2010-01-28T23:12:27.493Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

At least where category theory is concerned, you don't have to pay.

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-28T19:35:38.439Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Disliking Pollock is irrational. As is disliking Cage. Or Joyce. Or PEZ.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-28T19:37:07.652Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love 4'33". It helps me get to sleep.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T19:59:24.368Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

People can get the humor and still downvote you.

I didn't vote one way or the other.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-28T19:47:42.244Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Edit: OMG! Is my humor too subtle people? PEZ!

It was, yes - maybe we need to make emoticons more normal here, since this is a recurring problem. :P

(Downvote removed)

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T20:45:57.165Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

maybe we need to make emoticons more normal here, since this is a recurring problem.

But then how will we signal our sophistication and mutually affirm our status as an intellectual subculture? ;)

comment by loqi · 2010-01-29T02:32:51.851Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anime references. Duh.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-28T20:47:55.924Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

:P~

;D

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T20:43:40.313Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neutral vote. I like the PEZ juxtaposition but 'arational' would fit better. A simply false assertion doesn't fit well with the irony.

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-29T00:01:43.128Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As it was mocking bgrah's assertion, and bgrah used "unrational", and in my estimation his meaning was closer to "irrational" than "arational", I used the former. Perhaps using "unrational" would have been better, though.

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T19:44:52.639Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just consider it evidence of the level of culture you'll find hereabouts. Savages.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T02:09:45.034Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow! My brain can automatically reconstruct a 3D image from limited 2D input and even compensate for shadows and lighting.

I know! How bizarre! ;)

comment by AndyWood · 2010-01-27T19:55:46.424Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am being stupid when my eye looks at this illusion and I interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors.

Not at all. In the context of the scene that this picture represents, A and B are absolutely different shades. On the contrary, I think your perceptual system would be poor indeed if it did not reconstruct context, and under-interpreted the picture as a meaningless 2D array of pixels.

(BTW, as with the necker cube, I find that I can consciously exert to experience the interpretation that I choose, without too much difficulty.)

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-27T22:03:13.760Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm. I can with the necker cube, but not at all with this one.

comment by AndyWood · 2010-01-27T22:13:39.575Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was never able to do it with this one before, either. What I'm doing now is concentrating hard on the two tiles of interest, until the rest of the picture fades into the background. The two tiles then seem to be floating on a separate top layer, and appear to be the same shade.

comment by XFrequentist · 2010-01-28T02:51:29.432Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That worked! Cool!

comment by MatthewB · 2010-01-28T08:12:03.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you go to an Art or Design school. Seeing and producing illusions like this is one of the assignments that they usually will give you in a 2D design class.

As it has been described above, if you can concentrate (if school, we learn how to look at them by squinting as we would when discerning simple shape or color - or, if you have ever learned how to look at one of those weird 3D images made out of what looks to be paint splatter) on the two squares, then you will be able to see that they are indeed the same shade (not color, color is used to describe something else)

comment by Kevin · 2010-01-28T11:36:44.158Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, that worked for me. For people wondering how to do the technique to see "Magic Eye " images, you focus your eyes so that the image doubles and and overlaps the image. That causes a stereoscopic illusion when done on any things that overlap. You could practice it here. Focus your eyes so that the the first abc overlaps the second abc -- now you have three abc's in your vision, the 1st and 3rd abc are being seen out of one eye and the abc in the middle appears to be almost 3d.

a...b...c......................a...b...c

In this case, I could see that A and B are the same color by tilting my head and then focusing so I saw a double image of A overlapping B.

comment by MatthewB · 2010-01-29T08:02:25.573Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exactly... We spent a total of 6 weeks in Art School design class learning how to do this specific trick with a variety of images. From color, to line length (you know those "which line is longer" tricks that make you think one line is longer when they are usually the same length), to line thickness, to shading and tinting aliasing.

We spent those weeks consuming a lot of aspirin and Tylenol.

comment by Jack · 2010-01-28T08:18:10.494Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, when I try this technique the shades seem even more distinct.

comment by MatthewB · 2010-01-28T11:21:12.425Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It takes some practice.

We were taught that if you put your nose right in the center of the image, and then let your focus go, and pull back from the image, that at a certain distance from the image (as your focus is still at ∞) various structures of the image will begin to resolve. So contrasts, similarities, and shades will all resolve at different focal lengths from the image.

It was rare that any one person would be able to pick up immediately upon all the effects perceptible in an image. I was able to pick up on certain shades of the color green that are used in contrast to red, but it took me a long time to get the shading of black-white (as in this optical illusion - and it is but one of many).

When we were tested on this, we would not be told what was similar, or where optical tricks were used, and we would have to pick them out of an image (and this was long before the internet, so we couldn't just go online to do a search for optical illusions to find images to study that had their illusions spelled out for us). So, it is a skill that can be learned. For me, eventually I had to learn how to focus upon each square with a different eye, while squinting, and letting the focus go back and forth between my right and left eye. eventually, I get the images resolved as a single shade as I go back and forth between my eyes.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T03:56:49.429Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found two ways to do it myself:

(A) Cover up areas of the image to see what causes what to change color in your perception. Slowly reveal the full image again and sometimes A and B look alike

(B) Let your focus drift until the lines of the image get fuzzy. Look at the two squares without actually looking at them. I find that the colors look alike here. If I "snap" focus back they still look alike but nothing is fuzzy anymore.

B works better.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-27T22:39:06.098Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point of the illusion is that they seem different in context. Ignoring context to make them appear similar isn't a proper resolution.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T20:48:25.068Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand this. Are you saying that A and B are not the same color?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T21:22:07.851Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

AndyWood gave a good explanation, but let me elaborate. If you saw the scene depicted, but in real life -- rather than on a flat paper or 2D screen -- you would be correct to infer that the actual, invariant colors of the tiles are different. But, since they are just pixels on paper or a screen, their invariant colors are the same, and yet your eyes tell you otherwise.

So are the eyes "wrong" in any serious sense? Well, let me put it this way: do you want

a) a visual system that gives the right interpretation of scenes that you are actually going to encounter often, but is tripped up by carefully designed optical illusions?

or do you want:

b) a visual system that gives the right interpretation for carefully designed optical illusions, but fails to catch many attributes of common scenes?

(Yes, there is a tradeoff. Your visual system encounters an "inverse optics" problem: given the retina images, what is the scene you're looking at made of? This is ill-posed: many scenes can generate the same retinal images. E.g. a given square could be far away and big, or close and small. To constrain the solution set, you need assumptions, and any set of assumptions will get some scenes wrong.)

Yes, you are wrong to think that the tiles have different colors. You are not wrong to prefer a visual system that gets most scenes right at the cost of getting a few scenes (like this one) wrong.

(Incidentally, I really like this optical illusion, and have it by my desk at work. What's so great about it is that once you see it, you can actually strip away everything that you think is causing the illusion, and yet they still look different!)

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-27T20:58:35.238Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your understanding of the word 'colour' does not match what properties of the world your brain is trying to identify and categorize when it interprets 'colour'. The interesting constant property of objects in the world that makes 'colour' useful to your visual system for purposes of object identification and categorization is really the surface properties that interact with incident lighting. Your brain attempts to ignore effects due to lighting variation and assign a 'colour' label to objects that is more or less an invariant property of the surface under a variety of different lighting conditions. This is in general not a solvable problem since the same incident photons can be produced by a number of different lighting and material combinations. Optical illusions like this merely reveal the heuristics your visual system uses to identify the relevant constant aspects of the scene and ignore the irrelevant lighting variation. They generally work quite well.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-27T21:09:26.539Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When we covered this phenomenon in my psychology degree it was referred to as colour constancy. I now work as a 3D graphics programmer and so know a lot about the physics of light transport. The illusion does not surprise me any more, in fact it seems a little surprising that I ever could have thought that the RGB colour value of an onscreen pixel was directly related to the property of objects in the real world that we call 'colour'.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T21:47:50.907Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well said (including your later comment about color constancy). Along the same lines, this is why cameras often show objects in shadows as blacked out -- because that's the actual image it's getting, and the image your own retinas get! It's just that your brain has cleverly subtracted out the impact of the shadow before presenting it to you, so you can still see significant contrast and colors in the shadowed objects.

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-27T22:14:25.678Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Along the same lines, this is why cameras often show objects in shadows as blacked out -- because that's the actual image it's getting, and the image your own retinas get! It's just that your brain has cleverly subtracted out the impact of the shadow before presenting it to you

That doesn't explain why faithful reproductions of images with shadows don't prompt the same reinterpretation by your brain.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-27T23:32:35.030Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Blacked out shadows are generally an indication of a failure to generate a 'faithful' reproduction due to dynamic range limitations of the camera and/or display medium. There is a fair amount of research into how to work around these limitations through tone mapping. High Dynamic Range cameras and displays are also an area of active research. There's not really anything to explain here beyond the fact that we currently lack the capture or display capability to faithfully reproduce such scenes.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T23:00:48.645Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure it does -- Faithful reproductions give the shadowed portion the appropriate colors for matching how your brain would perceive a real-life shadowed portion of a scene.

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-27T23:26:08.236Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Umm, that's not what I meant by "faithful reproductions", and I have a hard time understanding how you could have misunderstood me. Say you took a photograph using the exact visual input over some 70 square degrees of your visual field, and then compared the photograph to that same view, trying to control for all the relevant variables*. You seem to be saying that the photograph would show the shadows as darker, but I don't see how that's possible. I am familiar with the phenomenon, but I'm not sure where I go wrong in my thought experiment.

* photo correctly lit, held so that it subtends 70 square degrees of your visual field, with your head in the same place as the camera was, etc.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T23:31:17.154Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought you meant "faithful" in the sense of "seeing this is like seeing the real thing", not "seeing this is learning what your retinas actually get". If you show a photograph that shows exactly what hit the film (no filters or processing), then dark portions stay dark.

When you see the scene in real life, you subtract off the average coloring that can be deceiving. When you see the photo, you see it as a photo, and you use your current real-life-background and lighting to determine the average color of your visual field. The darkness on the photo deviates significantly from this, while it does not so deviate when you're immersed in the actual scene, and have enough information about the shadow for your brain to subtract off the excessive blackness.

Been a long day, hope I'm making sense.

comment by AndyWood · 2010-01-27T22:08:24.717Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As others have pointed out, the difficulty here is more in the semantics of "color" than in the optics.

As a simplification, we can consider the projected color.P of a tile to be a product of its surface properties (color.S) and the intensity of the incident light. The illusion straightforwardly contrives one of these terms - the light intensity - so that the color.P of tile A equals the color.P of tile B. But the brain, interpreting the image as a 3D scene with light and shadow, reports the color.S-es of the tiles, which are different under that very reasonable and useful interpretation.

I'm sorry if this is a big distraction from the point of your post. I'm still interested in the point, so perhaps you can find another way of getting it across.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T22:45:56.846Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As others have pointed out, the difficulty here is more in the semantics of "color" than in the optics.

Yeah. I missed the semantic shift. All it took was someone pointing out that there were two uses of Color drifting around and almost all the comments snapped back into making sense.

I'm sorry if this is a big distraction from the point of your post. I'm still interested in the point, so perhaps you can find another way of getting it across.

The point is that an illusion generally gives off a sense of bizarreness because we are expecting X but the illusion gives us Y. In the case of the color example, I once expected boxes A and B to appear to be the same color (perceived) if and only if they were the same color (RGB). The illusion shows this is not the case. Being curious, I sought to understand the underlying principles behind why we perceive two different colors. Once this is understood, the illusion should no longer seem bizarre but a trivial example of the underlying principles.

In trying to find where I went wrong with the post, I come up with this:

  • "Color" is an extremely ambiguous term. I should have seen this one coming.
  • I think some people thought I was trying to give an explanation of the illusion in the post. I was not.
  • I think some people thought I was saying that the visual system itself was stupid or broken and we needed to "fix" our brain to adjust for its shortcomings. I was not. I was trying to say that our feeling of "bizarre" was stupid because we are expecting something different from our visual system than what the visual system provides.
  • I deliberately wrote this post more aggressively and concisely than I generally write. Perhaps this degraded its clarity even further.

I am half tempted to take this post down, rewrite it, and put it back up, but I don't know how much that would help.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T23:08:03.254Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, don't do anything that takes down the comment section. Many of the comments are insightful and, um, say things that should have been in your original post.

Demystifying optical illusions, and visual cognition in general, is a very good exercise in rationalist reduction.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T23:22:22.711Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay. Do you think it would be valuable to just edit the post in place?

As best as I can tell, these are the trouble paragraphs:

Today I looked at the above illusion and thought, "Why do I keep thinking A and B are different colors? Obviously, that is not what my visual system is trying to tell me." I am being stupid when my eye looks at this illusion and I interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors. That information is not being transmitted and received. If it were, the illusion wouldn't be an illusion.

An optical illusion is only bizarre if you are making a bad assumption about how your visual system is supposed to be working. It is a flaw in the Map, not the Territory. I should stop thinking that the system is reporting True Colors. It isn't. And, now that I know this, I am suddenly curious about what it is reporting. I have dropped a bad belief and am looking for a replacement. Once I have found the right answer, this optical illusion should become as uninteresting as questioning whether 1 is prime. It should stop being weird, bizarre, and incredible. It should highlight an obvious reality.

Is this better?:

Today I looked at the above illusion and thought, "Why do I keep thinking A and B are different colors? Obviously, something is wrong with how I am thinking about colors." I am being stupid when I look at this illusion and interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors. My expectations of Reality and the information being transmitted and received are not lining up. If it were, the illusion wouldn't be an illusion.

An optical illusion is only bizarre if you are making a bad assumption about how your visual system is supposed to be working. It is a flaw in the Map, not the Territory. I should stop thinking that the system is reporting True Colors. It isn't. And, now that I know this, I am suddenly curious about what it is reporting. I have dropped a bad belief and am looking for a replacement. In this case, the visual system is distinguishing between [what term goes here?], not individual RGB style colors. Now that I have right answer, this optical illusion should become as uninteresting as questioning whether 1 is prime. It stops being weird, bizarre, and incredible. It merely highlights an obvious reality.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T00:07:48.587Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that you are still using the word colour in a way that suggests you haven't really grasped the insight that makes this illusion seem not-bizarre. That insight is fundamentally that the statement "this ball is blue" is not equivalent to the statement "a digital photo of a scene containing this ball would have pixel values of 0, 0, 255 at pixel locations where light from the ball reached the sensor". It is a much more complex (and more useful) statement than that. The bad assumption is that 'colour' when used to refer to a property of objects in the world determined through visual perception has any simple relationship with RGB values recorded by a digital camera. You still seem to be talking as if RGB values are somehow 'true' colours.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-28T01:37:54.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The bad assumption is that 'colour' when used to refer to a property of objects in the world determined through visual perception has any simple relationship with RGB values recorded by a digital camera.

Especially in the case of human tetrachromats.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T00:22:30.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am trying to find a way to say what you said with one phrase or word. I feel like I am struggling to find a term.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T00:35:30.994Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the key for me in understanding this type of illusion (and the general phenomenon of colour constancy) was to realize that 'colour' in common usage ("this ball is blue") is perceived as a property of objects and we infer it indirectly based on light that reaches our retinas. That light also has a 'colour' (subtly different meaning) but it is not something we perceive directly because it is not very useful in itself.

This makes perfect sense when you think about it from an evolutionary perspective - we evolved to recognize invariant properties of objects in the world (possibly fruit in trees for primates) under widely varying lighting conditions. Directly perceiving the 'colour' (RGB) of light would not tell us anything very useful about invariant object properties. There is enough overlap between the two meanings of colour for them to be easily confused however and that is really the root of this particular illusion.

In computer graphics we commonly use the term 'material' to describe the set of properties of a surface that govern how it responds to incident light. This encompasses properties beyond simple colour ("shiny blue ball", "matte blue ball", "metallic blue ball"). I don't know if that usage is well understood outside of the computer graphics field however.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T01:12:39.050Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I completely agree with you. At this point, I am just trying to clean up the article to help clarify the answer behind the illusion. Does the phrase, "I should stop thinking that the visual system is reporting RGB style colors" mesh okay? That is the only location of RGB as of this edit.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T01:15:48.617Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think 'RGB colours' is better than 'True Colours' in this context.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T01:21:58.310Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. Do you have any other suggestions that may help clarify the article? Your explanations have been very helpful. Learning the terms was apparently something I never bothered to do. Oops. :P

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-28T01:41:05.903Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The article reads better now. So do you feel the bizarreness has disappeared now you understand the phenomenon better?

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T02:01:32.894Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. The key point that you mentioned here:

I think the key for me in understanding this type of illusion (and the general phenomenon of colour constancy) was to realize that 'colour' in common usage ("this ball is blue") is perceived as a property of objects and we infer it indirectly based on light that reaches our retinas.

This happened sometime this morning. The more I read here, the more I understand it in the sense that I know the name of the relevant field, a whole bunch of new terms, and more details about how we perceive colors. It gets less and less bizarre as the day goes, which is always fun. :)

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-28T00:32:49.133Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How is "Color gross of lighting conditions"?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T23:26:23.809Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you're trying to come up with a sentence or two that captures all of the insight on color that the commenters have given. While I'm a big fan of summarizing, and a big critic of those who can't, I don't think you can get it to work here. Instead of your final bolded change (the others are good), just point to or quote a few good comments that show what the visual system is doing, and how the optical illusions trick it.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T23:33:58.427Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How about:

In this case, the visual system is not trying to distinguish between individual RGB style colors (more details in the comments).

EDIT: I updated it with something similar. Hopefully it was an improvement. :) Thanks again for your help (which isn't to say that I wouldn't mind more help...)

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-27T23:16:56.625Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am half tempted to take this post down, rewrite it, and put it back up, but I don't know how much that would help.

Taking this and SilasBarta's thoughts together: can you apply this same meta-principle to something substantially different in a new post, written with a recognition of these confusions? That post could cite this post with a "Followup to:" line, and elaborate on your discovery in some way.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T23:23:42.796Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would it be better to just replace the content of this post? I can archive the original in a comment here for future context.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-28T03:06:52.410Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be disinclined to that course, but hard-pressed to justify it more effectively than by my idiosyncratic generalization of one of a number of principles I have heard - I quote from the post:

Don't try to rewrite history. Look, we make mistakes. We all do. Sometimes we post an essay and we get stuff wrong in it. Sometimes that stuff makes the whole essay wrong. Sometimes, we put up an essay innocently and it turns into a firestorm of controversy we never meant. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a crucible on all sides.

The temptation is to go back. Revise. Reword what we said. Take the essay down entirely.

It is never a good idea. Ever.

I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of in this post. It's not deep, it's not extraordinary in its conclusions, but it is correct and brief. The complaints seem to me best addressed by elaboration and discussion - things which require far more than a brief edit placed at the end of the post.

As SilasBarta mentioned, there's a lot of commentary on this post that is worth preserving, and should be preserved with the original post. It would be unfair to the commenters to render their comments incomprehensible - even briefly - by distortion of that to which they responded.

And, if I may be frank, if the idea which inspired this post is interesting, it is probably capable of generalization. The idea of my own which I promoted to a post I did so because I saw that it was applicable beyond the scope of its origination, and in a manner which was natural, elegant, and interesting. It proved of interest to a number of people here, despite its unabashedly algebraic treatment. If you can find a profitable extension of your concept, it will be likely to be worth reporting in a followup post (and if you are concerned about the appropriateness of it, I - as one remaining upvoter of the OP - will have sent my email to you in a PM, and be willing to comment on any draft you wish to send).

If you cannot find a profitable extension of your concept, it is probably not worth the time to revise. Consider your post dubiously successful (it is still in positive territory, is it not?) and leave it be.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T03:50:47.592Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of in this post. It's not deep, it's not extraordinary in its conclusions, but it is correct and brief. The complaints seem to me best addressed by elaboration and discussion - things which require far more than a brief edit placed at the end of the post.

It's not so much that I am ashamed; I am just frustrated. The behavior of this post caught me completely off-guard. It was upvoted to +5 within a few hours and people started asking questions. After my responses, the post dropped to +1. The karma itself doesn't mean much to me, but the feedback here was evidence of something greater than a non-interesting or incorrect post.

People were willing to talk about it, so I stuck it out for as much feedback as I could. The investment was completely worth it. I got several comments worth of extremely valuable insights to my writing style and how to better post here at LessWrong.

I think the post itself failed, but the whole experience has been a net gain.

As SilasBarta mentioned, there's a lot of commentary on this post that is worth preserving, and should be preserved with the original post. It would be unfair to the commenters to render their comments incomprehensible - even briefly - by distortion of that to which they responded.

I agree. My intent in the revisions has been to keep people from being distracted by my quirks and leading them into a wonderful discussion in the comments. This particular illusion has a lot more history behind it than I originally thought; I learned a lot.

And, if I may be frank, if the idea which inspired this post is interesting, it is probably capable of generalization. The idea of my own which I promoted to a post I did so because I saw that it was applicable beyond the scope of its origination, and in a manner which was natural, elegant, and interesting. It proved of interest to a number of people here, despite its unabashedly algebraic treatment. If you can find a profitable extension of your concept, it will be likely to be worth reporting in a followup post (and if you are concerned about the appropriateness of it, I - as one remaining upvoter of the OP - will have sent my email to you in a PM, and be willing to comment on any draft you wish to send).

Thank you very much. I have to sit on the events of today and ponder if there is a next step to take. If a followup is coming I will certainly take you up on your offer.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-28T03:19:53.574Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An addendum - as far as my recollection of the original goes, your edits appear reasonable, although I would not have risked them on my own post. I congratulate you on a successful revision, but my offer stands.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-27T20:51:28.646Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of not disputing definitons, may I suggest: A and B are the same colorRGB, but, interpreting the image as a picture (as the eye does), not the same colorALBEDO.

Edit: Correction - "as the visual system does".

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T21:00:11.900Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is perhaps beating a dead horse, but "albedo" is supposed to be a ratio between reflected and incident lights, and I would bet that the albedo of these two patches of screen is also identical, just as their RGB values are identical.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-27T21:05:58.987Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not in the actual 3D scene that your brain interprets the picture to be of, only in the context of a 2D printout of the image (albedo is not really a relevant property for emissive display devices like LCDs or CRTs).

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-27T21:04:59.816Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I said "interpreting the image as a picture", I meant, "interpreting the image as a picture of a checkerboard with a cylinder casting a shadow on it" - the albedos in question are of the squares A and B on the depicted board.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T21:10:58.693Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, "inferred albedo". In that case we agree.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T20:55:08.510Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T21:11:56.612Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are the same screen-color, but different inferred-colors.

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-27T22:41:38.579Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I identified a useful and cogent point in your post and it was this: Whenever you receive data from any source (your brain, your eyes, a drug study, Less Wrong) you've got to be aware of how that data has already been packaged. Taking the data at face value -- for example imagining your brain is actually making a claim about the RGB values of the pixels -- can lead to problems, misconceptions, mistakes.

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-27T19:12:28.160Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your eye didn't evolve to report trivia like, "These two colors are actually the same." Your eye is reporting the most useful information - from which direction the light is coming, the shaded region under it, and the fact that the floor is tiled.

Which is more amazing - this picture, or a picture that somehow tricked the average person into noticing two colors were the same, but didn't notice the picture also had floor tiling, light directionality, and shading? I'd say this picture is pretty tame in comparison to the picture that could do that.

comment by Jack · 2010-01-27T23:42:21.943Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am being stupid when my eye looks at this illusion and I interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors.

Tell that to your ancestors who escaped from the saber-tooth cat hiding in the shadows at dusk.

comment by clockbackward · 2010-01-28T00:29:44.562Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A side note: The only reason that prime numbers are defined in such a way as to exclude 1 and negative numbers is because mathematicians found this way of defining them a bit more useful than the alternative possibilities. Mathematicians generally desire for important theorems to be stated in a manner that is as simple as possible, and the theorems about primes are generally simpler if we exclude 1. There is a more detailed analysis of this question here:

http://www.askamathematician.com/?p=1269

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-27T22:31:23.956Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

if you use a poor definition such as, "Prime is a number that is only divisible by itself and 1."

I have a fondness for this particular definition, and like to think of 1 as a "very special" prime number. To the extent that I usually give a little speech whenever an opportunity arises that (ahem) the only reason I know of that '1' is excluded from the primes (more often than not) is because almost every theorem about prime numbers would have to be modified with an "except 1" clause. But a natural definition (anything along the lines of "already completely factored") would include it. If you disagree, which definition --- or the satisfaction of which theorem -- do you think is more compelling?

(Just in case you perceived you were getting too much heat about "colour"...)

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-27T22:40:03.494Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd have to pretty strongly disagree. To me, the "essence" of primes is that you can factor any number into primes in a unique way. That's the most natural definition. They're the multiplicative building blocks of the natural numbers; everything can be reduced to them. If 1 were prime, you could no longer factor uniquely.

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-27T22:45:32.164Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment and this comment were adjacent in my message folder which I found amusing.

Thomblake wrote:

Caring about what's right might be as arbitrary (in some objective sense) as caring about what's prime, but we do actually happen to care about what's right.

It's funny how we do care.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-27T23:52:09.909Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment and this comment were adjacent in my message folder which I found amusing.

That's awesome. Thanks for sharing.

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-27T22:50:06.948Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possibly related: my comment about paperclips.

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T00:41:00.473Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm... I agree this is compelling. However, since I'm resistant to updating my world view about 1-the-discriminated-prime-number, I'll continue to proffer counter-arguments:

  • the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic is pretty important, but may still not be the "essence" of what prime is

  • the FTA itself requires the "except 1" clause: "all natural numbers can be uniquely factored into primes except 1" -- which would make someone thing 1 ought to be prime

  • the FTA already assumes 'modulo permutations', we could easily throw in 'modulo 1'

  • Wikipedia -- the first and last authority on such things -- carefully writes in an entire sentence unto itself, "The number 1 is by definition not a prime number," suggesting just how arbitrary this is. (My own emphasis added.)

The best argument I came up with for not including 1 as prime, because I tend to worry about how things are constructed, was with the seive of Eratosthenes.

The seive of Eratosthenes says that you can find the primes by starting with all the natural numbers > 1; let 2 be the first prime number, and then begin eliminating all multiples of 2 and the multiples of subsequent primes as you find them. If you included '1' in the first step, then you would eliminate all the numbers in the first step.

comment by Sniffnoy · 2010-01-28T01:43:25.575Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're really failing to grasp the content of the unique factorization theorem here. Firstly we don't think about factored numbers as products of primes up to permutation, we think of them as products of distinct prime powers (up to permutation, I suppose - but it's probably better here to just take a commutative viewpoint and not regard "up to permutation" as worth specifying). But more importantly, you need to take a multiary view of multiplication here, not a binary one. 1 is the empty product, so in particular, it is the product of no primes, or the product of each prime to the 0th power. That is its unique prime factorization. To take 1 as a prime would be like having bases for vector spaces include 0. Almost exactly like it - if we take the Z-module of positive rationals under multiplication, the set of primes forms a free basis; 1 is the zero element.

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T16:52:13.296Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Information and expertise like this is why hanging out at Less Wrong is worth the time. I estimate that I value the information in your comment at about $35, meaning my present self would advise my former self to pay up to $35 to read it.

So, I get it. My brain is more wired for analysis than algebra; so this isn't the first time that linear algebra has been a useful bridge for me. I see that we could have a 'vector space' of infinite-dimensional vectors where each vector (a1, a2, ..., an, ...) represents a number N where N = (P1^a1)(P2^a2)...(Pn^an)... and Pi are the ordered primes. Clearly 1 is the zero element and would never be a basis element.

I should admit here that my background in algebra is weak and I have no idea how you would need to modify the notion of 'vector space' to make certain things line up. But I can already speculate on how the choice of the "scalar field" for specifying the a_i would have interesting consequences:

  • non-negative integer 'scalar field' --> the positive integers,
  • all integers 'scalar field' --> positive rational numbers,
  • complex integers --> finally include the negative rationals.

I'd like to read more. What sub-field of mathematics is this?

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-02-08T10:05:35.872Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see that we could have a 'vector space' of infinite-dimensional vectors where each vector (a1, a2, ..., an, ...) represents a number N where N = (P1^a1)(P2^a2)...(Pn^an)... and Pi are the ordered primes.

Oh! And orthogonal vectors are relatively prime!

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-02-08T11:15:17.463Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that the idea of orthogonality is defined for modules, is it? Is there a standard definition of an inner product for a Z-module?

comment by komponisto · 2010-02-08T18:49:48.463Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that the idea of orthogonality is defined for modules, is it? Is there a standard definition of an inner product for a Z-module?

Yes; the same definition works. See here.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-02-09T00:05:14.994Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yay! I actually got something right!

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-28T17:07:58.715Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What sub-field of mathematics is this?

Number theory, ne? Or is that too general?

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-28T17:57:34.020Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like it's more abstract algebra (possibly applied to number theory) that byrnema is interested in. Check out Wikipedia on module.)

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T18:32:53.190Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Precisely! Thanks also.

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T17:33:24.582Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A second comment...

You've certainly convinced me that '1' should not be included in the set of things that are used to uniquely factor numbers. However, how I can I know if this set is the set of "primes"?

I guess I was thinking that the essence of primes was about their irreducibility/atomic-ness. The number 5 would be considered prime because you can't describe it multiplicatively in any way except by using the number 5. Using my preferred notion, the number 0 and the number -1 would also be "prime" (as Mr Hen guessed). Is there a different word for this concept?

comment by GuySrinivasan · 2010-01-28T17:47:59.931Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See wikipedia on natural generalizations of prime numbers. In particular note that most of the definitions say "units" instead of "1", like "Irreducible elements are ones which cannot be written as a product of two ring elements that are not units." which rules out 0 for the integers, +, x and includes the possibility of multiple units (-1 and 1).

I don't know offhand of any nice, commonly referenced property P(S,O) that is: A,x,y in a structure S with operation O: A is P just when if x O y = A then either x = A or y = A. Which I believe is the general property you're thinking about?

Edit: with O commutative I do believe

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T17:56:55.086Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. And yes, that is the property.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T04:58:05.134Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For some reason, I never imagined factors this way.

18 = 3^2 2^1
97,020 = 2^2
3^2 5 7^2 * 11

I suppose I have seen them printed out that way, but the deeper structure there never clicked. Cool.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-01-28T08:27:20.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As it happens I'm partway through "An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers" by Niven, Zuckerman, and Montgomery at the moment. Lots of problems are incredibly easy to solve given this structure. The example that springs to mind is the very straightforward proof why the combinatorial formula n! / (r! (n-r)!) always gives you an integer.

Update: Well having been scored up I feel like I should give a hint on the actual proof: for any prime p and any n, the greatest power of p that divides n is

\sigma_{i=1}^{\infty} floor( \over{n}{p^i} )

and for any real numbers a, b, floor(a + b) >= floor(a) + floor(b).

Oh for real TeX markup!

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T17:12:39.963Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you recommend the book? If I were interested in the subject, is this good to pick up or can you think of a better option?

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-01-28T18:10:59.043Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm enjoying it, but it touches on abstract algebra as an alternative approach rather than leaning on it for everything; I'd kind of prefer the latter.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T18:40:17.763Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You may be a good person to ask this question:

I was wondering if there was a function f(x, y, z) so that x and z represent the left and right sides of common mathematic operators and y represents the level of operation. So f(1, 2, 4) would be 1 + 4 and f(2, 2, 4) would be 2 * 4. Better versions of f(x, y, z) would have fewer end cases hardcoded into it.

The reason behind this is to handle operator levels greater than addition, multiplication, and exponents. The casual analysis from my grade school and undergrad level math shows the pattern that multiplication is repeated addition and exponents are repeated multiplication.

My quick attempts at coming up with such a function are spiraling into greater and greater complexities. I figured someone else has to have thought about this. Do you know of a place I can start reading up on ideas similar to this? Is what I am doing even plausible?

Quick thoughts based on me playing around:

  • Addition may be level 0, not level 1
  • The sequences never really look exactly like multiplication tables, but the patterns are similar enough to appease me
  • Ideally, everything can be reduced to the simple concept of X + 1 so as to walk along the number line
  • In practical terms, I have no idea how to express "negative" levels. Division and roots are unapproachable at this point in my playing around.
comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-28T18:49:26.199Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ackermann function

Knuth's arrow notation

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T18:59:25.881Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cool, thanks. It seems like one of my first tries was producing numbers similar to the Ackermann function. Knuth's arrow notation essentially takes over after multiplication. But those two articles will give me enough to read to keep moving on. :)

Do you know of any that go the other way into smaller and smaller numbers?

EDIT: I found the right subject name through links on your links. It is called hyperoperation.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-28T19:00:22.139Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1 / Ackermann function.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T19:06:42.492Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, that works, but it isn't exactly what I am looking for. Is it possible to express the division operator in a manner similar to how multiplication can be expressed using addition? My instinct is telling me probably not.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-28T19:59:47.586Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can have inverse operations for the higher operations as well. 4^4 is 256, so you can think of 4 as the "tetrated root" of 256. Also see this

(I'm using 'tetrating' as a term for the operation after exponentiation: in other words, 4 tetrated to the 4th is 4^(4^(4^4))).

Two problems: there may not be a clear way to define tetrating and higher operations to fractional amounts, and exponentiation and up aren't associative, so you need a convention for what to do with the parentheses.

comment by pdf23ds · 2010-01-28T18:55:50.925Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hyper operators. You can represent even bigger numbers with Conway chained arrow notation. Eliezer's 3^^^^3 is a form of hyper operator notation, where ^ is exponentiation, ^^ is tetration, ^^^ is pentation, etc.

If you've ever looked into really big numbers, you'll find info about Ackermann's function, which is trivially convertable to hyper notation. There's also Busy Beaver numbers, which grow faster than any computable function.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T19:07:33.543Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-01-28T05:52:15.332Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wikipedia -- the first and last authority on such things -- carefully writes in an entire sentence unto itself, "The number 1 is by definition not a prime number," suggesting just how arbitrary this is.

A measure of the arbitrariness is the history, which is that 1 was considered prime up to the 19th century and was a matter of fashion during the 19th century. That suggests that unique factorization is not, in itself, enough to motivate the definition. Perhaps its extension to the gaussian integers or the more radical version for general number rings prompted the definiton.

comment by Jack · 2010-01-28T08:01:47.070Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This reminds me. Pre-19th century it was thought that part of what it was to be a mammal was to give live birth, in addition to having mammary glands. 1 is the platypus of numbers.

comment by bentarm · 2010-01-27T22:56:51.491Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

natural definition: "A prime is a natural number with exactly two factors"

I'm not sure I quite understand your suggestion: we should define 1 as prime, but then write "except for 1" every time we use the word prime? Wouldn't it be quicker just to exclude 1 in the first place (even if there were some sense in which 1 was prime)?

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T23:28:39.865Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But a natural definition (anything along the lines of "already completely factored") would include it.

How do you see 0 or -1, using this definition?

comment by byrnema · 2010-01-28T01:07:01.206Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A factor of a number M is a number that evenly divides M with no remainder. Zero has infinitely many factors, definitely not prime.

...regarding -1, I can't think of anything relevant that I know about the relationship between negative numbers and prime numbers.

Later edit: Then I completely changed my mind... and decided 0 and -1 should be prime relative to how I would define it's essence. I note that you intuited what I really meant by prime better than I did!

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-28T01:13:38.389Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I was just curious. I like toying around with the fundamentals behind the maths and seeing what happens. :)

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T18:49:02.741Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Uh? What do you mean by "obvious" in that last sentence?

(Post otherwise interesting, and I for one like them short.)

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:21:56.060Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Obvious" as in not "weird, bizarre, or incredible." Would "simple" be a better word there?

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T19:33:23.271Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm just not seeing what obvious reality it highlights, so either I'm particularly dense or it's not in fact obvious.

So, rephrasing: what reality is being highlighted by the "illusion" ?

Your prime number analogy suggests that it's in fact the "both colors are the same" assertion which is an illusion. The perceptual reality is that the pixels in these areas are discriminated as different colors. The illusion consists of looking at pixel with identical RGB values and thinking "Oh, these have the same position in colorspace, I expect my brain to perceive them as identical."

The reality suggested by the "illusion" is that this expectation doesn't hold in general, it's a stupid model. A smarter model would take more things into account before it predicted what our brain will perceive as identical colors.

But this is very much non-obvious...

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:52:22.168Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm just not seeing what obvious reality it highlights, so either I'm particularly dense or it's not in fact obvious. [...] But this is very much non-obvious...

The post is keying off of Think Like Reality.

Reality has been around since long before you showed up. Don't go calling it nasty names like "bizarre" or "incredible". The universe was propagating complex amplitudes through configuration space for ten billion years before life ever emerged on Earth. Quantum physics is not "weird". You are weird. You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space. This is your problem, not reality's, and you are the one who needs to change.

Looking at the image it should be obvious that the colors do not look the same. This is reality. We think they should look the same even though it is obvious they don't. Once we find the right answer to why they don't look the same, the illusion should stop being bizarre.

If you find an explanation, return to the illusion, and still think the illusion is bizarre, than something is wrong. You fall into the category that EY is discussing in Think Like Reality.

I am convinced that most of what we consider to be fancy illusions will be considered obvious to future generations. They will look at this image and wonder why we thought it was so fascinating. When our optics system is solved it would completely ridiculous to assume that we would look at that image and think that the two squares should look like the same color.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T20:19:46.174Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But your post hasn't offered an explanation. And I don't, in fact, look at that image and think that the two squares should look like the same color.

A and B are in fact different colors, for a value of "in fact" which takes into account that the picture is a picture of something - a checkerboard. My visual system makes the correct inference, conditioned on the assumption that I'm looking at a checkerboard.

EDIT: what I should say is that I'm still surprised, knowing what I know about my visual system and how it works, when you tell me that the pixels have the same RGB values. But that's not a "reality is weird" surprise, it's more like the surprise of learning some interesting bit of trivia.

To really be totally unsurprised, I'd have to enhance not just my knowledge of the visual system, but my visual system - to include an RGB calibration system.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T20:33:50.022Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: Oh, okay, I read your edit and that makes much more sense. I agree that it may be difficult to get to the point of being unsurprised. Getting there isn't obvious. You know you are there when you are unsurprised by the illusion. Once Reality is unsurprising and obvious, you are there.


I feel like I have lost the point of this conversation. What, in the following, do you disagree with?

  • The image is an optical illusion
  • The squares marked A and B appear to be different colors
  • In reality, the squares marked A and B are the same color
  • It is more correct to say that A and B are the same color than to say they are different colors
  • The reason behind the optical illusion explains why A and B appear to be different colors
  • This reason is contained somewhere inside of the "visual system"
  • It is better to not be surprised by Reality
  • The squares A and B should appear to be different colors
  • We should not be surprised when A and B look like different colors
  • It is incorrect to call Reality bizarre as per Think Like Reality
  • "Obvious" is not a good word for the opposite of "bizarre"
comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T20:37:45.799Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree with #3 and #4. Also #6, mildly - it's not just our visual system that's at issue here, it's our color vocabulary and our "meta" thinking about our color system that explains the "illusion" - that explains why we might think it bizarre.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T20:53:16.164Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, okay. Well... I guess I don't feel like debating the definition of color since that is completely irrelevant to the point of the post. I wish this was made clear earlier.

Perhaps I can answer your original question this way:

Uh? What do you mean by "obvious" in that last sentence?

It has nothing to do with the actual answer to the example illusion. What I mean is that once we have the answer to an illusion, the illusion should stop surprising us.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T21:09:08.838Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neither do I feel like debating the definition of color.

What I am is disappointed. You brought up the "color constancy" phenomenon as an instance where "think like reality" is applicable, and then failed to follow through with an analysis of what is actually going on. You sound as if you are content to know that the phenomenon is in principle explicable; as if the post has done its job by demonstrating your commitment to "thinking like reality". I would prefer you had gone deeper into the object-level analysis and offered your own explanation of what is going on in this particular case.

This is a little bit like parents who lecture their children about the importance of being truthful, vs. parents who demonstrate being truthful - and being OK with confronting unpleasant truths.

EDIT: I didn't mean to sound sanctimonious (I realize I do sound sanctimonious). My main intent is to express a wish regarding what I'd like to see in future posts of this type.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T21:38:53.628Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I am is disappointed. You brought up the "color constancy" phenomenon as an instance where "think like reality" is applicable, and then failed to follow through with an analysis of what is actually going on.

The point of this post is not to debate, discuss, or analyze color constancy. The point of the post is to talk about illusions and how we think of them as bizarre when we shouldn't.

I have not once debated color or the theories behind the illusion. All I did was use a word one way when other people use it another way. I am not trying to offer some strange, new truth about a picture. I used it as an example because people recognize it, not because that particular example matters.

EDIT: I didn't mean to sound sanctimonious (I realize I do sound sanctimonious). My main intent is to express a wish regarding what I'd like to see in future posts of this type.

I apparently have completely missed with this post. I have watched its karma swing all over the place in just a few hours and all of the 36 comments so far are talking about something I consider completely irrelevant to the intended point. The same thing happened with my last post, too, so something is very off in my expectations regarding people's responses to the post. Something I did caused you to expect something that I had absolutely no intention of providing. It sucks for you and it sucks for me.

I don't really mind you sounding sanctimonious because I don't care about our relative moral status. I find it frustrating that we had to go back and forth so long to end up where we did. I am not fully convinced my point ever did get across, but at least now I know how you perceived the post. Hopefully by the next one I will have figured out what went wrong.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-01-27T22:39:37.924Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm afraid I still don't fully understand the point of your post. I honestly don't find this illusion bizarre any more because I do understand what our visual system is reporting. You ended the post with what sounds like a request for an explanation that renders this illusion non-bizarre. I think between the various responses that has been provided. You seemed resistant to accepting that explanation initially which is probably why discussion of it took over the comments.

It is true that most illusions have an explanation that renders them non-bizarre. This one does and it has been provided. What other point(s) were you hoping to make?

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T23:06:04.583Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You ended the post with what sounds like a request for an explanation that renders this illusion non-bizarre.

This was my miscommunication. I was skipping over the explanation in an attempt to cut on length.

You seemed resistant to accepting that explanation initially which is probably why discussion of it took over the comments.

I was trying to avoid talking about the explanation because in my mind the post was only using that particular example as an example. I was perceiving the ensuing discussion as nitpicking. (And fully acknowledge that this was a communication error on my part.)

It is true that most illusions have an explanation that renders them non-bizarre. This one does and it has been provided. What other point(s) were you hoping to make?

That is it, that is the point. This wasn't meant to be an awesome post of amazing new concepts. It was just connecting the dots between two subjects I hadn't connected yet. This connection was that illusions aren't tricky. We think they are tricky because we were expecting something different from reality.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-01-27T22:34:47.240Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hopefully by the next one I will have figured out what went wrong.

My hypothesis is that you picked a misleading example to make your point. Similar color illusions are discussed in, e.g., Dennett's "Consciousness Explained", where he discusses the kind of processing that the brain does to see color: they're one of the best illustrations of how misleading the idea of so-called "qualia" is.

It looked like you didn't really understand your main example. A and B are different colors, at least in terms of how the brain actually perceives color, and it sounded like you talked about them as if they were definitely the same. You wrote of the illusion as if it was mysterious and unexplained, when it has been used as a canonical demonstration of how consciousness works (Dennett's book has something similar on the cover in one edition). This confusion made it hard for me to understand your main point.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T22:26:29.939Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes it is useful to ask readers for a blow-by-blow response to your writing. (See my previous post on communicating effectively, and follow the link to Richard Gabriel's book.) Here is mine:

First para, it may help to know I didn't follow the link at the end of your first paragraph, I kept on reading. So when you led off with "illusions are cool", my internal narrative was "yes, illusions are cool".

Your second para had me thinking something like, "He's going to go past surface appearances, regarding the picture he's posted. OK, good. Let's keep reading." I probably looked at the picture only at that point.

Your third para is a side-trip into number theory. It made me a little impatient, but I tried to rein that in, as I took in your point about "be careful about the definition of primeness or you will get surprising results". I'm primed to receive some insight regarding such apparent "surprises".

Final para and I'm pleasantly surprised at how short this post is, I may have upvoted it at this point without quite reading to the end. (Upvote later retracted, after some deliberation, for the reasons I gave.) I'm still not following links, by the way, just barely glancing at the URLs. One I did look at was the "color constancies". I am still experiencing a feeling of approval as I read "dropped a bad belief and am looking for a replacement". Yep, yep.

I guess what then makes me uneasy is the string of "should, should, should" in the final three sentences, capped by "obvious". Wait, what ? I rewind to "looking for a replacement". Forward back to "obvious". You're making me feel like I missed something, so I fire off a comment - in retrospect perhaps hastily - about the part of the post that right now bugs me.

In retrospect, what I was expecting that you didn't fulfill was "I am looking for a replacement...", setting up for "...and here's how I plan to do that".

The point of your post (correct me if wrong) is "the 'cool' of optical illusions is an instance of the 'weird' that is referred to in Think Like Reality". If that's your entire point, it just maybe doesn't quite deserve four paragraphs.

You bring up a specific example that has engaged your thinking. I approve of that. You make a "meta" point. I can approve of that, but provisional on your showing how your object-level thinking has benefited from the meta.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T22:58:54.650Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is extremely valuable to me and I greatly appreciate it. My thoughts are below because I process with words; they are not critiques of your reading process.

First para, it may help to know I didn't follow the link at the end of your first paragraph, I kept on reading. So when you led off with "illusions are cool", my internal narrative was "yes, illusions are cool".

Hmm... yeah, I didn't predict that. The whole post was assuming that you had, at one point, read that post. Note to future self: Quote the relevant part from the prerequisite link. I skipped it this time to try cutting down words but it hurt more than helped.

Your second para had me thinking something like, "He's going to go past surface appearances, regarding the picture he's posted. OK, good. Let's keep reading." I probably looked at the picture only at that point.

Your third para is a side-trip into number theory. It made me a little impatient, but I tried to rein that in, as I took in your point about "be careful about the definition of primeness or you will get surprising results". I'm primed to receive some insight regarding such apparent "surprises".

Note to future self: Keep second examples shorter. When addressing a particular subject beyond surface dialog check the language the experts use.

Final para and I'm pleasantly surprised at how short this post is, I may have upvoted it at this point without quite reading to the end. (Upvote later retracted, after some deliberation, for the reasons I gave.) I'm still not following links, by the way, just barely glancing at the URLs. One I did look at was the "color constancies". I am still experiencing a feeling of approval as I read "dropped a bad belief and am looking for a replacement". Yep, yep.

I went for short this time because I thought the point didn't deserve a lengthy post. I think a lot of the initial upvotes I received were evidence that I was on the right track with this goal. I suspect that most of them were retracted later.

I guess what then makes me uneasy is the string of "should, should, should" in the final three sentences, capped by "obvious". Wait, what ? I rewind to "looking for a replacement". Forward back to "obvious". You're making me feel like I missed something, so I fire off a comment - in retrospect perhaps hastily - about the part of the post that right now bugs me.

In retrospect, what I was expecting that you didn't fulfill was "I am looking for a replacement...", setting up for "...and here's how I plan to do that".

That makes sense. Notes to future self: Finish the primary example. Don't expect the readers to assume you did it offscreen.

The point of your post (correct me if wrong) is "the 'cool' of optical illusions is an instance of the 'weird' that is referred to in Think Like Reality". If that's your entire point, it just maybe doesn't quite deserve four paragraphs.

Where could I trim? I would guess the number example was extraneous. Your summation of the point works.

You bring up a specific example that has engaged your thinking. I approve of that. You make a "meta" point. I can approve of that, but provisional on your showing how your object-level thinking has benefited from the meta.

Okay. This is the big point I get to take away from your analysis. Again, thank you.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-27T19:46:04.695Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In other words, this is the visual version of "if a tree falls in the forest...", except that we already defined 'color' as qualia rather than wavelengths, right?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-01-27T21:55:01.351Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since you mention it, that's something I should have brought up in one of the Mitchell_Porter consciousness threads: the colors you see are not actually matched up one-to-one with the wavelengths hitting your retina. Rather, the visual system does something like subtracting away the average color.

Meaning, the color that you experience seeing depends on all the colors in the scene, not just the wavelength of the light coming off each specific object.

Some people were talking as if you were getting direct knowledge of (something equivalently expressible as) wavelengths, which is unfortunate, since part of the path to demystifying qualia is understanding this kind of processing.

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T19:59:45.173Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Um, "we already defined" - the referent(s) of that phrase are very ambiguous, I'm afraid. Who's "we" and where was that definition ?

I definitely agree that color discriminations in the brain (the processes that eventually end up with color words coming out of our mouths) are about way more than wavelengths. I'd prefer the term "discrimination" to "qualia", the latter carries philosophical baggage that I'd rather do without.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-27T20:06:26.176Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Um, "we already defined" - the referent(s) of that phrase are very ambiguous, I'm afraid. Who's "we" and where was that definition ?

It's a royal 'we' in this case: Some subset of the group of commenters here at LW, and that subset doesn't include me. It was discussed at some length in the recent discussion of consciousness. I wasn't paying much direct attention to the conversation, though, so I can't be more specific than that. (I'm not even sure that the relevant bits are all in one post's comments.)

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-27T19:38:44.861Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think what you're trying to say is that the phenomenon becomes highly expected, not aberrant with respect to your world model.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:55:24.834Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-02-18T20:07:51.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a rather awesome colour constancy optical illusion in this American Scientist article - click on the enlarge image link on the rubik's cube image. I've mirrored the image here in case the link goes dead. The blue tiles in the left image are the same shade of grey in RGB terms as the yellow tiles in the right image. H/T to this article.

comment by Unknowns · 2010-01-28T05:16:08.924Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I look at the picture without focusing (i.e. thereby seeing it as 2D), A and B look the same color.

If I look at the picture and focus but cover the green cylinder with my hand, they can look either the same or different (depending on whether or not I notice the shadow in that case.)

I agree with Andy Woods: this is no illusion at all, except in the sense that it is an "illusion" that the board is three dimensional.

comment by minusdash · 2015-01-11T15:11:32.380Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember not really "getting" these illusions when I was a kid. I just didn't find them interesting, it looked too straightforward.

The idea of a "2D screen inside our head" is not our natural intuition. Before learning about these things, I just felt that I simply percieve the environment around me. I don't see a flat pixel grid in front of me when I walk around, I rather have a model of the environment that I continuously update and I percieve the objects "from where they are", just like I feel leg pain as if it were "in my leg", despite the fact that pain actually happens in the brain. I see objects where they are in the 3D model, not where they are on a virtual screen.

The screen and pixels analogy may be so prevalent in modern times because of the TV, photos or even earlier realistic paintings. But early art was not really realistic, which I think either shows they were

  • not skilled enough to draw realistic art with perspective distortions and shading, or
  • they didn't think of vision the way we do today, they were more focusing on the objects and their prototypical shapes, rather than their position in the visual field and the "actual colors".

The second explanation seems more plausible to me.

These illusions are only illusions if you take the "2D screen and pixels" view of vision. Now that view is also important for technological applications, and it's also biologically relevant (retina cells are sort-of pixels), I'm just saying it's not really an illusion against builtin intuition.

comment by CCC · 2015-01-11T16:41:42.449Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't see a flat pixel grid when I walk around, either; I see a 3D scene (generally only where I'm currently looking; I mean, I can recall where things are when I'm not looking at them, but they're not in my current visual model, that memory has to be stored elsewhere).

And yet, a lot of optical illusions work for me; because (as in the case of the illusion in this article) the drawing is close enough to what the reality looks like to fool my "scene reconstruction" module in my brain, and I reconstuct the relevant 3D scene when I look at it. Some optical illusions (such as this one ) work by being able to fool my scene reconstruction module in two different ways...

comment by minusdash · 2015-01-11T18:49:41.997Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat related: I think we do have a 3D map of the environment even for things that we aren't looking at at the moment. For example I feel as if I had a device in my brain that keeps track of which people are in which parts of the house right now (or where some emotionally-loaded objects are). I don't have to exert conscious effort specifically for this.

Another thing: it's interesting to think about why we can see dots and lines and shapes at all. By this I mean, why do these low-level things reach our conscious awareness? You aren't consciously aware of your blood sugar level or hormone levels. You do feel a sort of aggregated well-being feeling consciously but the details don't reach the conscious level. It's a strange and bizarre thing to think about what vision could be like if our consciousness didn't have access to dots and shapes and colors style low-level image data and we only "felt" the gist of it, for example by only feeling our current 3D model in some way. (It could be similar to blindsight.)

One answer could be that our vision is so complicated that the unconscious parts just can't cope with it fully, they can't analyze it sufficiently, and conscious processes (evolutionarily recent brain parts) need access to the basic "pixel-data" like things as well.

But again, maybe when we intentionally try to look at specific dots (as if looking at pixels, interpreting the visual field as a screen), we maybe aren't really looking at the low-level input but rather a reconstruction. Maybe we are seeing lines, corners and other geometric primitives laid on top of one another, like an SVG image, not like a BMP image. Maybe we don't really have conscious access to the low-level visual signals, we just have access to a reconstruction.

I don't think neuroscience has found out these things already, but it should be possible to read off of connections of brain areas.

comment by CCC · 2015-01-11T19:59:03.805Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat related: I think we do have a 3D map of the environment even for things that we aren't looking at at the moment.

I do not appear to have that - or, at least, I don't get much use out of it if it's in here. While I can keep track of who is where in the house, I do so more in the form of a list of Last Known Locations, not in any sort of map (2D or 3D).

Possibly related - I am notorious for getting lost easily while driving, and can get very badly turned around if I am merely a short distance away from where I should be. I tend to navigate by memorising a route from A to B, as a list of directions (turn left at the third corner, then it's the fourth street on the right...) and then I get into trouble if I can't follow that route. (Nowadays, I tend to lean heavily on GPS when going to new places).

comment by Morendil · 2010-01-27T19:35:46.123Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since the topics are related (but I'll admit I'm biased toward seeing that) - maybe a "Related" link to the "Adaptive bias" post would make sense.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-01-27T19:13:41.608Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Why do I keep thinking A and B are different colors? Obviously, that is not what my eyes are trying to tell me." I am being stupid when my eye looks at this illusion and I interpret the data in such a way to determine distinct colors. That information is not being transmitted by my eye. If it were, the illusion wouldn't be an illusion.

I think this is a bit misleading. To the extent that your eyes can be thought to be trying to tell you anything, "these are different colors" is exactly what they are trying to say. It's fallacious to assume that there is some sort of "true" input that one's eyes are reporting, and which the post-processing stages corrupt. (I'm not saying you committed this mistake, but people might get that impression.) Instead the meaning emerges purely from the post-processing stages. In fact, they're doing a pretty darn good job, as one might note from the fact that optical illusions nearly never noticeably distort our judgment in natural conditions.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:21:07.053Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I completely glossed over the finer points of eye-brain interaction. I did not think it was needed to get the point across. I suppose I also used a bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand by implying the eye "tells" me things. I sort of just called everything from the occurrence of light leaving an object to me perceiving the light leaving the object as "The Eye."

If you can think of a better way to say it without adding a heck of a lot of complexity I am more than willing to edit the post.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-01-27T20:04:59.479Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure if the eye-brain interaction is the relevant part. Even if you change "eyes" to "the visual system", the point of "these are of a different color is the very thing your visual system is trying to tell you" remains true.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T20:16:33.239Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would you call it? The point remains that the colors are not the same. If we think the colors are the same, we are incorrect.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-01-27T22:10:28.840Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are not the same, but our visual system is trying to tell us they are the same - and you can't really say it's wrong to make that judgment, as doing so leads to correct results the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time. (Basically, I'm saying the same thing as AndyWood's comment and the responses to it.)

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T22:48:10.357Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are not the same, but our visual system is trying to tell us they are the same.

Yeah, this makes sense. The trick is asking, "The same what?" The answer, "Color" is not descriptive enough.

I never meant to say it is right or wrong for the visual system to do whatever it is doing. I mean to say it is wrong to expect something different from the visual system than what it is doing.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-27T19:23:19.877Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"my optic system"? "my visual system"?

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:27:41.264Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Optics system works for me. I changed a few of the sentences to use this instead of "eye."

Is it "optics system" or "optic system"?

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-01-27T19:41:02.117Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

*checks wikipedia*

Apparently it's either 'optical system' or 'visual system', and the latter seems to be preferred for organisms.

comment by MrHen · 2010-01-27T19:54:25.419Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Updated to visual system.