Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Color at Age 57

I've been seeing these sunsets for 35 years... but not really.
Severely color-blind from birth, in the last few weeks I have gained the ability to see more (by no means all) colors.  I can't imagine that my writing skills are up to this task, but I feel the need to try to explain what it has been like.

I've always been interested in the possibility of treating my color-blindness, and had tried a half-dozen technologies before.  Some, like the high-tech Enchroma lenses, simply didn't do very much for me, probably because my color blindness is too severe.  Others, using tinted glassses, only worked a little bit, and only on the brightest of sunny days; I coudn't wear them in low light.  And some required contact lenses, to which I could never adjust.  In any case, all such technologies must be used nearly full time for several weeks before the brain rewires itself, and I never got that far.

Recently, however, the good folks at Harrisville Eye Care set me up with a pair of glasses that used a much lighter tint, which is apparently what I needed.  I can wear them indoors in relatively low light, which means I was finally able to wear them long enough to start to see a major effect.

That effect was just beginning to kick in, the week before last, when my wife and I went on a road trip, starting in Chicago, where my granddaughters live.  They quickly sat me down to watch The Wizard of Oz with them.  Now, I'm only red-green color-blind; I can see blues and yellows just fine.  So I knew to expect colors when Dorothy opened the door after arriving in Oz.  But really, I didn't know.  Munchkinland was a riot of unexpected beauty.  I managed to cry quietly, without (I think) the girls noticing.

I've always enjoyed movies, but now I want to rewatch any that are noted for their use of color.

Emboldened by that experience, we took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have largely avoided art museums all my life, because they tend to be very frustrating.  Many impressionist paintings were simply incomprehensible blurs to me.  But this time was different.  Some of them were still inscrutable, but others were a revelation.  I stood for fifteen minutes just staring at Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  My artist daughter gleefully guided me around, explaining colors to me, while the other three grandparents took the children to exhibits like the Thorne Rooms.

After 57 years on this planet, I suddenly like art museums.

From Chicago we drove to northern New York, where Trina's parents live.  On the drive there, Trina pointed out the trees changing color, but I was able to see only a bit of difference there.  I figured it was too subtle, and that I was still too color blind to appreciate autumn.

Trina's parents live in a cabin on a hill with a view westward over Trout Lake.  It's famous for its sunsets, of which I have seen hundreds over the years.  I've always loved sunsets, and I was eager to see what my new glasses might add.  Well before the sun began to set, I settled in on the couch, where I could simply look to the right to see the show.

Of course, I got wrapped up in working on my computer, and lost track of time as the sunset got under way.   I didn't look up until my father-in-law casually said, to no one in particular, "nice sunset."  I turned my head to the right, and my entire world changed.

I beheld a fiery sky, not just with more colors than I'd seen before, but extending far further in every direction than I'd ever imagined.  I immediately gasped so loudly that everyone in the house wanted to know what was wrong.  My jaw dropped and my hand clamped over my face, but I wasn't actually thinking anything.  The usual constant chatter of consciousness was simply gone, and for perhaps a few seconds, as the tears poured down my face, I was nothing but pure sensation, swimming in a sea of unfathomable beauty.

After seeing thousands of sunsets, I had finally seen a sunset.

Most surprising, though, was what happened after that.  My first conscious thought, emerging from that sea of bliss, was completely unexpected:  "Perhaps there really is a God."

If you know me, and my long history with religion, you know that this wasn't a casual thought.  In high school I stepped beyond my Jewish background and immersed myself in other religions -- a fundamentalist Christian prayer group, a Nichiren Buddhist sect, and the Bahai faith, for starters.  Then in college, I majored in comparative religions, with a particular interest in Zen Buddhism.  I was almost the textbook definition of an agnostic.  But over the years, cynicism and rationalism took over, and by the time Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush began demonstrating their competing visions of God's will, I was calling myself an atheist.  But in that one instant of beauty, I again became an agnostic.  I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of gratuitous beauty as evidence for the existence of God.

A few days later, we drove to Pittsburgh.  My color vision was clearly continuing to improve, because now I could see more colors in the trees.  I was beginning to learn to let go and simply experience the colors, rather than constantly trying to name them and test the limits of my perception.  I found I was much better at enjoying the colors than analyzing them, and I spent less time naming them and more time appreciating them.

In Pittsburgh, we went with our friends Tom and Cheryl to the Phipps Conservatory, where every flower with any shade of red in it was a revelation to me.  They seemed to bask in the reflected wonder as I saw things in flowers I had never seen before -- at least once being startled enough to gasp aloud once again.  Tom said he'd never seen someone so literally following his bliss.

After years of disinterest, I found myself thinking I might enjoy gardening.

I was in Pittsburgh for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of CMU's School of Computer Science, and it was there that I went next.  Even as I listened to the (very interesting) professional talks, I was aware of a growing sense of pervasive beauty all around me.  Even a pile of garbage was more interesting with my newfound color sense, but people in particular were visual miracles.

I found myself staring at people's lips.  They were vivid and defining in a way they never had been before, even without makeup.  Women wearing lipstick drew my eyes irresistably.  For that matter, I was also seeing blush and most other kinds of makeup for the first time.  (With my natural vision, I can't see much more than blue eye shadow.)  It took a concerted effort not to stare like a creep.

After years of fascination, I found women more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

And red hair!  In college, at one point, I was talking with my best friend of the last two years, and the topic of nicknames came up.  "Well, people have always called me Red, of course," he said.  "Why?" I asked.  He looked at me strangely and said, "because I have flaming red hair."  "You do?"  I asked.  But now I could identify many people as redheads, all by myself, and some of them stood out like lightbulbs from across the room.

I expected the drive home from Pittsburgh to be anticlimactic, but it wasn't.  My color vision had improved to the point where the fall colors were visible enough for me to stare at them, smiling, for hours.

I don't want to overstate what has happened to me.  I'm still very color blind, just not as bad as before.  (To be technical:  I see 11 more of the Ishahara images.)  And there are negatives, too:  the glasses only work well at a certain distance -- too close or too far and the effect is sometimes lost.  Most alarmingly, the glasses play havoc with my depth perception.  Staircases have become a real hazard, and I managed to smash myself in the face with a car door because I misread its position.  I'm not complaining, not by a long shot, simply warning anyone else who might go down this road.

Most important to me, however, is a newfound motivation.  If I, at 57, can experience this much change in my color perception, how much good could it do a color-blind preschooler?  And how might we build on glasses such as these to give an even greater boost to color perception, perhaps even for those with normal color vision?  I am determined to answer these questions if I possibly can.  But not while the sun is setting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Welcome to the Post-American Internet. Please Have Your (Virtual) Papers Ready for Inspection

The Internet, as is well known, was almost entirely an American invention.  Funded by the US Department of Defense, the early ARPAnet was three years old when the first non-US node was added in 1972.  America has dominated the Internet ever since, but less so every year.  We are fast approaching a tipping point, where no single country is dominant.  The changes this transition brings will call into question several core beliefs about the nature of the Internet itself.

When the newly-commercialized Internet exploded into public consciousness in the mid-1990's, there was no shortage of sages eager to explain the nature of the net, and how it would affect society.  The fundamental qualities of the Internet were seen largely through American eyes, with the assumption that the Internet would change global society far more than that society would change the Internet.  Although this was correct in some regards, the changes have happened in both directions.

The most common political assertion about the Internet was that it would, by its very nature, advance the cause of liberty worldwide.  As John Gilmore famously wrote (and as was later attributed to several others), "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."  This reflects a key technical aspect of the Internet's design, a distributed structure intended to survive a major nuclear war.  Libertarian prophets gleefully predicted that the Internet would enable a flowering of American-style freedom around the world, and many found libertarianism a natural fit with the Internet age.

Much of this is correct, as far as it goes; the Internet's architecture does, on balance, tend to discourage censorship and facilitate liberty.  However, there's a big difference between resilience and invulnerability.  John Gilmore would have been more accurate if he'd said that the net tries to route around censorship.  While the early Internet promoted free speech and facilitated political dissent, the enemies of those freedoms were studying the Internet, understanding its limitations, and plotting their countermeasures.  Gradually but steadily, national and economic interests are becoming more effective counterweights to the Internet's predisposition towards liberty, and those counterweights are pushing even America itself in the wrong direction.

Seen through the eyes of American ideals, optimism, and exceptionalism, the opponents of Internet freedom were simply reactionaries, fighting a doomed rearguard battle.  After all, the network was designed to survive a nuclear war by dynamically rerouting data; what hope did the censors have?  Like America's military and cultural exports, the Internet was another tool destined to turn the whole world into America, or something like it.

The first strong hint that this might not be true was China's announcement, in 1998, that it was building what would come to be known as the Great Firewall of China.  For the most part, Internet seers -- myself included -- laughed at this public commitment to an impossible goal.  But with sufficient investment -- and five years of work -- China built a remarkably effective firewall that today keeps most of the population -- all but the most motivated and sophisticated -- from accessing Internet sites the government doesn't like.  They were able to do this in large part by using the power of the government to regulate International data connections and requiring that they all go through the firewall.  The Internet interprets censorship as a bug and routes around it, but the Chinese government interprets free speech as a bug and blocks it, by forcing the Internet to use a non-standard architecture (effectively a single routing path).

Other examples abound, if you look for them.  In the 90's we believed that the Internet would create a wonderfully level playing field, allowing entrepreneurs in the most remote corner of the earth to sell things directly to first world consumers.  Instead, a few oligopolistic players such as Amazon have become ubiquitous middlemen, with market-making power.  The distributed nature of the net was supposed to open up diverse sources of connectivity, breaking up the near-monopolies of telecom companies -- also not precisely what actually happened.

Most dishearteningly, however, while the cyberlibertarians were carrying on about the inherent freedoms of the net and the need to protect user privacy -- very American ideals, to be sure -- the American government itself, in the form of the NSA, was undermining those ideals to a breathtaking degree.  Any attempt to sell non-Americans on the principle that America's ideals should rule the Internet has to face the reality of America's actions.

As China has molded the Internet to its own ideals, other countries are doing so with varying degrees of success.  Iran, for example, is unlikely to match China's Great Firewall without a great deal more control of its international connectivity, and a substantial increase in its technical expertise, but there's no reason they can't do this eventually.  (For that matter, China could sell them the technology and the service.)   I fear that we will soon see some countries making good on the oft-made threat (even in the US) to require strong proof of identity to use the Internet.  It will be hard to implement, but so was the Great Firewall; it awaits only a sufficiently motivated and sophisticated government.

My greatest fear, however, is a race to the bottom.  Now that China has walled itself off, other countries are trying to imitate it.  If a few countries manage to require ID's, others will race to follow, perhaps even the US.  The Internet surprised human society in the 1990's, bursting upon it like a tsunami, sweeping away many repressive ideals in its wake.  But that wave was a one-time phenomenon.  It is easy to imagine that over time, just as governments rebuild after a tsunami, they will "fix the damage" caused by the Internet's first wave.  In the end, we'll be lucky if the  Internet looks like America in America, let alone anywhere else.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Another Hidden Downside to Travel

Very few of us are immune from the occasional game of "what-if."  How might my life have differed had I turned right instead of left, bought a house in the city instead of the suburbs, chosen pottery over banking, or Cindy over Susie?   But of course you can't ever go back.

Psychologists say that, in most situations involving humans making choices, increasing the number of options will decrease the ultimate satisfaction of the person making the choice.  Perhaps the knowledge of alternatives makes it almost inevitable that we will be too aware of the imperfections of our choices.  In this sense, we perhaps should envy the student who attends the first college he visits, the worker who takes the first job he finds, or the bride and groom in an arranged marriage.  (Or at least the lucky ones.)

No matter how our choices work out, we ultimately play the game of "what-if."  And if we aren't happy with the answer - if it makes us miserable, melancholy, or just plain restless -- we may find ourselves imagining making major changes in our lives.  But more often than not we don't actually change careers, divorce and remarry, sell houses, or even replace large items such as cars on a whim.  Most restlessness is held in check by our attachments and our routines. We shy away from the biggest changes, and try to divert our restlessness with fads, fandom, or fashion.  We can't ever live an alternate version of our own lives.

The next best thing would appear to be travel.  But you can easily return knowing additional ways in which your life is less than perfect.

Travel takes us to alternate universes.  The home of your cousin in New York has unmistakable differences from your life in suburban Chicago, or your uncle's Iowa pig farm, and yet these differences pale in comparison to Tokyo, Beijing, or Kinshasha, let alone Yosemite Valley or Antarctica.  The more you travel, the more universes you will have seen.  But, if you believe the psychologists, you may find it increasingly difficult to be satisfied with any one of them.  You will always be aware that some things are better elsewhere, and that there's even more that you haven't seen.  Your list of destinations grows faster than your ability to visit them.

Imagine a perfect world, completely at peace, in whatever serves as your vision of Utopia.  Now imagine that you could go and live in that near-perfect universe at a small and simple price:  you could never again have your two favorite foods.  To me, this is the nightmarish "World without Pizza and Ice Cream."  Almost anyone would make that tradeoff -- world peace alone is probably worth giving up pizza -- but how many people could be completely content with that choice?  I know that for the rest of my life,  Ben and Jerry would haunt my dreams.

That's what travel does to you.  You go to new places, and you encounter new things -- new people, new attitudes, new foods, new art, and new music.  It's a wonderful experience, but when you go home there are new things to miss, new absences in your less than perfect life.  In South Africa, they sell a wonderful kind of biscuit called rusks, without which my life had previously seemed quite complete, but which I now seek, usually in vain, in imported food stores at home.

Travel expands your horizons, your knowledge of the world, your understanding of humanity and history, and your appreciation of the arts.  But it may not make you happy.  People who live all their lives in a small village are probably, on average, more content than those of us who keep forgetting what time zone we're in.  The things you miss specifically provoke a more intense desire than the more abstract knowledge of things you've never encountered.  I miss rusks far more than I am bothered by the knowledge of how many foreign foods I've never even tried.

For my part, my affinities are scattered about the globe.  When I stay too long at home, I begin to miss very specific things -- the theatre and restaurants in London and New York, the scenery in Africa and California, the museums in Washington and Paris, or the omnipresent history in Rome and Jerusalem.   But if I moved to Yosemite, I'd miss the ocean, and if I moved to Hawaii I'd miss snow.  And when I stay too long on the road, I miss the stability and comfort of home.

It isn't just that our lives are too finite to see and enjoy it all; it's that the more we see and do, the less likely we are to ever be completely satisfied anywhere.  The more you travel, the more easily you can imagine better places than wherever you are.  At least, that's how it works on Earth, but... hmmm... perhaps things might be better on some other world?