Racism in technology – cameras

Keywords: technology, photography, Shirley cards

One of the difficulties of recognizing systemic racism is that it can be very subtle and deeply ingrained – even in technology. One reason people may be reluctant to acknowledge systemic forms of racism is that they are not always a consequence of conscious efforts. (Some are, but not all.)  But just because something wasn’t consciously done doesn’t mean it didn’t have racially based origins or doesn’t have ongoing racist consequences. Consider this excerpt from a N.Y. Times article on realistic looking faces created by AI.

“… cameras — the eyes of facial-recognition systems — are not as good at capturing people with dark skin; that unfortunate standard dates to the early days of film development, when photos were calibrated to best show the faces of light-skinned people. The consequences can be severe. In January, a Black man in Detroit named Robert Williams was arrested for a crime he did not commit because of an incorrect facial-recognition match.”

No one consciously said, “Hey, let’s make cameras work better with white people.” It was a consequence of the dominance of white people both in terms of population and societal position. The use by Kodak of Shirley for photo calibration was a product of white women being a norm. From the days of slavery, blacks have had less input into societal norms than whites. This is an example of how discrimination creeps into our society and our technology without our even knowing it.

Things I should have doubted: The Thanksgiving story

(A key part of starting from doubt is changing your mind when confronted with new evidence. I find having this happen to be both frustrating and exciting: frustrating that I was wrong, exciting that I’ve learned something new.)

The USA Today network published an article today on the history of Thanksgiving. I saw it in the Register Guard but there is also a copy in the Cape Cod Times. A good read on this topic can also be found in The Smithsonian Magazine. I’m not going to recap everything, but here are a few highlights.

Although I’ve known for a while that the story I was taught was a myth, this article debunks virtually every aspect of what I was taught. Until a couple of days ago I was still clinging to the idea that, if nothing else, the Pilgrims and Native Americans peacefully sat down to eat together. According to the article, the Wampanoag were not even invited – although they showed up after dinner to remind the Pilgrims who owned the land. Another main point is that religious freedom had nothing to do with the Pilgrims move to the Americas. Like most colonization efforts, it was more of a business venture than anything else.

Looking at the decades before and after the Thanksgiving event at Plymouth, I think it is important to remember that the universally Christian colonizers slaughtered and enslaved (as in, made slaves of) Native Americans.  They even put the head of a Native American on a pike as a warning a few decades after the supposed feast.

I just spent about 10 minutes researching this history online. Even though I found several articles talking about Thanksgiving myths, many of the websites I found still promote most of the myths. But this USA Today article goes much further than anything else I found in telling a different story than what I was taught. I also did not find independent confirmation for some of the statements in the article (which doesn’t mean there isn’t.) I think we have yet to see the end of the research into what actually happened.

Just because it’s cool: The Gömböc

I was recently reminded of the gömböc (pronounced: ‘goemboets’). It is a three dimensional shape that, when placed on a flat surface always comes to rest in the same position no matter how you place it. More technically it is (the first known) homogenous object with one stable and one unstable equilibrium point. That’s pretty cool.

Gömböc (4.5 m gömböc statue in the Corvin Quarter in Budapest 2017 from Wikipedia)

There are plenty of pictures, videos and discussions found by searching on Gömböc.

The Scientist’s Skepticism

Keywords: philosophy of science, foundations of doubt

This is a note on the article The Scientist’s Skepticism by Mario Bunge. It was reprinted upon his death this year in Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2020.

Bunge writes that the scientist’s skepticism “is constructive, not just critical.” This is very consistent with my theme of starting from doubt; it isn’t just doubting things, it is moving forward from doubt. It is using doubt as a catalyst for exploration and discovery.

Bunge lists a set of assumptions that scientists make (Bunge uses “presupposes.”) These intersect and expand on the three foundations I discuss in Am I a figment of your imagination?  Specifically Bunge lists: “(a) materialism: everything in the universe is concrete or material, though not necessarily corporeal, and everything behaves lawfully; (b) realism: the world exists independently of those who study it, and moreover it can be known at least partially and gradually; (c) rationalism: our ideas ought to be internally consistent and they should cohere with one another; (d) empiricism: every idea about real things should be empirically testable; and (e) systemism: the data and hypotheses of science are not stray but constitute a system.”

Assumption (b) is a version of my second foundation:  “Something exists besides self (objective reality),”

I would restate “everything behaves lawfully” in (a) as “objective reality is consistent”. This is a critical assumption of science and is necessary for the testability mentioned in (d). This is the assumption that if I kick reality in exactly the same way, it will respond in exactly the same way. This is also, to a certain extent, a version of Newton’s third law: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction …”. I think that some people’s objection to objective reality is that they don’t make the distinction between the existence of something other than self and the assumption that this other something is consistent.

I’m also not fond of Bunge using the word “corporeal” in (a). I’m fairly sure Bunge is making the distinction between matter (e.g., particles like electrons) and radiation (e.g., electromagnetic radiation like photons.)  My objection is that it is too easy to associate the word “incorporeal” with things that don’t exist such as chakras and ghosts.

A major theme of Bunge’s article is that scientists construct systems that represent reality. I state this as my third foundation, “Sensory perceptions interpret, rather than capture, reality”. I call this “modelism.” Bunge also emphasizes that scientists are always willing (or should be) to change the constructed system (the model) in the face of new evidence. As I repeatedly say, this willingness to change belief is a primary aspect of doubting.

Here are two examples of how the concept of “consistency” is, to a certain extent, fairly flexible and how far scientists and doubters might be willing to adjust their models.

The first example involves gravity. Einstein’s theory of gravity is a fine-tuning of Newton’s – yet a fine-tuning that led to mind-boggling results. But there is still a fundamental acceptance of the inverse square law of how gravity works. Well, one theory that I’ve read that eliminates the conundrum of dark energy is that, at galactic scales, the inverse square law needs to be tweaked. (I have not researched how much this is being pursued. At this point, don’t take this too seriously.) If this holds up, it would be just as shattering to modern physics as Einstein’s was to Newton’s. But the point is that people can consider this possibility.

The second example regards the idea that the reality we are part of is a computer simulation (some variant of The Matrix.) Even if we discover this to be true, we just have to make a radical change to our model. There still has to be a simulator (objective reality) and the simulation still acts lawfully within itself. It would be an addition to our current model; just as Einstein’s theories are an addition to Newton’s theories.

 The flexibility of models allows for radical change that progressively moves closer to objective reality.

The Venus de Milo’s Arms

Keywords: drop spindle, spinning, cloth making, history of textiles, women’s history

Not surprisingly, many pieces of art are much more impressive when seen in person than when seen as a picture. For me, this was especially true for the Venus de Milo. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of art – even without her arms. Now, I never considered the possibility that someone would be able to make an evidence-based argument for what the position of her arms were. But I came across such an argument in Woman’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This is an excellently researched discussion of the history of making cloth.

Venus de Milo (from Wikipedia)

To understand the argument, it is necessary to know what a drop spindle is. It is a weighted stick with a hook that is used to spin yarn or thread. Prior to the invention of the spinning wheel (between 500 and 1200 CE), all yarn was spun by spinning a stick. The drop spindle was, and is, a primary form. (It’s pretty awesome to contemplate that all early cloth – clothes to bedding to sails – was produced from manually spun yarn.)

Drop spindles (from Wikipedia)

It takes a lot of time to produce quantities of yarn. So, most women throughout pre-technological history spent as much time spinning as they could – which turns out to be a large percentage of their time. Even today, fiber artists sometimes spin while walking down the street. Barber documents that that even queens spun. Thus, the idea that the goddess Venus was associated with textile creation and spun is consistent with the culture of the times. Examination of the arm positions and musculature still extent on the statue, along with the existence of other statues holding drop spindles, provides an evidence-based argument that the Venus de Milo was using a drop spindle.

The truly amazing thing here is that modern archeological and historical techniques can do something like reconstruct a statue’s missing arms.

Patriarchy and Dancing

This article is about queer tango dancing, but it made me think about gender roles more generally in dancing, Why is it traditional for men to lead and women follow? The answer is, of course, the deeply ingrained patriarchal male dominance in our society. Perhaps dance shows and dance studios could make a point to change this up. By all means, keep on dancing, but do we have to propagate machoism as part of it?


The Immigration Reform Act of 1965

Keywords: Civil Rights, legal discrimination

A meme that floated by once demanded, “Describe your age without using numbers.” The answer I came up with was, “I’m segregation old.” That is, segregation was still legal when I was a kid. This was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The younger generations are chomping at the bit to see the promise of that act fully realized. I am to. But when I think about the fact that in my parent’s generation (many of whom are still alive) racism was normal, it is amazing how far we’ve come in one generation. I just hope that the younger generations understand that, unfortunately, this is not a fight won overnight.

Until recently, I was unaware of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 which was also a major step away from racism in the U.S. This act effectively eliminated the National Origins Formula, which had been established in the 1920s to preserve American homogeneity by promoting immigration from Northwestern Europe. In other words, before 1965 it was extremely difficult for anybody but white Europeans to immigrate and obtain citizenship. This act radically changed the nature of immigration by allowing people from all around the world to come to the U.S. When you consider this was only 55 years ago, the current diversity is quite amazing. But this also partly explains why there is still such a racial backlash in this country. U.S. citizens are still getting used to having non-white, non-Christian people around.

It’s slavery not “trafficking”

Keywords: human trafficking, sex trafficking, slavery, rape, child rape

This is a letter I had published in the Eugene Register Guard Sep. 3, 2019, p. A6. The RG ran a series of articles on human “trafficking.” Someone pointed out to me that “trafficking” is a euphemism. Once it was pointed out, I couldn’t agree more. The articles focused on sex “trafficking” but this applies to anyone being “trafficked”. A disturbing aspect of the use of this term is explained in the first two sentences; even the people fighting this heinous activity don’t call it what it is.

As submitted:

It looks like the RG did its due diligence in contacting 16 sources regarding terminology for sex “trafficking” (Permanent reminders Aug 30.) So it is surprising that even institutions directly involved in fighting this problem use euphemisms. Why aren’t these institutes calling this sexual slavery since that’s what it is? The people forcing this conduct are slavers. Although I’ll give a break to people that do not know they are purchasing forced sex, if they know it is forced, they are rapists.

The same issue applies to people like Jeffery Epstein, priests, and others allegedly (or convicted of) engaging in pedophilia. Stories about Epstein have used phrases like “sex with underage women” or “underage prostitutes”. It is possible to argue what age makes a person an adult and to discuss individual maturity. But age of consent laws assume people under this age are not adults and are not capable of making consensual decisions about sex. The phrase “underage women” is a contradiction.  They are children! Epstein and others have been accused of child rape. Why aren’t people and the media calling it that?

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (from Wikipedia)

Keywords: Astronomy, women scientists, glass ceiling

(There are many influential people in history that are not generally known. Many such can arguably be said to have changed history because they doubted something and acted on that doubt. Here is someone I recently came across that I put in these categories.)

I recently became aware of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin from an article in Scientific American (Sept 2020) entitled Our Place in the Universe. Evidently Payne is better known then I knew since she is one of 16 women scientists featured on a t-shirt I recently bought. Some highlights from Wikipedia:

“… in 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University.”

Her PhD dissertation showed “… that helium and particularly hydrogen were vastly more abundant (for hydrogen, by a factor of about one million) [in stars in contrast to earth]. Her thesis concluded that hydrogen was the overwhelming constituent of stars (see Metallicity), making it the most abundant element in the Universe.

“However, when Payne’s dissertation was reviewed, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who stood by the theories of American physicist Henry Rowland, dissuaded her from concluding that the composition of the Sun was predominantly hydrogen because it would contradict the current scientific consensus …”

 “Russell [ultimately] realized she was correct when he derived the same results by different means. In 1929, he published his findings in a paper that admiringly acknowledged Payne’s earlier work and discovery; nevertheless, he is often credited for the conclusions she reached”

“… astronomer Otto Struve described her work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

This is a foundational finding that is at the heart of much astronomy. Payne continued to have a distinguished career and “her career marked a turning point at Harvard College Observatory”, allowing women to enter the mainstream of astronomy.

Science is, perhaps, the ultimate pursuit of those who are curious – of those who doubt. By starting from doubt, Payne established a foundational understanding of stars and broke a glass barrier along the way. Isn’t that awesome?

As always, there is more to explore by searching on her name.

Just because it’s awesome: Crab nebula

(Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with doubt and leads to an ongoing discovery of awesome aspects of reality.)

Crab Nebula (from Wikipedia)

The Crab Nebula (catalogue designations M1, NGC 1952, Taurus A) is a supernova remnant in the constellation of Taurus (from Wikipedia.)

There are (at least) two things I find awesome about this astronomical object. First, it

“… is widely accepted to be due to a supernova seen in the year 1054 CE by Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arab astronomers, who reported sighting a new bright star in the heavens. The star was so brilliant that it was visible even during the day for nearly three weeks and only faded from view nearly two years later.” (From Astronomy magazine.)

The fact that something discovered in 1731( by John Bevis) has been connected to observations recorded in 1054 shows the power of writing and science as well as showing how curiosity spans millennia and cultures.

But what really catches my eye is that the Crab Pulsar at the center of the nebula is a neutron star with a mass greater than the sun that is only about 20 miles in diameter and rotates at 30 times per second. Isn’t that awesome?

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