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November 2003

Delicious Milk

It's dawn and because of the atmospheric conditions and the temperature (temperature 36 degrees, humidity 59%, overcast with a chance of snow), the sky on the horizon is this amazing baby pink, lacking some of  the usual orange tones of sunrise. The traceries of silouhetted leafless trees give our yard the look of a children's book illustration. And by the time I finish the sentence, the pink has vanished, replaced by bluegray light with only a hint of pink.

I've been reading two seemingly unrelated books, Fiona Giles's Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts (mentioned in an earlier post) and Michael A. Schmidt's Brain-Building Nutrition. I'd gotten through much of the Schmidt book before we left for Thanksgiving. I took the Giles book with me to Massachusetts.

We stayed at the Fairview Inn in Brant Rock (in the Powder Point room, which can be seen on the virtual tour), where we also had Thanksgiving dinner. (David's mother has sold her house to a relative, though she still lives in it. So we don't stay there anymore as there isn't room.) Our room had a bay window facing the ocean, so I watched the sunrise from the bed, reading Fresh Milk and occasionally nursing Elizabeth. There was a seal out on the rocks. At first I though I was mistaken, that it was just a couple of birds I saw, but when we went down to breakfast, our hostess pointed it out, calling it "our resident seal."

Fresh Milk is a scattered, digressive book -- part survey, part anthology of essays, part collection of essays by Giles -- which tries to take on the deeper issues involved with breastfeeding which mostly don't come up in the usual books on breastfeeding

I'll digress myself and say that as someone who had breast fed for over two years of my life, I have read my share of breastfeeding tracts. They are usually part how-to, part pep talk. They have their uses. Back when Peter was first born and I was having problems breastfeeding him, the solution to my problem was not in any of them. Nor did the hospital's lactation consultants solve the problem for me. (Instead, they rented me a breast pump, which bought me the three weeks I needed to figure out how to solve it.) I found the solution in an older, more scientifically oriented book on infants which contained a longer list of infant reflexes than any of the current books. As it turned out, if I was very careful not to let the breast touch the skin between Peter's upper lip and his nose, he could latch on just fine. He nursed until thirteen months, when he seemed to lose interest. In retrospect, I perhaps should have pressed the point, since he had wall-to-wall ear infections until he was two, and also several bouts of pneumonia. He could have benefitted from the support of my immune system, I think.

Elizabeth is now thirteen months old. She seems to be going through a growth spurt and so nurses very frequently, day and night. She shows no signs of giving it up, which is fine. Nonetheless, how to proceed when she starts to lose interest is a subject I've been thinking about.

The two subjects most important to me in the Giles book are (1) the actual nature of breast milk and what it really is and does and (2) the child's view of breastmilk.

My body is producing a unique and miraculous substance. Should I leave the decision of when and whether to stop producing it up to an infant? And if I take charge of this myself, what does this entail? And what are the costs and benefits to me of being the family cow?

Taking the child's point of view is a shock to me because it's so obvious. When babies are born, their behavior seems half-instinct, half-reflex. And it is in the newborn phase, when everything within six feet of me seemed to get coated with breastmilk, that I'd formed my ideas on this: it's not very palatable to an adult, but babies are programmed to want it. But when one-year-old Elizabeth approaches the breast saying "Yum yum yum yum yum," and smacking her lips, this is not reflex and instinct. She means it. She's a walking talking sentient little girl who thinks breastmilk is delicious. Breastfeeding is so seamlessly integrated into my life that I had ignored this.

Brain-Building Nutrition has extensive discussions of brain nutrition and breastfeeding. In significant respects Elizabeth is what I eat. My diet has not been high is trans-fatty acids to begin with, but having read this book, I've resolved to try to get off them as completely as our food supply allows. Trans-fatty acids cause the body to produce a compound which replaces essential DHA in the brain, changing nerve conduction. It is more concentrated in the breast milk than in the maternal diet. (There is, by the way, a really good piece on dietary fats and the human brain on the Franklin Institute's web site.)

Also, thinking about nutrition, breastfeeding, brain nutrition, and brain development connects you immediately to larger issues: How, exactly, did all that mercury get into the ocean and into the very fish that are richest in Omega 3 fatty acids? The next book I want to read is Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber. There's a very intriguing interview with her I found on the web this morning. She says that coal-fired power plants are a main source of mercury in the world's fish supply. I've ordered a copy of her book.


Avocado Pomegranate Salad

My mother made me promise to try to write down my recipes as they occur. Here's this evening's successful experiment:

2 Avocados
1 Pomegranate
Avocado oil (olive oil would probably be fine)
Pomegranate juice (lemon juice could substitute)

Peel and chop 2 avocados into a medium salad bowl. Peel a pomegrante and add the pomegranate seeds to the chopped avocado. Add a little avocado oil and pomegranate juice and toss. This was very popular to the point of unauthorized grabbing from other people's plates at dinner. I found it quite delicious.


Seekers

Here are some Google searches that led people to my weblog. In some, you can tell what problem the searcher seeks to solve. Some show what people out there are thinking about. Others are just downright strange:


Referrer Spam & Visiting Spambots

Although my incoming links things haven't been affected today, many blogs have been afflicted with spam links in their referrer listings. There is a good discussion of this problem at viginant.tv: OT: clone blogs and referrer log spam.

I had a look at my logs to see if I'd had any such traffic. In fact, I had. About 10 visits apiece from each of the two spambots responsible (IP #s 217.73.164.106 and 141.85.3.130). I also noticed that my blogging of L0lita attacks had attracted a fair amount of spambot activity: 71 visits from a wide variety of IP addresses from all over the globe, a disproportionate number registered with the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (an ISP in Amsterdam).

Since my search engine ranking on the terms searched on has to be very low, pretty much all of the visits on resulting from Google, Yahoo, and MSN searches L0lita (+ various lewd search terms) have to have been spambots, most likely, L0lita's spambots. The lack of repeat business from single IP numers from day to day combined with the global distribution of the IP numbers -- Denmark, the Ukraine, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Germany, Turkey, Latin America, and amusingly enough, the number 170.28.4.4 which is registered to the New York City Transit Authority -- indicates some deliberate attempts at preventing blocking of the bots, and probably fraudulent use of IPs.

Interestingly, I have received only one comment spam since posting my legalistic message:

NOTE: This weblog does not accept commercial solicitations (i.e. spam) in the comments. Any such will be deleted and the commentors banned. Solicitations implying illegal activities will be reported to law enforcement. Multiple instances of posting commercial solicitations will be considered cybervandalism and will also be reported to law enforcement.

Trackback: Evil Genius Chronicles. (Gotta do something about Trackbacks not working one of these days.)

If you'd like to see the list of IP numbers used by L0lita spambots, click to continue reading.

Continue reading "Referrer Spam & Visiting Spambots" »


An Unfortunate Error

I've been wondering ever since the announcement of Operation Iron Hammer why the Military PR people who name such things chose such an obviously Hitleresque name for their new face-saving endeavor (code-named Operation Ninnyhammer in this household). It turns out that the Nazis really did use Iron Hammer as the name of a military operation:

U.S.'s 'Iron Hammer' Code Name 1st Used by Nazis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military's code name for a crackdown on resistance in Iraq (news - web sites) was also used by the Nazis for an aborted operation to damage the Soviet power grid during World War II.

"Operation Iron Hammer" this week launched the 1st Armored Division's 3rd Brigade into the roughest parts of Baghdad to ferret out the attackers who have killed scores of U.S. troops since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) was ousted in April.

A Pentagon (news - web sites) official said the name was chosen because of the "Old Ironsides" nickname of the 1st Armored Division. He was unaware of any connection to any Nazi operation.

"Eisenhammer," the German for "iron hammer," was a Luftwaffe code name for a plan to destroy Soviet generating plants in the Moscow and Gorky areas in 1943, according to Universal Lexikon on the www.infobitte.de Web site.

A researcher at Britain's Imperial War Museum confirmed the existence of Eisenhammer.

At this point the primary purpose of these silly names seems to be for marketing and propagation through the mass media. If this is a code name, what is Iron Hammer code for?

TRACKBACK: telescreen.org.


Indigo?

I've just had my eyes opened to a whole new subgenre of parenting books: New-Age inspired books on parenting your "Indigo" child or your "Crystal" child. The Indigo child stuff seemed superficially sensible until I discovered that it is based on what I gather is New Age Christian prophecy.

Learn something new every day.


Cocoa Bison

Who would have thought? Cocoa is an antioxidant!

So, other than hot chocolate and mole sauce, what can we do with this information?

Well, I just happened to have bison patties in my freezer, and I had a thought, which turned out to be a very good thought:

COCOA BISON

2 bison patties, thawed
2 tablespoons Avocado oil (olive oil would probably do fine)
1 tablespoon cocoa (powder)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
lemon juice

1. Mix the cocoa and cumin in a bowl.
2. Dredge the bison patties in the cocoa-cumin mixture.
3. Heat the oil in a frying pan on fairly low heat. (Bison cooks very fast and is dry if overcooked, so be cautious.)
4. Gently saute the bison patties, putting about half a teaspoon of lemon juice on each patty per side.
5. When cooked to your taste (I had mine rare), remove the patties from the pan and stir the pan drippings into a gravy.
6. Serve, pouring gravy over them if desired.

This experiment turned out great. Both Peter and Elizabeth wanted seconds. Somewhat to my surprise, I had to part with some of mine to satisfy the child demand.

Enjoy!


The White Flag

Having a one-year-old child is like having an induced case of very bad ADD. This is the age when I gave up my utopian idea of working diligently in my home office while young Peter played by himself nearby. And now Elizabeth is one.

As I write this, Elizabeth sneaks over to the electrical outlet I've forbidden her to touch. Smiling sweetly, saying No, no, no she tries to pull out cords behind her back, seemingly thinking I can't see what she's doing. Yesterday, after I had given up on the idea of trying to do much at all except watch her, she ran out of her room for a couple of minutes. I admit I was relieved at the momentary quiet and continued to skim the Ikea catalog, expecting her to reappear momentarily. When she didn't, I investigated. I found her covered with red and orange ink. She'd been in Peter's room biting the tips off (washable!) markers. What a mess!

I am possessed by the unfair conviction that if I was only smarter, if my brain only worked better, I could keep track of the kids, meet their needs, answer their questions, etc., and still be able to read, hold onto the thought I'd been pursuing, and general work with them around. I remember how hard it was to surrender to this with Peter. And I'm at that point again.

And yet, having been here before doesn't make it any easier. This time I have grander ideas. Surely mothers must have evolved to be able to think coherently when being interrupted five times a minute. (Counterargument: Babies evolved techniques to soak up every available ounce of adult attention. If you have more to spare, they know .) Or maybe the right nootropic foods would do the trick. Surely, there must be something. I cannot quite shake the idea that if I was smarter, I would able to work through this.

Shortly it will be time for surrender.


Two Idiots and a Handgun

About the time I was meeting Peter at the school bus yesteray afternoon, there was an armed robbery going on nearby on the other side of the block. Two men apparently rang a doorbell and pulled a gun on the person who answered the door. I probably don't know the person in question, but I do know a few of people who live a couple of houses away.

This is a very low-crime neighborhood. So this turn of events is quite shocking to me. I don't like to think this way, so the robbery makes me even more uncomfortable than it might have otherwise.

From the description of the crime distributed by the Mt. Pleasant Police, these were not professional criminals; just idiots with a handgun in desperate need of immediate cash. If what they wanted was cash, why go doorbelling to get it? (They didn't get much.) If what they wanted was cash, why didn't they just rob a bank? Cashwise, on any given day I would be hardpressed to pay the pizza delivery boy, let alone satisfy the cravings of armed robbers. I gather that the unlucky person who was robbed was probably not much different.

Nonetheless, a gun can be at least as deadly in the hands of an idiot as in the hands of a professional criminal. I really don't like the idea of idiots with guns being able to find their way to my neighborhood.


A Very Blustery Day

From today's weather report:

West winds will increase to 25 to 35 mph this morning... with higher gusts. The highest winds will be this afternoon and evening... where sustained winds reaching 40 mph will be possible. Wind gusts in excess of 58 mph are expected this afternoon as well... especially in the higher terrain of the region. [ellipses in original]

Windycon Pictures

We have a new digital camera, and my parents brought their digital camera, too. So we have an abundance of pictures from Windycon:


A koi in the lobby koi pond, a big hit with the kids.


Gene Wolfe & John Cramer


Peter practices yoga in the hotel room.


Elizabeth with her grandmother, Pauline Cramer.


Beverly Friend & Elizabeth Anne Hull


Vincent DiFate with Jim Wilson at the party for DiFate.


Alex Eisenstein and Robert Weinberg with their contributions to the fabulous exhibit of Ed Cartier illustrations.


Marianne Mohanraj, Jim Frenkel, & Gene Wolfe


Patricia Bowne


Roger Vernon


Gregory Benford & David Hartwell


David wears the silly hat Peter bought in the dealer's room. It suits him.


My Drug Experience

I had my first experience with MDMA (aka Ecstasy) this weekend; not by taking it, but by having a hotel room across the hall from a party where it was being sold.

While I'm not the sort of person who would ever have considered taking MDMA myself, I had a vaguely favorable impression of it as illegal drugs go. By reputation, its primary effect is to increase empathy. What's not to like about people having more empathy?

My experience this weekend with people on MDMA was very different from what one might have expected, given its reputation as an "empathogen." To state it flatly, if you take Ecstasy to make yourself more empathic, you are a narcissistic, self-deluded fool.

Thursday night, everything was fine. We got a good night's sleep.

Friday night was fine until about 1AM, when very loud music began blasting from 3117, the room across the hall. We had been mistakenly assigned a room on the party floor. I assumed it had something do to with guests whose rooms were paid for by the convention needing to be in the convention room block. We are fairly hardcore convention-goers and I have socialized my children to be noise tolerant when travelling, so being on the party floor should not have been a big deal. But the sound level coming out of the room across the hall was beyond my considerable experience. I marched across the hall in my pajamas without my glasses on and told the lone person in the room that he could not keep his door open if he was going to play music at that volume, and then closed his hotel room door. A few minutes later, he reopened it. His insistence at having the door open hinted at the commercial nature of his enterprise.

The loud music continued, but I heard no people except the occasional passer by. A while later, David stopped by the loud room on his way to bed and asked that they turn down the music, which they did, though they turned it back up after a short while. David remarked that the music in the main room of the suite across the hall had been too loud even for the party's attendees. So the sound system was in one room and all the people were in the other. We were very grumpy about the noise but tried to sleep through it as best we could. I felt foolish in the morning, thinking if I had only been more assertive with the guy across the hall I might have gotten more sleep.

Saturday night, I went to bed around 10. Shortly after midnight, the music started, even louder than the previous night. I immediately arose from my bed and went across the hall to speak to the host. He was the only one in the room. I explained to him that he could not keep his door open while playing loud music like he had the previous night and that he must close the door. I explained that I had two young children sleeping in the room directly across the hall.

His affect and manner of speech were most peculiar. He spoke slowly as though giving a speech to a large crowd: "MY. PARTY. BEGINS at. ONE A.M.. This. Is. the PARTY FLOOR. I. MAY play MUSIC. as LOUD as I LIKE. And the DOOR MUST. REMAIN. OPEN." He seemed to take the attitude that a mom in her pajamas with two kids asleep across the hall symbolized everything that was wrong with America and the world and needed a strong political response.

I allowed as how if he didn't close the door, I was going to call hotel security. Surprisingly, he told me to go ahead. He knew something I didn't: that the convention had a deal with the hotel that convention security, not hotel security, would police the third floor. The front desk said they would pass the complaint on to convention security. Meanwhile, I left the kids asleep in the room and got David from the Tor party and asked him to go discuss the matter with convention security, which he did.

After a visit from convention security, 3117's door was closed for a brief period. Then their guests began arriving and the door was opened and stayed open. Also, since it was impossible to talk in a room with the music turned up to 11, the somewhat deafened party-goers stood directly outside our door to talk, some even leaning on our door jamb. Peculiarly, the portentous and self-absorbed way they talked was very much like Our Host across the hall. Occasionally things would get quieter -- presumably when security came by --and they would get loud again.

When a group of six or eight began hooting directly outside our door, I opened the door and spoke calmly and reasonably to them, explaining that there were people sleeping in this room, including two small children, and they needed to take their party elsewhere.

Let me stop to say that while it does happen at science fiction conventions that people will stand in your doorway and talk loudly while you are trying to sleep, if you open your door and make them aware of the problem they will most often apologize and leave.

This approach cut no ice with the hooters. In fact, they seemed delighted that I had opened the door and so hooted some more. If they had been wearing convention badges, I would have taken badge numbers, but they weren't. It crossed my mind to wonder if this group, which did not smell like alcohol but had a strange shared affect, might be on drugs. It also crossed my mind that this was an old person's thought and that perhaps I was just getting old. I realized that there was something really strange about this situation that I didn't understand.

After chasing a couple of hooters down the hall, I realized that I should not be doing this and it was time for me to pay a visit to convention security. One of the evening's most memorable moments occurred in con security's office: Someone was sent to the party to speak to the host about closing his door and not allowing they party to spill out into the hall. Over the security walkie-talkie, I head the con security person tell the head of security: "He says he has the right to play the music as loud as he wants and the right to keep the door open." I leaned back in my chair, chuckling and shaking my head.

Con security resolved to take care of the problem so I returned by myself to my room. In retrospect, I should have asked for an escort. But some part of me still regarded them as our people who were a bit out of hand.

I had an ugly confrontation with the people partying outside my door, including one conspicuously grandious fellow who said something like "It serves you RIGHT for having a room on the PARTY FLOOR." I told him that I did not need to discuss this with him since security was on its way and closed the door.

Shortly thereafter, things got quieter. Then a little later, they got much louder: our host yelling "ARE THERE ANY VIRGINS HERE?" followed by the crowd chanting "VIRGIN VIRGIN VIRGIN." A bit later they got a little quieter. But then I heard Our Host calling to the people in the hall, "I DON'T want you to be QUIETER! I want you to make MORE NOISE!" They came over to our door and began hooting outside once again. I did not open the door. Instead I called convention security: this new event was really bizarre. Our Host was inciting his party guests to take revenge upon us for a visit from security, and his guests were doing it. This had crossed the line into some kind of collective psychosis. The revenge aspect was doubly peculiar, since by this point it had been some time since I'd last spoken to security.

Once I had done everything I could short of calling the Shaumburg police, we tried to sleep through it, though we were occasionally awakened by people calling for drugs, or the drug dealer speaking in grandious terms about how he had been selling at this convention for three years and hadn't sold as much this year; he attributed this to the STATE of the ECONOMY. I thought about calling the police at that point, but decided against it, since I had too little evidence and might seem spiteful.

Someone else must have called the police around 4:30 AM, since I'm told the police closed them down and chased a drug dealer out of the hotel who had been selling MDMA.

I got not the faintest sense of empathy from anyone in that stoned crowd. Seen from the outside, the MDMA-induced "empathy" experience looked more like a Lord-of-the-Flies style collective psychosis. These people were crazy in a very disturbing, sociopathic way.

Looking MDMA up on the internet, there are all these web sites which present MDMA as some kind of utopian drug with a few side-effects that need to be ironed out. From this weekend's experience, I conclude it is a bad, bad drug and that people who take it with the idea of improving their mental health are deeply deluded.


Back from Windycon

We are back from Windycon, a lovely reginal convention help in Shaumburg, Illinois, outside Chicago. We has a great time (except during the hours of midnihgt to 5 AM, which I will dicuss in a separate post).

David and I were special guests. My father was the science guest of honor, so my parents were there. There was appropriate childcare, so juggling children was not a problem.

One of the things I liked best about it was that some thought had gone into planning what children might like to do at the convention. There was a kids' art competition in the art show, a children's costume parade organized around the masquerade, and a kids science fair which was unfortuately cancelled because of inadequate publicity, but it was a really good idea.


More on SEARCH INSIDE THE BOOK

Yesterday, Amazon finally took out the SEARCH INSIDE THIS BOOK feature for The Dark Descent (ed. David G. Hartwell), The Ascent of Wonder (ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer), and Visions of Wonder (ed. Hartwell & Milt Wolf), as per our request the Monday after the program debuted.

You can find out most of you might reasonably want to know about The Ascent of Wonder prior to buying it from my own site, which includes my introduction, David's introduction, and all of our story notes in their entirety with extensive hypertextual linking.

A number of Ellen Datlow's anthologies remain searchable, despite her requests that they be removed from the program. (As far as I know, one of the authors in Vanishing Acts is the one who raised the alarm about whole stories being readable online. He searched Amazon on his own name on the very first day and discovered that one could read his whole story in Vanishing Acts on Amazon. He went through the roof and requested that Ellen do something about it immediately. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Amazon to remove Ellen's books from the program.

Trackback: Practical Nomad.


A New Way to Respond to Spam?

After yesterday's researches, I have a thought of a new way to respond to especially loathesome spam: Do the WHOIS lookup on the site advertised (OK, it takes a minute) and reply with a sternly worded note to the administrative and technical contacts listed for the domain. Any thoughts?

Of course, one can't do this for everything, but I feel like I really ought to do something about spam suggesting they're selling kiddie porn.

There is probably a way to automate this: a blacklist registry which takes a URL and assigns it to email addresses which have been looked up in advance.


Babezilla vs. the Black Pepper

Elizabeth got hold of a large can of black pepper this morning. She opened the "LIFT TO SPOON" flap and tipped it up to look in, dumping a large amount in her eyes and mouth. We've just had an emergency visit to the opthamologist.

(When Peter was tiny and got into the Peter, he amused himself by emptying a can into our bed.)

David missed the excitement because he's a physical therapy for his foot.

Aaah!


Vision in Perspective

When I sit down to blog, it is to easy to get sucked into quick reactions to news stories. I had a really fascinating experience the other day which I've been meaning to blog, but other things kept getting in the way. So here we go.

About a week ago, I read Oliver Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. One of the seven tales, "To See and Not See" [this link will work only if you have a credit card on file with Amazon],  concerned a blind man named Virgil who had his sight restored in middle age. The surgery worked, but the consequences of restoring his sight were disastrous. It's very Flowers for Algernon; in fact the similarity is so strong that I wonder if Daniel Keyes may have taken his plot from early case histories like this.

Virgil begins as an economically independent massage therapist with a devoted fiancee, and ends as an angry disabled man, unable to work, even blinder than he started out. The case is medically complex, so Sacks doesn't come out and say this, but there is the sinister implication that the demands of sight borrow processing power from the parts of Virgil's brain that control his heart and lungs. (In an earlier case history,  a man whose sight was restored died within two years.)

Nor was Virgil's restoration to sight much like the Biblical scales falling from the eyes of the blind. He had to be taught to see, and it only partly worked.

A few days after reading this, I got a phone call: my friend Deena was in Boston, staying with Sarah Smith. She had picked up a car and was driving it back to Colorado. I immediately invited her to say with me on the return trip. Our house is extremely difficult to find under the best of circumstances. I hadn't seen Deena in about seven years, but I had some faint recollection that she didn't see very well. So I was a bit surprised that she was driving. Despite our best efforts, it took over an hour for us to get her from the center of Pleasantville to my house. When she arrived, she explained that she'd only been driving for a few years, following surgery to correct her vision.

It was only then that I remembered that when I had last seen her, she walked with a blind person's cane. While not entirely blind -- with really thick glasses she had been able to see things that were close -- she had been "legally blind." I remember her making some remark about her vision being "80% imagination."

The story goes that her vision had deteriorated further, and that she had fallen on her head repeatedly. After five or six concussions and some unsuccessful vision therapy, it was decided that she needed surgery to correct her vision. The surgery was successful, but like Virgil, she lacked a lot of the basic skills for seeing.

Most fundamentally, she lacks skills for visual prioritizing. She said that initially she was unable to have a conversation with someone wearing patterned clothing because the patterns were too distracting. Even now, four years after surgery, she finds it difficult to converse in our kitchen because of the intrusive pattern of our 70s wallpaper. (We moved our conversation to the living room).

Perspective remains difficult, though she was able to teach herself how to see it. She bought a digital camera and took pictures of scenes she didn't understand -- a street, sidewalk, and house. She asked people to explain the scenes: How do you tell where the street is? How do you tell the house from the sidewalk? At this she was successful, though she says she still has problems with uphill and downhill.

On the other hand, faces have defeated her. Though she can recognize a generic face, efforts to learn to recognize people by their faces and to tell how people feel by their faces have defeated her, despite some very hard work. She says she used to be able to tell with some precision how people felt by their voices, but she is losing that ability: the demands of trying unsuccessfully to understand by facial expression erodes older coping skills. Also, her inability to recognize faces really upsets people and causes frequent social difficulties.

I have a book of optical illusions around, so I got it out and tried them on her. I would have expected that she could not recognize all the different ways to see the pictures. Instead, she saw what I saw, plus additional botanical images that I didn't see -- seemingly on the basis of small parts of the images that looked a bit like petals or branches.

What she feels she has gained from the surgery is mobility: she can drive, so she can go many more places. But in general she would rather go back to the way she was. Vision does not work for her as well as her older ways of gaining information, but the demands of vision erode these older skills. It reminds me of upgrading a computer operating system to find that one doesn't like it as well as the older system.

I told her she really must write about her experiences trying to learn to see, which I found quite fascinating. This was all especially startling, since I had not really thought of Deena as blind in the first place.

(I do wonder, now that I've written all this down, whether my wandering off into cyberspace from what I intended to blog, as recounted in the very first paragraph, is neurologically similar to Deena becoming distracted by the wallpaper. Perhaps later generations will have better prioritizing skills for this kind of information feed.)

UPDATE: Read Deena's comments on my observations in the comments.

Kathryn Cramer at November  3, 2003 07:35 AM | Link Cosmos | Purple Numbers  | Edit

Comments

As I understand it, there is a part of the brain that is specifically devoted to recognizing people's faces. People who have this part of the brain damaged in  an accident, say, may have otherwise excellent vision but have great difficulty recognizing even close friends and relatives. It sounds like your friend may not have been able to develop this portion of her brain, if she was visually impaired for so long, or has let it lapse.
  I tend to think that my own ability to recognize faces isn't that great. I find that I often recognize someone not only from their face--for example, I might recognize you because you're slender + have pale blond hair + happen to be carrying a baby, rather than only by your face Actually, my ability in this regard isn't totally lacking, so I probably would recognize your face, but in general I feel my facial recognition software is not as well developed as I would like. If your friend has trouble with this, she might be able to develop a lot of workarounds: if she's losing her ability to recognize voices, there are still height, body shape, gait, distinctive items of clothing or shoes or jewelry, hair color...tattoos can be especially helpful, since they tend to be distinctive.
  I find it slightly odd that your friend is driving, though I can see how it might be relatively easy to just look ahead at taillights. But navigation is part of driving...

Posted by: Robert L at November  3, 2003 07:58 AM

Thanks Kathryn, you've summed this up much better than I ever have.   I have sent you a rough draft of a writeup, please let me know if I have the right email.

There is a website for face blindness--it is a great explanation and you can't imagine how wonderful I felt when I first read it:
http://www.choisser.com/faceblind/

Of course, a lot of this was actually realizing that people use faces to recognize other people.  This hadn't dawned on me until 2 years after I had my sight.  I asked Stephanie Strickland, another hypertext poet, how people seemed to be recognizing each other at the hypertext conference we were attending.  The conference did not have name tags, and people hadn't seen each other for a few years. Yet they could call out to each other across the room.  I had had a feeling there was some visual clue, but  I didn't know what.

It is these bases of assumptions that get to me. You never say oh a tree stays where it is all night and doesn't move--that is assumed. You don't say oh, people have different features and you look at the face and can tell who it is, that is assumed. (By the way, no one has yet given me a good explanation of WHAT they look for in a face.  Eyes change, expressions in mouths change.) I would love a detailed explanation of how you use faces to recognize people. 

I have researched the computer IT folks progress in facial recognition, but this is also based on a static picture for the most part, with some complicated algorithms that would take me more than the moment usually alloted for facial recognition.  Ahh...thanks for letting me vent.

Before I could see clearly, I could hear very well. I still can.  I could tell who someone was within a word or two of them speaking. I still can, usually, but the ability has dimmed. I can still listen in a crowded room and pick out voices I know and follow up to about 6 conversations.  I can no longer do this and carry on a conversation at the same time--but I used to be able to.   So my abilities to recognize by hearing have diminished.

Also, I no longer carry a cane and people expect me to recognize them as I can now see.  At first, I tried and faked it, with horrible results.  When I realized it was a problem, I tried very hard to memorize faces and learn people.  Now I am becoming more resigned to not being able to do this.  I do memorize what a person wears for that day and once I meet a person I can tell who they are, as long as they don't put on a sweater or a jacket.

I also look for height, shape, style of walking, hair --hair is very misleading.  I also use contextual conversations--we are in a grocery store but you are talking about work, so I know you from work... But most of these take a few minutes and people often will not take the time I need to recognize them.  I am finally becoming up front about the issue and warning people ahead of time that I will not recognize them. This has lead to a few practical jokes, but for the most part, people are good about it. Most of my friends now come up to me and say "Hi Deena it's so and so."    You could say this is my anti-spam method in person ;)

Posted by: Deena at November  8, 2003 01:35 AM

While I am intrigued and heartened by the track of Deena's abilities, I am skeptical that she belongs behind a wheel. I can imagine too many driving scenarios where her gaps and additional processing time could be lethal to others.

Posted by: David Lubkin at September 13, 2004 12:39 PM

Near record warmth this afternoon...

It's 75 degrees out -- a glorious, golden fall afternoon. The temperature and humidlity feel to me ideal for human habitation. I've been outside pulling Elizabeth in the wagon, doing slow circles around the driveway. It is so peculiar to have the weather this nice out in November.

David is now on his way back from World Fantasy Con in Washington, DC. It was uncertain when he'd make it back, since our great American station wagon sprung a gas tank leak in the hotel parking garage. The gas tank has now been replaced, and he's on his way.

In today's mail I found our $800 check from the IRS bearing the words TAX RELIEF FOR AMERICA'S FAMILIES. Eight hundred is probably about what the leaky gas tank cost to fix. Easy come. Easy go. For five minutes, I can feel grateful to Bush for financing our car repair using the national debt. Then I can go back to thinking he's a bad president.


Vision in Perspective

When I sit down to blog, it is to easy to get sucked into quick reactions to news stories. I had a really fascinating experience the other day which I've been meaning to blog, but other things kept getting in the way. So here we go.

About a week ago, I read Oliver Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. One of the seven tales, "To See and Not See" [this link will work only if you have a credit card on file with Amazon], concerned a blind man named Virgil who had his sight restored in middle age. The surgery worked, but the consequences of restoring his sight were disastrous. It's very Flowers for Algernon; in fact the similarity is so strong that I wonder if Daniel Keyes may have taken his plot from early case histories like this.

Virgil begins as an economically independent massage therapist with a devoted fiancee, and ends as an angry disabled man, unable to work, even blinder than he started out. The case is medically complex, so Sacks doesn't come out and say this, but there is the sinister implication that the demands of sight borrow processing power from the parts of Virgil's brain that control his heart and lungs. (In an earlier case history, a man whose sight was restored died within two years.)

Nor was Virgil's restoration to sight much like the Biblical scales falling from the eyes of the blind. He had to be taught to see, and it only partly worked.

A few days after reading this, I got a phone call: my friend Deena was in Boston, staying with Sarah Smith. She had picked up a car and was driving it back to Colorado. I immediately invited her to say with me on the return trip. Our house is extremely difficult to find under the best of circumstances. I hadn't seen Deena in about seven years, but I had some faint recollection that she didn't see very well. So I was a bit surprised that she was driving. Despite our best efforts, it took over an hour for us to get her from the center of Pleasantville to my house. When she arrived, she explained that she'd only been driving for a few years, following surgery to correct her vision.

It was only then that I remembered that when I had last seen her, she walked with a blind person's cane. While not entirely blind -- with really thick glasses she had been able to see things that were close -- she had been "legally blind." I remember her making some remark about her vision being "80% imagination."

The story goes that her vision had deteriorated further, and that she had fallen on her head repeatedly. After five or six concussions and some unsuccessful vision therapy, it was decided that she needed surgery to correct her vision. The surgery was successful, but like Virgil, she lacked a lot of the basic skills for seeing.

Most fundamentally, she lacks skills for visual prioritizing. She said that initially she was unable to have a conversation with someone wearing patterned clothing because the patterns were too distracting. Even now, four years after surgery, she finds it difficult to converse in our kitchen because of the intrusive pattern of our 70s wallpaper. (We moved our conversation to the living room).

Perspective remains difficult, though she was able to teach herself how to see it. She bought a digital camera and took pictures of scenes she didn't understand -- a street, sidewalk, and house. She asked people to explain the scenes: How do you tell where the street is? How do you tell the house from the sidewalk? At this she was successful, though she says she still has problems with uphill and downhill.

On the other hand, faces have defeated her. Though she can recognize a generic face, efforts to learn to recognize people by their faces and to tell how people feel by their faces have defeated her, despite some very hard work. She says she used to be able to tell with some precision how people felt by their voices, but she is losing that ability: the demands of trying unsuccessfully to understand by facial expression erodes older coping skills. Also, her inability to recognize faces really upsets people and causes frequent social difficulties.

I have a book of optical illusions around, so I got it out and tried them on her. I would have expected that she could not recognize all the different ways to see the pictures. Instead, she saw what I saw, plus additional botanical images that I didn't see -- seemingly on the basis of small parts of the images that looked a bit like petals or branches.

What she feels she has gained from the surgery is mobility: she can drive, so she can go many more places. But in general she would rather go back to the way she was. Vision does not work for her as well as her older ways of gaining information, but the demands of vision erode these older skills. It reminds me of upgrading a computer operating system to find that one doesn't like it as well as the older system.

I told her she really must write about her experiences trying to learn to see, which I found quite fascinating. This was all especially startling, since I had not really thought of Deena as blind in the first place.

(I do wonder, now that I've written all this down, whether my wandering off into cyberspace from what I intended to blog, as recounted in the very first paragraph, is neurologically similar to Deena becoming distracted by the wallpaper. Perhaps later generations will have better prioritizing skills for this kind of information feed.)

UPDATE: Read Deena's comments on my observations in the comments.


Animal Sacrifice & the Democratic Primary

JOHN KERRY, PHEASANT-SLAYER: I generally refrain from criticizing Democratic presidential candidates even if I would prefer not to vote for them, but I am weirded out by John Kerry killing two pheasants for a photo-op, after criticizing Howard Dean's stance on gun control. Don't do that, John. Just don't do that.

FURTHER: This bugs me. It really bugs me. I keep wanting to write more, elaborating on this post; stuff like the subtext being, in part, that Kerry has the stomach for a long occupation of Iraq. But I need to just leave this alone and get on with my day.


Trees Cause Forest Fires?

Fox News, totem animal of our fox-in-the-hen-house-administration, has an article about how trees are the cause of forest fires:

California Fires Reignite Forest Thinning Debate

While there is something to discuss in the actual wisdom of thinning forests, that wasn't what Bush's legislation was truly for. It is mostly for enriching logging companies.

Wild fires are a natural phenomenon and are part of the lifecycle of forests. Suburban sprawl, however, puts people and their houses in harm's way. I haven't been following the fires closely, since I live on the East coast and have a small daughter who can mess up the house faster than I can pick things up. But it seems likely to me that the growth of sprawl has fueled the flames as much as dried dead trees. Yet, as far as I know, there as been no outcry from Fox to limit sprawl in response to the wildfires.

(Via technorati.)


First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, ...

Will THIS be perceived as yet another threat to heterosexual marriage?

Male Pregnancy Becomes Possibility

The logistics of it all haven't been figured out, but something happened earlier this month that made the concept of male pregnancy a real possibility.

What happened?

When doctors in Montreal performed an emergency C-section on the baby's mom, they discovered the baby had been growing in her abdomen rather than her uterus.

Physiologically, there is a lot more to successful completion of a pregnancy than possession of a uterus. I don't think this medical fluke gets us even a little closer to male pregnancy. (If you want to go that direction, consider the sea horse.)

So why the spin? I'm all for futuristic speculation, but this is part of the political backwash from the Canadian gay marriage thing.

(Via Technorati.)