Humans Fall for Optical Illusions, But Do Cats?

Peripheral Drift Illusion

Most “optical illusions” are not really optical. They have less to do with the way the eyes work than with the way the brain processes the information sent to it from the eyes. For this reason, many scientists prefer to call them visual illusions. So if visual illusions are a trick of the brain, and human brains differ from the brains of other animals, does that mean our visual illusions are uniquely human?

The answer would appear to be no, judging from the cute video below from YouTube. The kitten is falling for the “rotating snakes illusion” developed in 2003 by Japanese psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. The rotating snakes (click here to view in a larger format) are an example of the “peripheral drift illusion,” a phenomenon first described in 1999 by Jocelyn Faubert and Andrew Herbert of the University of Montreal. Cats are very adept at perceiving motion in their peripheral vision. It helps them elude predators and home in on their own prey. But this kitty is thrown for a loop by the illusory motion of the rotating snakes.

The peripheral drift illusion occurs when circularly repeating figures with regular sawtooth patterns of light and dark are viewed in the periphery. You’ll find that if you move your eyes around the various circles, for example going from center point to center point, the circles in your peripheral vision will appear to be moving but the one you are focused on will not. If you stop moving your eyes, a moment later the circles will all appear to stop moving. In the abstract of their 1998 paper (open PDF), Faubert and Herbert write:

Illusory motion is perceived in a dark-to-light direction, but only when one’s gaze is directed to different locations around the stimulus, a point outside the display is fixated and the observer blinks, or when the stimulus is sequentially displayed at different locations whilst the observer fixates one point. We propose that the illusion is produced by the interaction of three factors: (i) introducing transients as a result of eye movements or blinks; (ii) differing latencies in the processing of luminance; and (iii) spatiotemporal integration of the differing luminance signals in the periphery.

via Stephen Law

Leonard Bernstein Demystifies the Rock Revolution for Curious (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

Many of today’s thirteen-year-olds surely have the Beatles on their iPods (or their iPhones or Androids, or whatever now ranks as the cutting-edge adolescent’s listening device of choice). Yet they would have been born in 2000, forty years after the dissolution of the Beatles themselves. Their parents would probably have been born in the sixties, already the height of the band’s creativity. The startling implication: these kids rock out to some of the very same songs their grandparents may well have loved. As P.J. O’Rourke once wrote upon spotting an aged hippie with a walker and a hearing aid at an Iraq War protest, sic transit generation gap. But back in 1967, when that gap yawned so chasmically wide as to render any communication across it seemingly impossible, the young Baby Boomers and their own Great Depression, Second World War-forged parents used the musical landscape to draw their battle lines. Who could broker a peace? Enter composer, pianist, and New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein. Born in 1918 and hailed as one of the most accomplished and astute musical minds in American history, he could not only appreciate the techniques and innovations of the youth-driven pop-rock explosion of the sixties, he could get the ear of his middle-aged peers and explain to them just what they were missing.

The television broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution gave Bernstein a mass-communication platform on which perform this analysis, asking aloud the questions of (a) why this music so infuriates Americans over a certain age and (b) why he himself likes it so much. Decked out in a square-friendly suit and tie and appearing on the even square-friendlier CBS network, Bernstein plays clips of songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and the Association, breaking down the genuine musicological merits of each: their vocal expressions, their unexpected key changes, their countless sonic layers, their stripped-down melodic sense, and their lyrics’ adeptness of implication (“one of our teenager’s strongest weapons”). Bernstein also calls upon “Society’s Child” singer-songwriter Janis Ian and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson to perform live. Quite a few crew-cut, cardigan-clad, martini-sipping adults must have come away from Inside Pop with a new, if grudging, appreciation for the craft of these long-haired youngsters. But now, to address the concerns of the 21st century’s bewildered grown-ups, who will go on television and explain dubstep?

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via Dangerous Minds

Related content:

Leonard Bernstein’s Masterful Lectures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Recorded in 1973)

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The Nazis’ 10 Control-Freak Rules for Jazz Performers: A Strange List from World War II

Bass SaxophoneLike the rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, which shocked staid white audiences with translations of black rhythm and blues, the popularity of jazz caused all kinds of racial panic and social anxiety in the early part of the twentieth century. Long before the rise of European fascism, many American groups expressed extreme fear and agitation over the rise of minority cultural forms. But by World War II, jazz was intrinsically woven into the fabric of American majority culture, albeit often in versions scrubbed of blues undertones. This was not, of course, the case in Nazi occupied Europe, where jazz was suppressed; like most forms of modern art, it bore the stigma of impurity, innovation, passion… all qualities totalitarians frown on (even anti-fascist theorist Theodor Adorno had a serious beef with jazz).

And while it’s no great surprise that Nazis hated jazz—so much so that, as we noted yesterday, Stanley Kubrick almost made a film about the WWII-era European jazz underground—it seems they expressed their disapproval in a very oddly specific way, at least in the recollection of Czech writer and dissident Josef Skvorecky.

On the occasion of Skvorecky’s death, J.J. Gould pointed out in The Atlantic that the writer was himself one of the characters that so interested Kubrick. An aspiring tenor saxophone player living in Third Reich-occupied Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky had ample opportunity to experience the Nazis’ “control-freak hatred of jazz.” In the intro to his short novel The Bass Saxophone, he recounts from memory a set of ten bizarre regulations issued by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, that bound local dance orchestras during the Czech occupation.

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

As The Atlantic notes, “being a Nazi, this public servant obviously didn’t miss an opportunity to couch as many of these regulations as he could in racist or anti-Semitic terms.” This racialized fear and hatred was the source, after all, of the objection. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine what kind of music this set of restrictions could possibly produce, but it most certainly would not be anything people would want to dance to. And that was probably the point.

For more on Josef  Skvorecky’s life as a writer under Nazism and his escape from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion, read his illuminating Paris Review interview.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Enter Jeff Slatnick’s Wonderful World of New-Fangled and Resurrected Instruments

Jeff Slatnick has been the “guy in the store” over at Music Inn World Instruments for over 40 years, a landmark music store in the West Village of NYC. When you step into the Music Inn, you’re stepping into “a museum, rich with music history from around the world.” You’ll encounter instruments from far-flung countries, instruments that died out centuries ago, and new-fangled instruments designed for the hustle and bustle of today’s New York City. The short profile film above comes from NYorkers, a series of shorts dedicated to featuring “New Yorkers that you don’t read about in headlines…”

via The Atlantic

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New Heat Map Reveals the Creation of Our Infant Universe

Planck Light

This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected by the Planck mission. Click on the map for a larger image.

By now the Big Bang theory is widely accepted scientifically. The idea is that the universe began to expand rapidly about 14 billion years ago from a dense, hot state and continues to expand to this day.

One of the most telling fingerprints left behind by the Big Bang is cosmic microwave background radiation. This thermal radiation was thought to be left over from the Big Bang itself. It fills the universe almost completely.

A new map of cosmic radiation questions some of the core concepts of the Big Bang. What if, this precise heat map suggests, the Universe experienced a long, pre-Bang phase? What if the Big Bang wasn’t the first burp of creation after all?

The European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft measures between infra-red and radio waves, making it possible to see back in time to the first light ever produced.

Cosmologists released the new images of the early universe this week. What surprises them is that Planck detected stronger light signals on one half of the sky than the other and picked up a series of anomalies or “cold spots.” While this doesn’t challenge the Big Bang theory as a whole, it does heighten the mystery around the universe’s birth and development.

The data is still coming in. Like the Human Genome Project, Planck stands to generate double the amount of data it has produced so far.

Planck two

This full-sky map from the Planck mission shows matter between Earth and the edge of the observable universe. Regions with more mass show up as lighter areas while regions with less mass are darker. The grayed-out areas are where light from our own galaxy was too bright, blocking Planck’s ability to map the more distant matter. Click the map for a larger image.

Some other surprises from the Planck spacecraft data:

• The universe is about 100 million years older and appears to be expanding much slower than previously thought

•  There is less dark energy and more matter in the universe than previous research showed.

Related Content:

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Contact her and learn more about her work at .

The Grateful Dead Rock the National Anthem at Candlestick Park: Opening Day, 1993

The 2013 baseball season starts next week, and it’s a time when hope springs eternal — unless you root for the Cubs, the injury-laden Yankees, or the Pirates, Indians, or various other small market teams. But let’s not get sidetracked by all of that. Today, we’re heading into the past, 20 years deep, and we’re thinking about Baseball, Apple Pie and the Grateful Dead. You heard me right, the Grateful Dead. On April 12, 1993, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Vince Welnick (then a keyboardist with the band) did the honors on opening day at Candlestick Park, singing the national anthem before the San Francisco Giants – Florida Marlins game. If you thought the Dead could never carry a tune, you’re in for a little surprise.

A few key things to remember about this 1993 moment. 1) It was the first season of baseball for the new Marlins expansion team. 2) Barry Bonds was still skinny and lean and homered in his first at bat. And 3) it was the only time that Jerry sang the anthem at a ball game. Bob Weir and Phil Lesh made a return visit last fall.

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Clever Animation Brings Figure Drawings to Life

The creative team of Tom Wrigglesworth & Matt Robinson went to an art class at The Book Club in London, and there created an animation that breathes life into a series of figure drawings. Every easel in the class captured a nude model from a different angle. The film then gathered them all together, producing one wonderfully animated composite figure. Pretty neat stuff. If you’re in London, you can check out the next Life Drawing class on April 6.

via Laughing Squid

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Rare Audio: Samuel Beckett Reads From His Novel Watt

Samuel Beckett was notoriously shy around recording devices. He would spend hours in a studio working with actors, but when it came to recording a piece in his own voice he was elusive. Only a handful of recordings are known to exist. So the audio above of Beckett reading a pair of his poems is extremely rare.

The recordings were made in 1965 by Lawrence Harvey, professor of comparative literature at Dartmouth College, who traveled to Paris to meet with Beckett a number of times from 1961 to 1965 while researching his 1970 book Samuel Beckett, Poet and Critic. At one point during their discussions, Beckett recited several passages from his third but second-published novel, Watt. The book was written in English in the 1940s, mostly while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in southern France. It’s an experimental novel (Beckett called it an “exercise”) about a seeker named Watt who journeys to the house of the enigmatic Mr. Knott and works for a time as his servant. “Watt” and “Knott” are often interpreted as stand-ins for the question “what?” and unanswerable “not,” or “naught.”

The two poems recited by Beckett are from his 37 intriguing Addenda at the end of Watt. Harvey also recorded Beckett reading a prose passage from the book. The full four-minute tape is now in the collection of the Baker Library at Dartmouth. The short clip above is from the 1993 film Waiting For Beckett. The image quality is poor and there are distracting Dutch subtitles, so perhaps the best way to enjoy the reading is to scroll down and look instead at Beckett’s words while you listen to his voice. He begins with the 4th Addenda, later published as “Tailpiece” in Collected Poems, 1930-1978:

who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess
of the world’s woes?
in words enclose?

The images in the poem are, according to scholars S.E. Gontarski and Chris Ackerley in their essay “Samuel Beckett’s Watt,” a reworking by Beckett of the biblical passage Isaiah 40:12, which says, “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with a span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” The next poem is the 23rd Addenda. It tells of Watt’s long and fruitless journey through barren lands:

Watt will not
abate one jot
but of what

of the coming to
of the being at
of the going from
Knott’s habitat

of the long way
of the short stay
of the going back home
the way he had come

of the empty heart
of the empty hands
of the dim mind wayfaring
through barren lands

of a flame with dark winds
hedged about
going out
gone out

of the empty heart
of the empty hands
of the dark mind stumbling
through barren lands

that is of what
Watt will not
abate one jot

If Beckett seems to mispronounce certain consonant sounds, it may have something to do with a surgery he had in November of 1964 to remove a tumor in his jaw. The surgery temporarily left Beckett with a hole in the roof of his mouth. According to a 1998 article by Peter Swaab in The Times Literary Supplement, the recordings were probably made in March of 1965, when Beckett was awaiting a follow-up surgery to fix his palate. Still, many listeners have been struck by the beauty of the recordings. As Swaab writes:

Beckett’s voice is unexpectedly soft, and seems more suited to the serenely commiserative vein of his writing than the splenetic and cynical one. He reads the poems a lot more slowly than the prose–with a pronounced chanting mellifluousness…. The overall effect of these rare and fascinating recordings is of a delivery like that which Beckett recommended to the actor David Warrilow for Ohio Impromptu, “calm, steady, designed to soothe”–or (to bring in two of the central words in Watt) a “murmur” meant to “assuage.” The tape evidently records a sort of rehearsal, and the perfectionist Beckett would surely not have been satisfied with it, but it is good to know that his voice has not altogether disappeared.

via A Piece of Monologue

Special thanks to Dr. Mark Nixon, reader in Modern Literature at the University of Reading and director of the Beckett International Foundation, for confirming the authenticity of the recording and pointing us on the way to more information.

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