Saturday, January 22, 2011

Re-post: Prosopagnosia [slightly edited]

Note: This was an early post on this blog, back when I only had a handful of readers. Given the fact that my readership has grown somewhat, I thought it might be a good idea to re-post it, as it's a fascinating subject.

I first came across the phenomenon of Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, back when I read an article in Wired about the subject.

Basically it's the phenomenon of not being able to recognize faces. Not in the sense of not being good at remembering faces, but in the sense of not being able to recognize faces, including those of your own family and yourself.

Until recently it was thought it was only a phenomenon among people who damaged their brain through some kind of accident (the first well know example was apparently a soldier who was hit in the head, and after that was unable to recognize even his own wife), but now scientists have realized that it's much more widespread than that, and that people can suffer from this from birth. Brad Duchaine, a scientist studying this subject, estimates that 2 percent of the population is face blind.

One of the reasons why face blindness has gone undetected for so long, is the fact that people who suffer from it, are not aware how other people percept faces. This is of course not the case for people who get it later in life.
Another reason could also be that people are good at compensating. When I started needing glasses (when I was about 13 or 14), I learned to compensate for the lack of them, by being able to recognize people in the distance by how they moved. Since I stated wearing glasses I've mostly lost that ability again.

A most fascinating aspect of prosopagnosia is that it's very specific to faces. People who suffer from it, can recognize (and remember) other things as well as everyone else. This is probably due to the fact that faces are much more complex than other things, and demands more from the brain.
However, based on this abstract, it seems that at least some of the brain is able to recognize the person, yet the end result doesn't reflect this.

The reason for face blindness is probably genetic, since the trait has a inheritance pattern that is consistent with the trait being carried by a single gene.

Some further reading:
Face Blind - the original Wired article that got me interested in this subject.

Face blindness not just skin deep - CNN article about the subject.

Living in a world without faces - New Scientist podcast.

I’m Strange, You’re A Stranger - a blogpost from a blogger who suffers from prosopagnosia. The post is quite interesting, and also makes it clear that the problem is not only with human faces, but also animal faces.

I was doing some closet-cleaning the other week, and came across my portfolio of projects from when I took Commercial Art classes some years ago. One picture was an assignment: “Abstraction, select a natural object, create an abstract of that object”, cat, done in ink (dip-pen & pot of ink). I remember thinking about cats, and what qualities of the body shape define them as having “cat-ness”, and decided that it was the tail, the angularity of the limb joints, the pointed ears and the whiskers. But as I said, I tend to perceive things primarily by the mass and outline and by specific traits.

Most everyone did animals for that abstraction assignment, although the instructor pointed out that my drawing was the only one showing the animal from the back side, without the eyes. Mine was the only picture without a face! - website of the Prosopagnosia Research Center Harvard University and University College London.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

A bad time for anti-vaxxers

My, my - this is definitely a bad start of the year for the anti-vaxxers.

First Brian Deer's articles in the British Medical Journal (How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money and How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed, with more on the way), and the BMJ editorial, where they put themselves on the line by making clear accusations of fraud against Wakefield (Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent).

Most of the media picked up on this, and for once didn't try to "balance" the story, but instead actually made clear that Wakefield had no credibility.

Now, has decided to removed a 2005 article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This article was one of the main reasons for me getting into the fight against anti-vaxxers (and more importantly, for Orac getting into the fight). It was co-published by Rolling Stones, which unfortunately hasn't removed the article.

Salon explains why they removed the article here

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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Words have consequences, part two

Back when Dr. Tiller was murdered, I wrote a blogpost called Words have consequences, in which I wrote about Operation Rescue

Calling someone "America's Doctor of Death" is dehumanizing him to an extreme degree, allowing people to ignore the fact that he is a person, which again allows people to do things like murdering him. Operation Rescue might not have pulled the trigger on Dr. Tiller, but they created an environment, where someone could pull the trigger on him.

Now, after the Tucson schooting where several people, including a child and a federal judge, were killed, and a congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was critically wounded, I want to revisit this theme.

Ever since the Obama election, the rhetorics on the right have been vitriolic, and used violent images. There have been cases where people carried weapons at events where the President spoke. There have been talks of "revolution" and sedition - heck, the Tea Party crowd takes their name from the very concept of an American revolution.

In this sort of environment, it is hardly surprising that someone will follow up on that rhetoric, and take violent action.

The choice of victim is not surprising either.

After all, a public supporter of the Tea Party, and a senior figure of the Republican Party, had used violent imagery targeted specifically at congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Before the midterm election, Palin posted the above map, showing which members of congress she wanted people to target, using cross-hairs to show the location of their districts.

After congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords managed to win over tea party favorite Jesse Kelly, Palin posted the following tweet

Combining the image of a cross-hair and using the word "RELOAD" sends a very violent message indeed, even if it is unintended - something which I don't believe it is for a second, given the general usage of such in the current US political environment. This imagery was meant to intimidate, to threaten even. Since the congresswoman didn't hide, someone took the rhetorics to its next logical level, and tried to murder her.

This is the sort of actions that the current US political environment breeds.

Yes, there were vitriolic, perhaps even violent, rhetorics under the George W. Bush presidency, but not as part of the mainstream debate, not from leading political figures. To try to make it seem so, is to make a false equivalent, and to let the people who created this political environment get away with it.

It is no coincidence that militias have been on a rise in the US since President Obama was elected.

At the moment, Sarah Palin and others of her irk are busy trying to distance themselves from the shootings, even to the degree of scrubbing the web from the sort of messages I've posted above. I don't for a second doubt that they are shocked, perhaps even horrified, over the fact that someone did the very thing that they have been implicitly advocating for two years. Yet this doesn't absolve them of their guilt, and we should not let them get away with having creating the environment where this sort of actions happens more easily. The people who uses violent imagery should be shunned by the rest of society, not get their own TV-shows.

Words do have consequences, and it is high time that Palin and her irk started to feel the consequences of their words.

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Goodbye 2010 - or, the year of being social

Jean-Paul Sartre famously told us "Hell is other people" (in his play No Exit), and while I am sure that we all agree with this sentiment from time to time, the reverse, "Paradise is other people", is also true. Think back on any great experience in your life, and I am willing to bet that other people played a major part in it.

Well, 2010 is now over, and looking back, it was certainly more a case of Paradise than Hell. And I contribute that to all the great people I had the pleasure of spending time with this year.

When 2010 started, I decided that I wanted to expand my social circles - not because I didn't have a number of great friends (I did, and still do), but because I think it's important for your personal growth to try to find new input, and to get different perspectives. I wasn't exactly sure how I would go around doing it, but it was definitely a goal for 2010.

In retro-perspective, I can only say that I've succeeded in that beyond my wildest expectations, and beyond any expectations anyone could reasonably have.

So, how did that happen?

Simply put: other people arranged stuff, and I turned up. Surprisingly how effective that can be, isn't it? Well, what kind of stuff did I turn up to?

1) Tech events of all sorts. Copenhagen is lucky enough to have several groups and companies willing to arrange free technical sessions of high quality, and it has been great to participate in those. Among the groups and companies whose arrangements I've participated in is CNUG, Microsoft Demark, Trifork, and Socialsquare.

2) Perth Skeptics. This might seem a bit weird, given I live across the world from them, but remember that I am half Australian. I spent January month in Perth, and during my stay there were two meetups - one in a park and one in a pub. During the later, the Perth Skeptics participated in the 1023 homeopathy overdose campaign, and afterwards, I talked a bit about skepticism in Scandinavia (sadly lacking) and skeptic/science blogging (go on, do it!). Apart from meeting Kylie Sturgess I also got to meet a number of other Perth Skeptics, and definitely was happy that I took the time to participate.

3) Likemind Cph. A monthly coffee meeting open to everyone, allowing people to network and meet new people. Great crowd, and even if it might seem a bit intimidating, everybody there are friendly, and willing to meet new people (otherwise, what's the point?). Here is a short video of the February meeting (which I didn't participate in). Here is the facebook page of Likemind Cph.

4) The Atheist Alliance International conference in Copenhagen in June arranged together with Ateistisk Selskab. It was a great event with some great speakers, but it also gave me the chance to meet some fellow pharyngulites (people who comments at Pharyngula). I even had five of them staying at my place during the conference. Among the people I managed to meet were Robert Dobbs/Ye Olde Blacksmith, who does some great metal stuff, Jadehawk, and Martin/Rorschach.

5) Last, but definitely not least, Twitter events in Copenhagen. I've in the past explained what Twitter is to me, but since then, Twitter has become so much more. A simple way of illustrating this is to state the fact that just during the last week alone, I've spent 3 evenings, including New Years Eve, with people I've met through Twitter and who I didn't know a year ago.

So, how did this come around, and what Twitter events am I talking about?

Well, as far as I can tell, we have a pretty unique Twitter culture in Copenhagen, and much of it is due to the work of the two twitters @laurajul and @morgenthaler, who decided to arrange some bi-monthly Friday bars for the Copenhagen Twitterati. These Friday bars have been a great success, and people have started to not only follow each other on Twitter, but also to actually become friends outside Twitter.

So, what does 2011 hold in store for me? I have absolutely no clue, but I am looking forward to experiencing it together with my friends, old as new, and see what it brings.

Happy New Year everybody, and may 2011 bring great friendships and much joy.

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