May 2012

The Tale of the Three Sisters…


First up, it’s Mary the Scientist.

What are we going to do about Mary?

The woman has no shame. People are talking behind her back. She should be beet red with embarrassment but… you know… she has her problem. She has no idea how embarrassed she really is even while all the rest of can see it.

Mary had no sight of red
Her pink was white as snow
In any thread her story went
the woo was sure to go

It’s time to wake up and see the roses. Mary’s hysterical color-blindness remains unresolved because she has not kept up with all of our EYEBALL FUN.

She’s supposed to be a scientist so she should already know that her EYEBALLS will produce differentiated grey scales biased to established frequencies of light. When light comes hurtling into HER EYEBALL at fantastic speeds, it can have a frequency but not a color. All kinds of frequencies of light (wavelength is another way of saying frequency) will enter its pure fluid center and much of it will not be what her retina is looking for. Why not? These wavelengths never made our ancestors happy or stopped their tummy grumbles.

The happiest wavelengths that filled our ancestors’ tummies were, in rainbow-speak, what we would call yellow and green but they would have no reason to argue about green-ness. It was a grey-scale light-level map that was taken from those happy wavelengths with a gradual darkening to longer or shorter wavelengths. It wasn’t a color, it was just lightness.

There was always some of the retina that went a little mutant and off-pitch and started sensing other frequencies. Further happy frequencies were found and soon all little baby retinas had two and then three light-level maps going simultaneously. The new ones were weaker, but they made an entirely different sensation then the first. Logically, it could not be the same sensation as the first. It wouldn’t be worth bothering with. So, the two new light maps had a discernible flavor that stood out against the plain vanilla we had been looking at so long. That old band of light frequencies was never given a flavor other than “light-flavor” and it was far too late to give it a flavor now. The two new ones, boy, you could sure tell when you were seeing those. You could taste the blue. It had an optical aroma that inspires adjectives even today. Red was just as loud and precise a flavor as Mary’s mother’s spaghetti sauce. Red and blue were easily discernible from each other as completely different flavors like beef and chicken. Even in the total absence of beef, chicken still tastes like chicken.

That makes the old light map into mashed potatoes. No flavor… just fluffiness and lightness. But pour some beef or chicken gravy on and the spuds leap to life in contrast to the gravy. Likewise, the sensation of red and blue push the original light-map into yellow-green, which is a sort of phantom flavor all its own.

Mary the scientist would have to know half of this just to know that she was missing the experience of red. She can’t trust her co-workers. They once had her convinced that she couldn’t see the color “truckstop” either. Har har.

So, Mary can deduce or learn that she is missing an optical sensation that would, if she could see it, provide additional axiis of color differentiation in her vision. She may wonder what that missing assigned flavor is like. She understands this the same way she understands her cat. Cleary, there is a flavor there too, but she doesn’t know what it is.

What more is there for Prof. Mary to learn? What other facts could be plugged into her scientific narrative? What more could you know short of having actual memories of the flavor? What if one could not feel cold but understood the physical conditions of bodies at different temperatures? Boxed in a fridge and shivering and chattering but with no flavor of cold…  That’s hard to imagine but so is missing and not knowing a color.

Would Professor M learn anything if her red sensation was restored? What do we mean by learn? New facts? New conclusions? Like what? How can we find out?

Fixing Mary was easy. Retinal scans showed no malformations and brain imaging showed reaction patterns that were identical to red-sighted test-subjects. Except, that the professor was seeing red in sub-cinema but Hippo was blocking it from her cinema view. Six months of deep psychoanalysis revealed her hysterical blindness to be caused by the childhood trauma of being repeatedly forced to eat her mother’s spaghetti sauce. When asked what she had just learned upon seeing the color red, Mary answered, “I like it.”

Outside of OUR EYEBALLS and even inside of them, there is no red. Things are red when you see them and only because you see them.

In winter, there is no cold outside. At least, not until you get there. One says of going out, “It will be cold out there.” One does not say, “There is a lot of cold in our way. Bring a machete.”

Mary has learned to see red the same way. Her next experiment asks whether she would like her cat more if she knew what it tasted like. Perhaps in some yummy store-bought sauce.




Now that we have Mary squared away, it’s time to talk about her sister.

Alice has a knottier problem that is harder to talk about. She has no perception of white. Here is her little poem…

Go ask Alice…
When she’s ten feet tall 

We know when she lost it. Alice had sensitive teeth and had taken to wrapping her sugar cubes in blotter paper. Anyone could tell by looking into her EYEBALLS that there was an entirely different world surrounding her. Heck, it looked like you could crawl right into her EYEBALLS. We felt sorry for Alice and wondered why she seemed to feel sorrier for us.

When she finally emerged from two years of hiding in pine trees, she still reported strange and interesting visual sightings that no one else saw. We had all committed to becoming scientists in order to discover exactly what happened to Alice, but only her sister Mary survived dorm life and saw the mission through.

Mary had already gained notoriety of her own and, with the grant money from Juvenile Red Sauce Trauma (JRST), she pursued her sister’s case. Eventually, Mary discovered the nature of her problem. Alice had lost one of her natural defense mechanisms. It is one of many that keep us from knowing too much about the world.

The discovery challenged Mary’s philosophy about living in the universe. Why would we need to defend ourselves from our own perception? How could we possibly know too much about the universe? Mary became as changed as Alice though nothing registered on her monthly screening. At home she would stare blankly at the mail without opening it and start weeping. Her few remaining friends could see that she could not talk about it. They would coax her to write it down and when they gave her a pen and blank paper, she would break out sobbing and bury her EYEBALLS in her ELBOW.

“Alice has lost her purity” she would say to them and they would all look at each other uncomfortably. Mary would shake the empty paper at them and say, “This is bullshit!”

Alice had lost her ability to protect herself from photons. Mary had lost her ability to protect herself from knowing why. She had been raised an illusion of purity as deceptive as Gee’Eee’s House of the Squandered Future and the idealized sitcom people that must live in them. This was the Illusion of White. Not white people, she knew that one already. Now, after studying Alice, Mary knew that white was everyone’s own personal hell. White was deciding what was good enough for everyone based on values that were established many generations ago. Again, not white people, but white itself.

Remember looking at a little refracted rainbow on a sheet of paper? Remember how one edge would trail away and disappear? Mary knew that little blur of color was the rabbit hole that led to Alice’s world. Mary also knew, in looking at that blurry edge, that it wasn’t the rainbow that stopped but her ability to differentiate one color from another. And now Mary knew that the colors or rather, light wavelengths hadn’t stopped being different just because humans had given up trying to tell them apart. Alice’s EYEBALLS weren’t giving up. Alice wasn’t seeing white. It was throwing her whole cinema system out of whack and knowing about it was having the same effect on Mary’s.

There is a sensible reason for seeing white. Like all visual parameters of our optic perception system, color perception must be coordinated and scaled to the pace and resolution of the whole visual system. We could see faster, but at a cost of less detail. We could see more detail, but not at this speed. When stressed, OUR EYEBALLS will prioritize one ability over others. We can recognize patterns reliably when all parameters are running in balance. That includes putting a limit on how much color we bother with. White is the point at which any further discrimination would overwhelm our capacity for pattern recognition.

Visual pattern recognition had always been a high-risk survival strategy. All our ancestors who were snuck up from behind and eaten while hunting cloud bunnies were excised from the gene pool. The rest of us inherited several defensive shields against illusion. The most inconspicuous, is the Illusion of White.

Our capacity to discriminate color varies depending on distance and on what else our EYEBALLS are doing. Getting closer to something reveals more color differentiation and moving away makes colors average out. Color is nearly as important as contrast for our brains ability to see shapes. Pattern recognition is a nice way of saying that our brains take a wild leap of faith that they know what OUR EYEBALLS are looking at. So, what can happen when something gets out of whack?

A heightened sense of color differentiation presents more information for pattern recognition than usual and that can change the threshhold at which the brain will bet the farm that you know what you’re looking at. Alice was recognizing patterns in useless information that was actually there but normally “whited-out” of our perception. At least, that’s what Mary kept telling herself. Over and over again.

Mary was quickly slipping into a bout of perceptual relativism. Would curing her sister take her from one world of illusion only to place her in another? Was it all a question of being on the same page? Wouldn’t it be just the same and much easier if everyone else knocked back a six-pack of LSD? 

Months ago, Mary took Alice, as an experiment, downtown to the Stooges film festival. That’s when Mary realized the full truth. After the first few hours, it had become clear to Mary by observing her sister’s reactions that Alice was seeing Shemp when everyone else was seeing Curly. She believed that if she squeezed her sister’s hand tight enough, she would see Shemp, too. It didn’t work. She had her other theory to test, too: Being more conscious means seeing less color. Post-cinema sight comes at a small cost in color differentiation. She had set up interviews with all other viewers at the theater’s only unblocked exit. By the time the Fire Marshall arrived, she had already established the pattern she was looking for. Well-educated patrons would leave not remembering seeing either Shemp or Curly. When asked for specific details, they will refer to “whichever third stooge it was”. Less-conscious high-school drop-outs could always remember things in extraordinary detail including exact dialogue with impressive vocal impressions of the correct stooge.

Mary gazed at Alice and wondered if it was her place in the universe to tell her sister that Curly was “better” than Shemp. With her heightened perception, maybe she was heralding the greater truth about Shemp. Mary could not say anymore.

This was a powerful suggestion that mass-visions are more than just the power of suggestion. Having common visual distortions that undermine our ability to recognize patterns from a common cause could lead us to the same distorted visual patterns. Truth isn’t arrived at but stopped short of and gambled on. Mary had realized that kind of truth was just like white at the edge of a rainbow- it is only the point where we stop looking.

Mary and Alice retired from public life. Mary’s name had been raised with the authorities several times by private citizens and she is sought in connection with a B & E at an animal shelter. No one knows where they are, not even their other sister. Their social connections were already destroyed and Mary had previously alienated her Mom. No one spoke well of her or her recent culinary habits. Mary is in fact the origin of the phrase, “she’s as crazy as a sack of cats”.

She continued her scientific work but told her colleagues that this was now the rest of her scientific pledge:

“I will no longer believe it when I see it. I will believe it when I can describe it in a manner that is consistent with an objective, scientific and mutual perception. When I say believe, I mean that I will use it as if I believe… for I can no longer believe in believing. I will trust the mutual perceptions without the burden of believing in them.”

Alice continued to herald the unwhitewashed truth as she saw it. Mary collected it all down… just in case the consensus changes. 



Mary and Alice have one problem in common. They have no perception of their other sister.

They understand that their Mom and many others can see her. So, in deference to Mom, they treat her as someone they cannot see or hear. On the whole, opinion is divided on the existence of Qualia.

Some say she’s nothing to look at. Others think she is the very essence of an adjective.

Who’s tripping down the streets of the city
Calling a name that’s lighter than air
Who’s reaching out to capture a moment
Everyone knows… it might be Qualia.

Mom and her influential friends were convinced that if Mary could see red, she would also see Qualia. When she heard that Mary’s perception of red was restored, Mom was determined to reunite the sisters despite her estrangement with Mary over her spaghetti sauce. She was sure Mary would at last see her sister.

Mary and Alice had gone to ground. They were allegedly spotted hunting cougars in the mountains so Mom prepared to make the long trip. Some of her influential friends wanted to tag along and witness the reunion but there was a problem. No one could find Qualia. Her Mom said it was not unusual for her to disappear when someone is looking for her. Mom insisted that everyone should get in the car, stare into space and think of nothing. She was sure that if they all just relaxed and took in their surroundings, then soon, Qualia would be in the car.

Meanwhile, Mary and Alice were driving back to town. Mary had decided that the only way to be on the same page as Alice was to eat the same page of blotter acid as Alice. They were heading to find her old connection back in their old neighborhood when suddenly, Alice cried out, “Avalanche!”

She was right. A giant SUV was tumbling down a driveway and into the street right in front of them. Alice slammed on the brakes but still the rusty Gremlin bumped jarringly against the behemoth. “Oh no! It’s Mom!” Mary exclaimed. Everyone got out and was assured of no personal injuries for anyone but the small street was completely blocked.

Their Mom did not seem at all surprised to see them. “I was just looking for you two. I’m sorry I didn’t see you. I intended to confront you about Qualia in front of everyone.”

“Who are all these people?” Mary asked. The police had arrived along with several news trucks.

“They are noted philosophers, poet laureates and new age publishers. They’ve come to see proof of the existence of Qualia.” Mom looked through the open doors at the empty back seat. “She’s gone! She’s hiding from the experience of fear! Everybody stay calm and experience their surroundings. We’ve got to find her.”

Mom grabbed Mary by the hand. “You and I will check the house for Qualia. I’m sure she’s hiding from the attention.”

Mary raced to keep up. “That doesn’t make sense. I can’t see her. How will I know when I find her?” Her Mom was tearing into the closet. “You know her… She’ll always be in the last place you look. So, keep looking. Check the bathroom… besides, I heard that you can see red now and that you blame it all on me!”

Mary tried to explain in a calm, even voice. “It was a traumatic blindness caused my silent acceptance of your awful cooking. I had to acknowledge the quality of your wonderful sauce while shutting out the actual experience of it.”

Her Mom’s eyes turned red in frustration. “You were such a little shit! Why didn’t you tell me you hated my spaghetti?”

“Would you have made me eat it?”

“Of course I would”, her Mom said slowly through gritted teeth. “But I would do it knowing what quality it possessed for you.”

Mary was confused. Helicopters could be heard outside. “What difference would that make? Wasn’t the look on my face enough? Why did I have to say something?”

Mom was trying hard not to explode. “Because then I would know what a lying little shit you were… and are. If you can’t see your sister, how can you hate my sauce?”

Mary had had enough and was ready to let her Mom expolde. “She has nothing to do with your sauce, Mom. I’m not the only one who can’t see her. Go ask Alice.” 

“Alice can see seven galaxies simultaneously. I would never know if she saw Qualia or ten other things called qualia. But you, who rejected the color of red… how can that not be the same as rejecting your sister?” 

“Mom… there is no color of red. Redness is a sensation and not something you have a sensation of. And I have only one sister!”

“You little shit! How can you say that about Qualia? You simply refuse to have a sensation of her.”

“No, Mom… you took the sensation of your daughters and turned it into a third daughter.”

Mom bristled. “You’ll never convince me of that. Or my influential friends.”

Mary sighed. “I know. That’s why we always set her place at the table. It seemed to Alice and me that you never experienced us directly. You always told Qualia how you felt about us. It wasn’t the same hearing it from her.”

There was a brief pounding at the kitchen door then Maya Angelou burst in and exclaimed, “Come quickly! Alice has her cornered in the pine trees!”


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