Friday, February 27, 2015

Seeing Is Believing... But Not Knowing

The controversial dress. Science says
it's blue, by the way.
You have probably seen the white (or blue) dress with gold (or black) trim. I shall start by saying that
dresses are not, of themselves, interesting. The phenomenon of two people looking at the exact same things, seeing different facts, then vehemently insisting that they are correct and that those who disagree are wrong, is absolutely fascinating.

First, let's briefly talk about the science. Wired explains it very well in this article. Photo analysis reveals that the dress is actually Blue, but there is a mechanism in the visual cortex of the brain which filters out illumination color to allow us to see the color of an object even if the lighting is biased. The lighting of this image combined with the background, as well as the two colors on the dress cause the brain to filter the colors wrong in one direction or the other.

Now, for the more interesting aspect. A highly rational person will look at this situation and deduce that there must be a true color of the dress and that some form of analysis would reveal it. The Internet at large is mostly not populated by highly rational people. Rather, many people form an initial opinion and hold to it fiercely. When people saw the dress and saw white, they believed their eyes and assumed that those who saw blue were lying or colorblind or perhaps insane. The people who saw blue felt likewise about those who saw white.

We're talking about something that has an objective correct answer that people are arguing about. What about things that don't have such an objective answer like the Middle East, Obamacare, or abortion? If we jump to having tightly held views on something which is easily proven or disproven, what happens when we jump to tightly held views on more serious but nebulous issues?

The dress that launching a thousand memes.
Then, there is the fact that people believe what they see. Eyewitness testimony is considered highly convincing, yet people often misremember what they see. Our senses bring us the world which is then filtered through a series of processes in our brains. Biases play a part. Simple brain structure and chemistry play a part. Seeing is a start, but it is not the end.

The lesson here may be like the line from Hamlet "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The world is a complex place, and even something as seemingly simple as the color of an image may be more nuanced than at first it seems.

When you see one thing and you friend sees another, rather than argue, perhaps it is more productive to dig deeper and find out what is really going on. You never know what you might find down that rabbit hole.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Class Privilege and Non-Profit Conventions

There are certain phrases that set my teeth on edge when I hear them. "Check your privilege" is one of them. It is too often a phrase used to make me think I should feel bad for having the audacity to be born cis male, white, straight, able, etc. However, today I had to opportunity feel the need to use the phrase.

The discussion was about non-profit versus for-profit scifi/geek conventions. First, let me provide a little background for those of you who do not work on half a dozen cons a year. Many scifi cons, especially the older ones such as Arisia, Boskone, Philcon, Lunacon, and Albacon, are non-profit organizations. No one on the staff is paid in any way other than free admission and possibly free hotel rooms. The cons are generally run by a board or membership and the chair is elected each year.

For-profit cons, in spite of the name, do not tend to be major money makers. While there might be some cons out there that do make big money, they are very much the exception. All the for-profit cons I have encountered pay the very senior staff a modest sum to compensate them for their time. Many newer cons started in the last 10 years follow that structure.

I would estimate that chairing a small convention like Pi-Con probably takes about 300-600 hours to plan for a single con, and this is a smaller convention. A larger convention likely requires much more time.

I sometimes hear the attitude from people who work non-profit cons that they would never work for a "for-profit" con because they would not want to volunteer so someone else could get paid. I'm not going to address the fact that people volunteer for all kinds of money making organizations from hospitals to day cares to political organizations (but think about that for a moment). I have another point to raise.

Working poor people don't have 300-600 hours to donate to a cause. A certain level of affluence is required to have that kind of leisure time to donate. I work a middle class job, which allows me the flexibility to chair a convention on an entirely volunteer basis. However, many people do not have that option. Furthermore, there is a limit to the size and complexity of an event that one can run as an unpaid hobby. Some might use some of the larger, successful nonprofit cons as an example that staff can be found to volunteer, and that may be fine for an established con. (Although many of those old cons are shrinking and fading over time for lack of new blood to run them.)

However, what if one wants to start a new convention? It's going to take an initial investment. Either people on staff with money to put up, which requires a certain affluence, or some sort of loan, which would likely require a personal guarantee by someone running the con. To suggest that someone who wants to run a con should both take on personal risk then volunteer their time to run it seems like a very entitled attitude, given that those who tend to hold this attitude are rarely the same people willing to take the risks to start the convention.

The fact is that there are many people who want to start conventions but cannot afford to give up the kind of time it takes to start and run a con without being paid for it. In the time that they are running the event, they could be engaging in an activity which makes money, like working a job, and for most people, that's what they need to do with their time. Let us also consider that the people who do run conventions and get paid for it (1) are not getting rich in the process, and (2) are usually taking disproportionate financial risk.

So, saying that for-profit cons are somehow less than non-profit cons implies either that only people wealthy enough to have leisure time to volunteer should lead conventions or that those who are willing to lead events should be willing to sacrifice their own standard of living so that everyone else can enjoy an event. Both of these are entitled attitudes, and the first implication drips with class privilege.

If you are the sort who looks down on for-profit cons, ask yourself this: if a competent, enthusiastic, but poor person wanted to take on the task of starting a con, what do you propose they do? Should they sacrifice so you can enjoy their con? Should they take on financial risk with no opportunity of financial reward? Or might it be fair that they could collect a modest income for their hundreds of hours of work. And, given that they are willing to dedicate their energies to creating this con rather than other work which would likely be more profitable, do you think it perhaps reasonable that you could find a few hours to contribute to support their efforts?

If you volunteer in major roles at cons for no pay, consider your life circumstances that allow you to be able to do that. You may not be rich, but you at least live a comfortable enough life to have leisure time to donate to con-running.

Much as I hate to say it, before judging those conventions that pay their leadership (if they are successful, that is), take a moment to check your privilege.