Blue is the Killer

Eye Bogglers by Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo WaeberEye Bogglers: A Mesmerizing Mass of Amazing Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber (Carlton Books 2011; paperback 2013)

A simple book with some complex illusions. It’s aimed at children but scientists have spent decades understanding how certain arrangements of colour and line fool the eye so powerfully. I particularly like the black-and-white tiger set below a patch of blue on page 60. Stare at the blue “for 15 seconds”, then look quickly at a tiny cross set between the tiger’s eyes and the killer turns colour.

So what’s not there appears to be there, just as, elsewhere, what’s there appears not to be. Straight lines seem curved; large figures seem small; the same colour seems light on the right, dark on the left. There are also some impossible figures, as made famous by M.C. Escher and now studied seriously by geometricians, but the only true art here is a “Face of Fruits” by Arcimboldo. The rest is artful, not art, but it’s interesting to think what Escher might have made of some of the ideas here. Mind is mechanism; mechanism can be fooled. Optical illusions are the most compelling examples, because vision is the most powerful of our senses, but the lesson you learn here is applicable everywhere. This book fools you for fun; others try to fool you for profit. Caveat spectator.

Simple but complex: The café wall illusion

Simple but complex: The café wall illusion

Electrify Your Eyes

Front cover of The Spark of Life by Frances AshcroftThe Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body, Frances Ashcroft (Penguin 2013)

“Electricity in the Human Body” is the subtitle of this book. Make that the goat, frog, eel, shark, torpedo-ray, snake, platypus, spiny anteater, sooty shearwater and fruit-fly body too. And if Venus flytraps, maize and algae have bodies, throw them in next. Frances Ashcroft gives you a bargeload of buzz for your buck, a shedload of shock for your shekel: The Spark of Life describes the use of electricity by many different forms of life. But it discusses death a lot too, from lightning-strikes and electric chairs to heart-attacks and toxicology. Poisons can be a cheap and highly effective way of interfering with the electro-chemistry of the body:

The importance of sodium and potassium channels in generating the nerve impulse is demonstrated by the fact that a vast array of poisons from spiders, shellfish, sea anemones, frogs, snakes, scorpions and many other exotic creatures interact with these channels and thereby modify the function of nerve and muscle. … The tetrodotoxin contained in the liver and other tissues of this fish [the fugu or puffer-fish, Takifugu spp., Lagocephalus spp., etc] is a potent blocker of the sodium channels found in your nerves and skeletal muscles. It causes numbness and tingling of the lips and mouth within as little as thirty minutes … This sensation of “pins and needles” spreads rapidly to the face and neck, moves onto the fingers and toes, and is then followed by gradual paralysis of the skeletal muscles … Ultimately the respiratory muscles are paralysed, which can be fatal. The heart is not affected, as it has a different kind of sodium channel that is far less sensitive to tetrodotoxin. The toxin is also unable to cross the blood-brain barrier so that, rather horrifyingly, although unable to move and near death, the patient remains conscious. (ch. 3, “Acting on Impulse”, pp. 69-70)

In short, fugu-poisoning is the opposite of electrocution: it’s the absence rather than the excess of electricity that kills its victims. Those “channels” are a reminder that electro-chemistry could also be called electro-mechanics: unlike an electricity-filled computer, an electricity-filled body has moving parts – and in more ways than one. Our muscles move because ions move in and out of our cells. This means that a body has to be wet inside, not dry like a computer, but it’s easy to imagine a human brain controlling a robotic body. But would a brain still be conscious if it became metal-and-plastic too? Perhaps a brain has to be both soggy and sparky to be conscious.

The electrical nature of the brain certainly seems important, though that may be a superstitious conclusion. Electricity is a mysterious phenomenon and so is consciousness, so they seem to go together well. Ashcroft writes a lot about the sense-organs and the data they supply to the brain, but like all scientists she cannot explain how those data are turned into conscious experience as the maths-engine of the brain applies its neuro-functions and neuro-algorithms. However, she does suggest ways in which our consciousness might be expanded in future. Humans have colour vision, based on the three types of cone-cells in our eyes:

Most mammals, such as cats and dogs, have only two types of cone photopigment and so see only a limited range of colour … Other animals live in a world entirely without colour. But humans should not be too complacent, for we are far from having the best colour vision in the animal world and lag far behind the mantis shrimp, which enjoys ten or more different visual pigments. Even tropical fish possess four or five types of cones. (ch. 9, “The Doors of Perception”, pg. 199)

Bio-engineering may one day sharpen and extend all our senses, from sight and hearing to touch, taste and smell. It may also give us new senses, like the ability to form sound-pictures like bats and detect infra-red like pit-vipers. And why not X-rays and radio-waves too? It’s an exciting prospect, but in a sense it won’t be anything new: our new senses, like our old ones, will depend on nerve-impulses and the way they’re mashed and mathed in that handful of “electrified clay” known as the brain.

“Electrified clay” is Shelley’s phrase: like his wife Mary, he was fascinated by the early electric experiments of the Italian scientists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. Mary turned her fascination into a book called Frankenstein (1818) and her invention is part of the scientific history in this book. The story of bio-electricity is still going strong: there are electric mysteries in all kinds of bodies waiting to be solved. Maybe consciousness is one of them. And if science proves unable to crack consciousness, it’s certainly able to expand it. Reading this book is one way to experience the mind-expanding powers of science, but seeing like a mantis shrimp would be good too.

Jug is the Drug

In “The Gems of Rebbuqqa”, I interrogated notions around the concept of priestesses who permanently juggle three giant eye-like gems, a ruby, a sapphire, and an emerald, atop a sandstone altar. In “The Schismatarch” (forthcoming), I will interrogate notions around the concept of a Himalayan sect that believes this universe is one of three juggled by a god called Nganāma. Each of these universes contains a smaller Nganāma who juggles three dwarf universes; et sic ad infinitum. Moreover, the Nganāma juggling our universe sits in a larger universe, one of three juggled by a giant Nganāma in a larger universe still, which is one of three on a higher plane; et sic ad infinitum. The cosmology of the Nganāma-sect is fractal: ut supra, sic infra: as above, so below. Here are some animated gifs inspired by these two stories and based on juggled eye-gem fractals.

A fractal of three juggled blue eyes

 A fractal comprising three juggled eyes

A fractal of three sets of three juggled eyes

A fractal comprising three sets of three sets (sic) of three juggled eyes

A fractal based on juggled eyeballs

A fractal of three juggled eyes, in front of each of which three more eyes are juggled

A fractal of 27 juggled eyes

Puro Lojo

Los Ojos

He was haunted by eyes. It had begun quite slowly, quite simply: a feeling that he was being watched whenever he went out, that hostile eyes were staring out at him, down on him, from the windows of the town, tracking his progress, feeding the nectar of data to the honeycombs of brains, for savouring later, when he had passed. He started to find quieter, gloomier streets, to stay indoors on sunny days, to keep his curtains drawn. He felt calmer when he knew he wasn’t overlooked, wasn’t being watched, couldn’t be. But then the calm began to evaporate, for he realized that there were eyes even in his house, even here, where he was cocooned in privacy.

The eyes of his books – indeed, the eyes of “books”, the two o’s, the two little eyes staring out between the “b” and the “k”. There were hundreds of eyes, thousands of them, in every book, ready to stare out at him, to watch him, whenever he opened a book and tried to read. Even “eyes” itself, with the twin e’s, seemed to peer at him, if not to stare. It had half-closed lids, ready to open on him, to glare its full. In Spanish, the word opened fully: ojo. The word reminded him of two eyes with a nose between them, with a bindi over the nose, the mystic dot of Hinduism, symbolizing the third eye. In Hindi, though, the word didn’t threaten him: आँख, ānkh. When he’d first started to worry about his books, about the eyes in his books, he’d gone to the public library and spent an hour searching through the dictionaries, making a list of the eye-words he did find threatening, as though he could trap them, confine them, on a single piece of paper.

The “oog” of Dutch. The “öga” of Swedish. The “øje” and “øye” of Danish and Norwegian, which reminded him of the razor-blade slicing the eye in Un Chien Andalou. The “oko” of Czech, Polish, and Russian. The “ojo” of Spanish, the “olho” of Portuguese, the “occhio” of Italian, all from the “oculus” of Latin (“oculo” in the ablative and dative). Then there was the “göz” of Turkish, entirely unrelated, but staring out at him like a cyclops. And what about the “ojú” of Yoruba? It was unrelated to Spanish, but disturbingly similar. Disturbing in a different way was the οφθαλμος, the “ophthalmos”, of ancient Greek. It was such a juicy, gelatinous word, like the juice and jelly of an eye itself, like a mechanism of chemicals and flesh from which the two o’s stared out at him, watching him, judging him, storing data about him for use in his trial, the secret trial that was being prepared for him.

He felt relieved, at first, that modern Greek had a less threatening μάτι, “mati”. But then he discovered that Malay had a word that was very similar, “mata”, though he knew that Malay and Greek were entirely unrelated. He felt his skin prickle as the first hint of a conspiracy trickled into his brain. The lower-case a’s of “matia”, the Greek plural, like the lower-case e’s of “eyes”, were like peering eyes, as though the words were beginning to take on the same form as “ojo” and “oko”, as though they would open fully one day too. He wondered if, one day, all the world’s languages would have eyes in their words for “eye”, would have twin o’s gazing out, glaring out at the reader. The biter bit. The reader read. Or what about a script, a font, a language, that was entirely ocular, entirely based on o’s, that read its readers as they read it? You could do that, could create one. There were enough forms of “o” in the alphabet, or the alphabets, the Latin and French and Czech and Yoruba and Vietnamese.

It was then he realized that he hadn’t looked at the Vietnamese dictionary, having missed it near the end of the shelf. He went to look at it, carrying his eye-list with him. He took the dictionary off the shelf and flicked to the right page. He nearly dropped the book when he saw the word staring up at him: mắt. Like Greek, like Malay. He would discover later, after more research, that the Vietnamese and Malay words probably had a common origin, something he’d half-suspected, after that moment of shock. The language families were spoken in neighbouring regions, after all. But for that moment of shock it had seemed a confirmation of something at work, something beneath the surface, or beneath the lid, peering out, ready to be fully exposed, fully opened, ready to stare its full, to drink his soul.

After his visit to the library, he found it more and more difficult to read English and Spanish, both with eye-like eye-words, both full of o’s. He was haunted by a line from Lovecraft, from “The Shadow over Innsmouth”: “I could not escape the sensation of being watched from ambush on every hand by sly, staring eyes that never shut.” But in English, in Spanish, they were not in ambush. They were there openly, eagerly, greedily. He sought refuge in French and German, whose eye-words were asymmetric, un-eye-like, and where “o” was blessedly far down the list of letter-frequencies. English ran e-t-a-o. All those to’s and of’s and not’s. Spanish was even worse: e-a-o. All those masculine endings, those past tenses, those no’s and lo’s. But French ran e-a-s-i-t-n-r-u-l-o. German was even better: e-n-i-s-t-r-a-d-h-u-g-m-c-l-b-o. He began to sellotape his English and Spanish books shut, as though each were an eye that he was closing by force, blinding so that its myriad inner eyes could not watch him. He felt much calmer reading French and German, much better able to cope when he came across a reference to eyes, and he even laughed aloud when, returning to À Rebours, he read of how the ancestral portraits of des Esseintes alarmaient avec leurs yeux fixes, “startled one with their fixed gaze”.

The disaster, when it came, came without warning. He picked up a French guide to butterflies one afternoon, meaning to browse through it before lunch, and almost at once came across a slip of paper handwritten on both sides. The writing was neat but small and he had to concentrate to read it. It was all part of the trap, he realized too late, to make him focus, to bite more deeply on the poison bait that had been dangled before him. Ice began to form around his viscera as he read, but he could not stop himself until he had finished:

Die einzelnen Worte schwammen um mich; sie gerannen zu Augen die mich anstarrten und in die ich wieder hineinstarren muß: Wirbel sind sie, in die hinabzusehen mich schwindelt, die sich unaufhaltsam drehen und durch die hindurch man ins Leere kommt.

With sick horror, he noted that the passage contained exactly two o’s, near the beginning and near the end, like the grotesque eyes of a distorted, teratomorphic face. Then he turned the slip over and found that the other side contained a translation in English, full of o’s, full of eyes, staring at him, eager to drink the emotion in his face, the realization that he had been trapped. Again, he could not prevent himself from reading to the end:

Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes that stared at me and that I was forced to stare back into – whirlpools that gave me vertigo and, reeling ceaselessly, led into the void.

He let out an involuntary cry. Where had the slip come from? Who was the author of the German? Who had translated it? Who had written the two languages down, hidden the slip in the book? He looked again and realized that it was his own writing, slow, careful, half-disguised, but unmistakable, now that he looked. There was a conspiracy, yes, there was, and he was the author of it, spinning a web for himself, plotting his own destruction, with hidden motives, hidden hatred. He moaned. Things were moving in his head. The slip was a linguistic key, turning a lock in his subconscious, releasing a phrase that he himself had hidden there. Esse Est Percipi. Berkeley’s great dictum. “To Be Is To Be Perceived”. He knew the truth now. He could not escape, could find no refuge, draw no curtain, close no door, find no darkness to hide in. The universe itself was an eye all around him and he was its eternal focus, naked always, visible always, pierced through and through by a torturer’s gaze that created its own object of torture.