Finally! A Scientific Answer to the Question We’ve All Been Asking! (Hint: It’s About Colors and a Dress)

The dress that’s causing the collapse of civilization

Hey, Fickle Readers! Our 24-hour search for an explanation as to why some people saw a picture of a blue-and-black dress as a yellow-and-gold dress is finally at an end! In his impressively timed and sometimes mind-bogglingly technical article, Adam Rogers of Wired explains that the reason why some people insist that they see one set of colors and others insist on another set has to do with what wavelength of light their brains think is being reflected in the picture. Apparently (and Rogers consulted a neuroscientist who’s devoted 30 years to studying how people perceive color, so you know he knows a little more about the phenomenon than the guy who credited one’s emotional state to the way one’s eyeballs work), whenever you look at an object your brain automatically takes into account the colors of both the object and the light source that’s illuminating it. Then your brain handily filters out the color of the light source and leaves you with the “real” color of the object. As with many brain functions, however, the system isn’t fool-proof. “This image…hits some kind of perceptual boundary,” says Rogers, and confuses the brain as to what kind of daylight it’s looking at: if your brain sees an image in blue light, it takes out the blue and leaves you with yellow and gold; if you perceive the image in gold light, your brain adjusts to blue and black.

One interesting possibility: Bevil Conway, another neuroscientist, speculates that the people who see yellow and gold would be used to seeing the dress under strong sunlight, and that he guesses “night owls are more likely to see it as blue-black.” If the Fickle-Spacetime household is any indication, he’s right. I was the only one in my family to see the dress as blue, and I regularly stay up way way way too late. The Inspector, an inveterate morning person, saw yellow and white, and Little Fickle, who goes to bed at 8:30, saw brown and white.

And something else I just noticed: in the Wired article, there’s a gif that flashes between a very light pic of the dress and a much darker one. If I just look at the very top of the high-white-contrast photo, I, the only stubborn bluesayer in the family, can see gold and white.

Will wonders never cease?

When Winter Comes…: The Death of John Keats, February 23, 1821

The house Keats died in, 194 years ago today.

I love to read the Romantic poets in the springtime. For all their faults (and the prejudices of those who boosted their work after their deaths), these six guys really knew how to convey the fleshy, hopeful energy of the growth season. My absolute favorite of the bunch, at least from a biographical perspective, is Keats, a working-class genius who died in Italy at the age of 25. He’d been suffering from TB for three years, and he’d made the trip to Rome because he and his friends didn’t think he’d make it through the winter in England. Keats died far from home in a tiny, melancholy room near the Spanish Steps. It’s a beautiful place, although I’m not sure he had any windows from which he could appreciate the view.

I think I’m drawn so much to Keats’s work in part because he lived with illness (rather than just dying from it) and because he always expresses an overwhelming sensitivity to how little time we truly have on this earth. Here’s the first stanza from one of his longer works, Endymion. Most have never read it in its entirety (not even me), but you’ve got to admit, with a first stanza like this you don’t really need any more poem afterward.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

The 2015 Oscars: Hoorah for the Status Quo!

Okay, Academy Awards, I think I’ve finally figured out how you guys operate. It’s not about substance: it’s the presentation that counts. It’s okay to be the biggest celebration of rich white men this side of the Republican National Convention if you let other folks be presenters and sit in the theater. It’s okay to distribute exorbitantly priced gift bags to astoundingly wealthy people if the host jokes about it. It’s okay to show a bevy of women beaming supportively at their award-nominated men (and have shots of more women left behind while said men collect their awards) as long as you let one actress give a speech about how important motherhood and equal pay are. It’s okay not to nominate any actors from, or the director of, a film about the Civil Rights Movement as long as you give that film the award for best song (and a platform for the best acceptance speeches of the evening, but you don’t get credit for that one). It’s okay to have a known domestic abuser present the award for Best Picture as long as the movie (about an aging, once-famous white man becoming famous again) has a Mexican director. And it’s okay to go back to picking the usual White Man’s Epic every year (okay, okay–we might be shifting genres since “The English Patient,” “Braveheart,” and “Gladiator” won) as long as you break the pattern with something like “12 Years a Slave” every once in a while.

I gotcha, Hollywood. Thanks for helping me see the light. (And for helping me spend an evening sitting on the couch playing games on my Kindle. Luckily, I got to sit beside my husband the whole time.) Hopefully the next time I pay attention to the Oscars–maybe in ten years or so?–enough of the (ahem) old voters will have stepped aside to let new voices weigh in on what makes a truly great movie. Then again, power does tend to hang on til the very end, doesn’t it?

(And just in case you Fickle Readers out there think I’m being overly sensitive about all this? Take a look at this collection of anonymous interviews with Academy members about their Oscar ballots and see for yourself how “unbiased” members really are. It’s awfully entertaining, especially if you like seeing people try to rationalize the blatantly arbitrary. Also, have fun finding the many ways interviewees deploy the “we’re not racist, but” argument against the movie Selma.)

Yet Another Non-Update on Jan Hooks

So my little blog has been experiencing yet another spike of interest from the outside world. I’m guessing it’s because of the big SNL reunion show, which earned super-high ratings for NBC, despite the station’s usual status as the lovable loser of broadcast TV. People (apparently) are checking in to see if anyone’s posted any newsworthy tidbits about the late comedienne. And once again, I’m hear to tell ya: there’s nothing. No further comments from the family, no intrepid young journalists publishing a big exposé about Hooks’s final years. I wonder if someone out there is trying to dig up some more information. Honestly, I can’t imagine why there wouldn’t be interest. An incredibly talented TV star who fades early and dies young–that seems like a story to me, even though I’m not a journalist and, in fact, am just basing this opinion on what I like to read. There’s always been something compelling to me about life lived in the margins.

I realize that calling Hooks’s life “marginal” is probably a misuse of the term. There are, in fact, people out there who are not actors or comediennes, people who are forced to the edges of society (whether because of their bodies, their beliefs, their gender, or their lack of resources) and people whose entire cultures thrive on the “margins” of the world (even if those so-called margins take up entire continents’ worth of land). I’m not trying to devalue any of these people–I’d love it if we had more input from everywhere, especially our planet’s many overlooked spaces, where so much living and dying happen. I’m also not trying to redefine marginality as worthy of note only if you’re lucky enough to exist right outside the shadow of greatness–in the Brooklyn beside Manhattan’s promised land. Absolutely not. But I also opened this can of worms on my blog, and Hooks does still fascinate me as a woman of SNL (a major marginal space at least in the demographic landscape of this particular TV show) and as someone who worked hard to get something only to have it mysteriously evaporate at the end of her life. I’m a born-and-bred meritocrat, educated in the Cinderella story of the American middle class, and when a person gets her due and then loses it, I want to know what happened.

I know, too, that the story I’ve outlined here (the pull-up-your-bootstraps rise to prominence and tragic fall from grace) may not be Hooks’s story. I may be projecting. I do that a lot. But I can’t say if I’m right or wrong because there’s nothing out there to be found. Gaps in the record fascinate me, too. Derrida’s aporia, the lacunae in memory–holes in the knowledge base, especially in the age of Google, don’t seem like they should exist.

Since I’m a sickly middle-aged wife and mother and not a budding journalist, I’m not going to search out the story of Jan Hooks. I’m going to sit here in my little wifi-connected bubble and wait for someone else (probably a milennial) to do that. But I will leave all you Fickle Readers out there with a few items to temporarily patch up those knowledge gaps until the youngsters come along: one, a tribute to Hooks published by Sarah Larson in The New Yorker, which has some nice analysis and links to sketches; two, this New York Magazine article (found by an intrepid anonymous tipster!) that mentions Hooks and her smoking habit; three, this interview with early 90s SNL alum Melanie Hutsell, which doesn’t have much to do with Hooks but does discuss Hutsell’s iconic Jan Brady impersonation and her fans in the gay community. Enjoy!

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Guinea Pig Edition


–, “Sex Is Tricky

A million thanks to Glennon Doyle Melton for remembering that Romeo isn’t necessarily the best example of a romantic icon, in that he makes a total, Three’s Company-style crapfest of his own love story and croaks at the end of it. Would that the majority of Hollywood executives, in their perpetual state of starry-eyed adolescence, were able to comprehend such realities.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Twitter Fun Edition (with Associate Editor of Abyss & Apex Tonya Liburd!)

Because asses and Shakespeare go together like destruction and ruin!

Mine own arse chafes with eons of insolent scribblers!