Tuesday, February 12, 2008


You can observe a lot by just watching. [alternate version: You can see a lot by just observing.] –Yogi Berra

When I was seven, we had a siamese cat. Actually, it was a kitten; the little idiot never made to cat-hood. First he nearly drowned in the toilet, then he took to hiding atop the tire in the wheel well of the family automobile, to predictable results.

[In the previous paragraph, I’m engaging in either “blaming the victim,” which is usually thought of as a product of “identification with the aggressor,” or “reaction formation,” the covering of one emotion—sadness at the loss of a pet—with its opposite, or near opposite, in this case disdain. If I were to say that the kitten would be long dead in any case, given the life span of cats, I’d be “rationalizing.” Spending this much time analyzing my own reactions is an example of “intellectualizing.”]

In any case, one of the bonding events with the kitten was mediated though annoyance: he would jump up on my bed very early in the morning, like 4 or 5 A.M. and knead my chest while mewing to wake me up. It couldn’t have been hunger, because I didn’t feed him. Maybe he was just lonely.

One morning when he’d awakened me this way, I was intrigued by a pretty spectacular spectrum display on my bedroom wall. I investigated and it turned out that a shaft of light from the morning sun had gone through my aquarium before it hit the wall. The aquarium had acted like a prism, one with an internal reflection, in fact. Later I got some “pop sci” books on light and optics and read up on the subject.

Many years later, while flying home from college, I noticed some color on the cover of the book I was reading, which caught my attention because the cover was black-and-white. I knew that surface reflection of light is usually polarized, so I got out my Polaroid sunglasses and looked at the window of the plane. Sure enough, it showed spectral splitting of light, and the pattern looked like it was a strain pattern. A bit of reading later further informed me that looking at plastic strain via polarized light is an industrial testing procedure to check for defects in the plastic. The plane’s window pattern had been nice and symmetric.

I took further advantage of the sunglasses trick once when I was down in Los Angeles with my then housemate, Steve and some of his friends. Driving on 101, I noticed that the San Fernando Convergence Zone was clearly visible that day. The SFCV results when air blowing in from Los Angeles meets air coming from the other direction from Ventura County. Such convergence zones are common features of air flow near mountains, in this case the Santa Monica mountains.

Because the air from LA is more polluted than the air from Ventura, the SFCV has a clear demarcation, and it pushes air up above the nominal inversion height. I pointed it out to my companions, but several of them had to look at it through the polarized filter in order to see it. Polarization helps identify polluted air masses, because the fine particles exhibit surface scattering (Mie scattering) that is polarized. One of the people in the car said, “You know, I’ve lived almost my entire life in LA and I’ve never noticed that before.”

A while back, in the dressing room of Eastshore Aikikai, I noticed a circular spot of light on the floor. What caught my eye was the precision of the circularity. I looked up to the roof and spotted a small hole in a fan covering, and I realized that we actually had a pinhole camera in operation, a camera obscura. The reason why the light was perfectly circular was that it was an image of the sun. I’ve studied it since then and on partly cloudy days you can see the clouds move across the face of the sun. I suspect that if we had a better surface—smoother, whiter—it might be possible to make out sunspots.

Judging from its rate of travel across the floor, the camera obscura only operates for at most an hour a day, and I suspect it only does so for a few weeks or months per year. We'd only recently began classes in the middle of the day, and only one day a week, Sunday. So it’s not surprising that no one has noticed it in the year we’ve been there.

The other variable is having someone there who might pay attention to a spot of light on the floor, and wonder why it was so round. I have no idea of the odds on that, other than to suspect that they’re not very high.

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