Walking Dataloss

On average, the car in front probably isn't a Toyota

About Walking Dataloss

Hi! This is Walking Dataloss, a stream-of-consciousness–type blog about decay, perception, and dodgy assumptions.

Walking Dataloss is written by Greg K Nicholson and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mooquackwooftweetmeow.

28 November 2007

Being “natural”

Stem cell research is accosted (to put it mildly) for being unnatural; relationships between certain groups of people are derided as unnatural; arbitrary miscellaneous things are condemned for not being natural; hair colouring products are advertised as looking natural and being made from natural ingredients. But what the bloody hell is “natural” supposed to mean anyway?

You could argue that anything that isn't caused by a human is “natural”. While this is clear, it's not very useful: it's just assigning blame to a particular species rather than telling you anything fundamental about the questionably-natural thing.

There's a well-known and prestigious science journal called Nature, whose title goes straight to the crux of what science is about: describing nature. So you could argue that anything that can be described by science is thereby natural. This seems fairly reasonable at first glance.

However: two hundred years ago, Brownian motion wasn't understood at all; one hundred years ago, radioactivity wasn't understood at all either. Further back, lightning and comets were sources of wonder—no-one knew what they were or how they came to pass. No-one has ever (seriously) suggested that these were anything but natural phenomena.

And science is constantly progressing—ever more phenomena are being understood each year. But this doesn't mean that those phenomena were previously supernatural or unnatural and have now, by virtue of our understanding of them, suddenly become natural.

There's that tricky “our” again: who are “we”? All humans? Humans plus some hypothetical human-like aliens? If these aliens' science understood a phenomenon that humans didn't, would it be natural? If so, such a phenomenon would be natural, but without humans (or even a second species of hypothetical human-like alien) knowing that it was; naturalness would then become a seemingly random property of which one could never be sure—not very useful. If aliens don't count, we're back to defining naturalness on the basis of an arbitrary species (those pesky humans again).

Beavers’ Dams

Are they natural? They're certainly not human-made, but I doubt many would assert that they were a natural phenomenon. That designation is reserved for things more like the weather: complex (or even simple, actually) systems of inanimate matter producing an interesting or noteworthy result (this is how we'll describe a “phenomenon”) by processes governed by The Laws Of Nature™. That's science again.

But psychology is a science too. (Yes, it is.) Human behaviour is arguably governed, and if so it's by rules that psychology describes.

(By the way, The Laws Of Nature™ are also just a description, rather than a prescription—things don't happen the way they do because The Laws™ say so; rather, The Laws™ say what they do because that matches how things actually happen. That's a surprisingly common misconception among non-scientists.)

So we have “natural sciences”: typically physics, chemistry and biology. Things like astronomy, palæontology, geology and ecology come under that banner as well, though ecology does stray towards being heavily human- and animal-influenced. And then there are “human sciences”: about half of geography, economics, sociology and arguably history, for example.

But psychology doesn't fit clearly (as far as I'm concerned, anyway). It's definitely about humans and animals, but it's also intricately linked to biology.

Zoology is usually considered a natural science as well, because it's not about humans, though it is about animals. But is it about nature?

I think the usual assumption of “natural” being “anything that we (humans) haven't touched” comes back to human arrogance and self-centredness. (For millennia we humans thought our planet was at the centre of the universe because, why, we're here.)


I'd suggest that a process is certainly “natural” if it involves nothing that can think. (Of course, there's then the problem of how to determine what's alive and conscious and can think.)

Clearly, though, the existence of beings that can think is natural. And it seems somewhat masochistic to say that because one is capable of thinking about whether what you're doing is “natural” (which is assumedly virtuous) that it therefore isn't natural.

So, I don't know. I have a clear idea of what sort of things are and aren't natural, but I have no idea what definition of “natural” the apparently-obvious distinction arises from.


Just one more thing: being unnatural is certainly not necessarily a bad thing: buildings are unnatural but very useful. For the environmentally sensitive, solar power cells are unnatural but useful. Also: clean water from a tap; electricity; eyeglasses; most medicine.

10 November 2007

A Human’s Guide to Relating to Other Beings

A flow chart:

  1. Can I have sex with it?

    • Yes: figure out best way to please it (consider the other being's desires)
    • No: go to step 2
  2. Can it hurt me?

    • Yes: figure out best way to subdue it or escape from it (consider the other being's abilities)
    • No: go to step 3
  3. Can I eat it?

    • Yes: figure out best way to eat it (consider own tastes)
    • No: ignore it

Under no circumstances should the other being be considered outside the context of what you can do with it.

07 October 2007

Brothers or Sisters

In the first series of Brothers & Sisters, which is just about to finish showing in the UK, Kevin—the gay one—meets a guy at the gym. So far, so cliché. Let's start a cliché tick-list:

  • There's always exactly one gay main character
  • Gay men meet in gyms

(I'm generally including lesbians in “gay”, for brevity.)

But Kevin's not sure whether the guy, Chad, is gay or straight.

  • Chad is a really gay name

Later, in conversation with his sisters, Kevin summarises the points in the “gay column” and those in the “straight column” of Chad's (presumably hypothetical) chart of telltale sexuality indicators.

  • Characters in drama series and sitcoms exacerbate awkward or uncertain situations by avoiding communicating directly with a particular person (or several people), especially when frank communication with that person (or those people) would undoubtedly resolve all of their anxiety and/or uncertainty. (This is known as Frasier's Law.)

Examples of “gay column” behaviour include complementing Kevin's body...

  • Any mention by a man of the appearance of another man's body is always sexual, even in a gym, where improving one's body is often the primary goal and so the appearance of a person's body, particularly in relation to their fitness, is somewhat relevant to the present activity

...having a pug (dog) named Lola...

  • Gay men... have pugs called Lola... I guess

...and having a lot of gay friends.

  • One's sexuality can be determined by aggregating the sexualities of one's friends

Examples of “straight column” behaviour include using words such as “dude” (incidentally, saying “dude” in any accent other than a North American one always makes you sound silly) and “bro'”...

  • Straight men use slightly-outdated trendy slang, which makes them appear masculine

...having a girlfriend...

  • Men who have girlfriends are not likely to be gay OK, so this one's a fair assessment and not a cliché

...and, inexplicably, acting in a daytime soap opera. (I wasn't aware that acting in soap operas was an especially heterosexual profession; maybe it's an American thing.)

Sarah (Kevin's sister) suggests that Chad may be bi. Kevin retorts that No-one's bi. Have you ever met a bisexual 70-year-old? Hence the expression ‘bi now, gay later’. Eventually everyone decides.

This is the gay one saying this—the non-bigoted one. It's not that the writers are asserting this idea ironically—Kevin is not being portrayed as naïve or bigoted here. He isn't challenged any further by the other characters—after all, they're straight* and he's gay; he knows about sexuality, because only his sexuality is an issue.

  • Gay people know more about sexuality in general than straight people do
  • Anyone whose sexuality isn't mentioned is assumed to be straight

* (If any of the other characters were bi, they'd be the authoritative source on bisexuality. If any of the other characters were gay (or possibly if they were bi or asexual), the writers would have already made a massive point of their sexualities, too.)

So why does Kevin think he hasn't met any bisexual 70-year-olds? For a start, quite a lot of people don't regularly wear any sort of label identifying their sexuality. So the only ways Kevin could know that he'd met a bisexual 70-year-old would be:

  1. Asking them about their sexuality
  2. Using guesswork, applying his shrewd detective skills, and convincing himself of his conclusion beyond any doubt

Judging by the sophistication of Kevin's criteria for determining gayness and straightness, he'd have a hard time correctly guessing that any arbitrary 70-year-old was bi. And judging by his resorting to unsophisticated guesswork, rather than just asking, “Bro'! You gay or what, dawg?” of his potential boyfriend, I doubt he asks many 70-year-olds about their sexuality.

But Kevin has probably happened upon a few same-sex couples involving 70-year-olds, and a few opposite-sex couples involving 70-year-olds. Of the former, he's thought “oh, a couple of gays”, and of the latter, “oh, a couple of straights”.

(I'm pretending here that everyone is, to whatever degree, either definably male or definably female, which isn't true. And I'm aware that this entry addressing the assumption of a sexuality dichotomy whilst still assuming that a gender binary exists is both suboptimal and generally a bit crap. But this entry is long enough and has already taken far too long to write.)

All (or at least the vast majority of) “having a relationship with one person” behaviour can be filed away neatly under either “gay” or “straight”. Compared to the fraction of people in couples, the fraction of people in relationships with more than one person is relatively small (and of those, the fraction who are 70-year-olds is positively minuscule). Examples of obviously-bi behaviour amount to:

  1. Having a series of relationships with people of different sexes
  2. Having a polyamorous relationship with people of different sexes
  3. Expressing interest in people of different sexes
  4. Displaying the bi pride flag
  5. Saying “I'm bi”

Few people are obviously bisexual, especially at first glance. So Kevin has been categorising everyone neatly away as “gay” and “straight”. Or rather, he's probably started with everyone in the “straight” pile (a category, not a physical pile), then plucked out anyone who contradicts this, and hurled them over into the “gay” pile. If you're going to assume that everyone is not bi, of course you're not going to notice any bi people.

Later, when Kevin finally does ask Chad about his sexuality, Chad says, “I may not be gay, but that doesn't mean I don't think you're hot.” (Fans of double negatives rejoice.) This, along with the ensuing sexytime, practically confirms that Chad is bi.

Yet after this, and in the following few episodes when Kevin carries out a relationship with Chad (apparently without Chad's girlfriend's knowledge), Chad's bi-ness isn't mentioned at all. Their relationship is merely described as “closeted” and occasionally “gay”. Start singing A Little Respect, everyone—it's bi erasure!

It's been said that every time you say you don't believe in bisexuals, one dies. I seriously doubt this will prove to be literally true. A couple more to finish the cliché tick-list:

  • Fairies are a bit queer
  • Bloggers like to explain general principles using individual examples of those principles (...and self-reference)

04 September 2007

Playing well with others

(There's been a distinct lack of consciousness streaming, around here recently. This is me doing something to fix that.)

There's a cartoon at indexed expressing that the “do unto others” mantra isn't (or shouldn't be) only adhered to by religious people.

I think Jessica's taking humanism to be roughly equivalent to that mantra, which I don't think is quite correct. As I understand it (and I'm not a humanist, so I may well be wrong) humanism is the idea that it's humans' duty to care for their environment, such as by taking care of the other species.

My opinion is that the other species can probably take care of themselves on their own, thank you very much. In my opinion, this form of humanism treats other species as the United States' foreign policy treats other countries.

This isn't my main reason for writing, though: it's that the “others” referred to in the mantra aren't only humans. This is why I'm a vegetarian—I don't want to be killed and eaten.

04 August 2007

The wheelchair symbol

The wheelchair symbol—a stick-person sitting in a stick-wheelchair (well, on a stick-wheel at least)—is a common, internationally-recognised symbol.


I suppose it originally meant something like “mainly for people using wheelchairs”. For example, in cases where a building's main entrance involves steps, but there's a secondary entrance that uses a ramp instead, this symbol is often used with an arrow to point towards that ramp. But it's a bit of a dodgy symbol for this purpose.

Perhaps the main intention behind the ramp is to allow access for people who use wheelchairs; but others are quite likely to use it as well—people with pushchairs, for example; or on bikes (if it's an outdoor ramp). Maybe you're a small dog (or with one) and don't fancy climbing up steps half your height. Maybe you can walk, but can't easily lift your feet to the height of a step. Maybe you're a skater.

I suspect that many ramps that use the wheelchair symbol were only installed in the first place in order to comply with anti-discrimination legislation, which (in addition to having a poetically rhythmic name) has come into force in the United Kingdom recently. In this frame of mind, someone thought, “OK, chaps. We're putting this ramp in for the disabled people, so we're gonna put up a big sign saying ‘This is for disabled people.’ That makes sense.”.

And it sort-of does, but they're thinking about it far too hard. They should use a symbol of a ramp instead—something like the UK road sign for an incline, but without any gradient. This would show what's there, factually and simply, without making assumptions about who's going to be using it. Analogously, a simple pictorial of some stairs is often used to represent a staircase, and quite sensibly.


That example of the wheelchair symbol's use is relatively innocuous—the ramp is intended mainly for wheelchair users. But there are other cases of its use where it's wholly inappropriate, mainly on the web.

A lot of websites use simple tests to distinguish real (presumably) human users from automated spamming machines. These tests usually involve reading a picture of a string of letters and numbers, that's been made intentionally difficult for a computer to read. This also makes them virtually impossible for people with poor sight to read. In order to provide access for these people, most websites that use such tests provide an alternative one that involves recognising sound instead.

(Both of these are useless for deafblind people. There have been attempts at devising more sensible tests that don't assume that real people can either see or hear, such as Eric Meyer's WP-Gatekeeper.)

These audio tests are often indicated by the wheelchair symbol. —which makes no sense whatsoever.

The rationale behind this is presumably that the wheelchair symbol has become a general symbol for disability. That's a shame, as it lumps everyone with anything that's considered a disability into one category. And using a wheelchair needn't be a disability in every situation, and certainly isn't on the web (which is incongruous, because that's where its image is being used as a symbol for disability).

There is a symbol for blindness, which would be more appropriate for this purpose than the wheelchair symbol; it's a person walking with a cane to the ground in front of them. Unfortunately, it assumes that all people walking with canes in front of them are blind, which is reasonably fair; and that all blind people can walk, which is not.

A better symbol for blindness would be an eye with a slash through it; the UK's Royal National Institute of Blind People uses such a symbol as their site's icon. Analogously, the symbol for deafness is an ear with a slash through it. (This is a very sensible symbol.) The symbol for deafblindness could then, logically, be an eye and an ear, with a slash through each (so, the deafness and blindness symbols combined).

But even the blindness symbol would only be as appropriate for indicating an audio-based test as the wheelchair symbol is for indicating ramps. It's a sound-based test; it should be represented by a symbol for sound; a speaker with “sound waves” emanating from it would be perfect.


There are some uses of the wheelchair symbol that are a bit more awkward. The wheelchair symbol is often used to mark disabled people's parking spaces*—those reserved for drivers and passengers who are “registered disabled”, with extra room and in the most convenient positions. “Registered disabled” means that the person in question uses a wheelchair, uses crutches, has poor or no sight, or has another condition that makes a better parking space a practical necessity. (I'm not sure whether having poor or no hearing gets you a disabled-badge**, but I don't see why it would mean you'd need a space nearer to the building.)

* (I say “disabled people's parking spaces” rather than “disabled parking spaces” because the latter seems to imply that the parking spaces themselves are disabled.)

**: (Similarly, “disabled badge” seems to imply that the badge itself is disabled.)

The wheelchair symbol isn't really appropriate here. Like with the ramp, these parking spaces aren't only for people who use wheelchairs; they're also specifically for people who fall into other groups. Unlike the ramp, this is an artificial distinction: the spaces are explicitly for certain groups of people and—more importantly—specifically not for everyone else. The ramp was just “probably less convenient” for people who can use steps.

In this case, I can't think of a better symbol to use. I think it would be counter-productive to invent a new symbol to generally represent “disability”, because using any symbol like this arbitrarily lumps a lot of disparate groups of people together. However, it might remove the implication that, in any case where a certain biological or medical condition would cause problems, wheelchair users are always “disabled”—or literally, incapable.

17 July 2007

About the blog’s title

There was a TV advert recently—I think it was for an optician, though it might've been for a camera—in which a person walks through a forest, with Polaroid-type photos dropping behind them every few paces. The point was that we see so many images even over the course of just one day, but remember just a tiny fraction of this. You can generalise that to the other senses as well.

For example, a human can see at a rate of about ten frames per second, so over twelve hours one sees more than four hundred thousand images. And we remember none of them. I mean: we filter these images and extract facts from them, but then we forget the actual image. Even if we consciously try to remember the image, memories are imperfect and some subtleties are always changed or lost. (Animals make rubbish eyewitnesses.)

After a split-second review of each of these innumerate sensations, to extract the juiciest titbits, the brain simply discards all of them. There's decay intrinsic in every perception an animal makes.

In the world of software geekery, a “dataloss” bug (problem or error) is one that causes some of the user's information to be lost. It occurred to me that this advert was expressing a continual state of dataloss. It's one of the fundamental aspects of what's often called “the human condition” (although I should make it clear that I think this applies beyond just humans).

A lot of science fiction stories involving robots—for example—contrast those robots with their human (and roughly-human) counterparts, by having the robots be “perfect”. Flawless memory; absolute objectivity (the absence of emotions influencing decisions); and limitless accuracy and precision in almost every respect are hallmarks of the science fiction robot. (This isn't particularly contrived, as these are attributes that the fictional robots share with real-life computers.)

Often this “perfection” extends to an inability to feel emotions, usually love. While the robots are lauded for their impeccable grasp of the factual, they can simultaneously be pitied for their lack of a “deeper” experience of life, beyond the “merely” factual. (My suggestion that there is something “deeper” than the “merely factual” already assumes that there's more to life than pure facts.)

Is it wrong to say it's love when it tries the way it does?

The Flaming Lips, “One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21”

It's concluded that in fact the robots' “perfection”, while ostensibly useful, is also a shortcoming. Imperfection is highlighted and celebrated as being intrinsic to humans' nature—constant dataloss is a fundamental part of life.

There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour.

Björk, “Human Behaviour”

I used “Dataloss” in the title rather than “decay” because dataloss is usually seen as being actively induced and thus preventable. Decay is more of a continuous, natural, inevitable process; I wanted to challenge dataloss's preventability. Besides, the latter has connotations of rotting flesh that I didn't want to encourage.

The “Walking” half of the title is the best way I could find to succinctly express the idea that people are dataloss (although, of course, I don't mean that they literally are). I'm also using it to illustrate the idea that what seems to be the most straightforward way to say something often comes loaded with assumptions. Here it's assumed that discussion is naturally restricted to concerning humans and no-one else, and that all humans can (or do) walk.

There should be a conclusion here... ...So! “Walking Dataloss” manages to cover the blog's main thrusts, “decay, perception and dodgy assumptions”, pretty succinctly.

09 July 2007


So… This blog's going to be centred around the idea of decay and how it affects our perception. And then how that leads to assumptions, and illogical categorisations (putting things into boxes where they don't belong).

I'm already guilty after one sentence—to whom does “our” apply? Just me? Me and a few friends? Me and you? (Hi! by the way.) Every person alive today? Every human including the dead and yet-to-be-born? Every mammal? Every animal? Or absolutely every living being including plants and such?

Yeah. Tough one.

Of necessity, I'm going to have to reduce generalisations to only those that apply to me. Generally, though, I'm going to try to challenge assumptions by stretching applicability to the widest sense possible.

I'm not going to criticise directed writing or speech in English for assuming the audience is human—at the time of writing, only humans can understand English beyond a few words—but I will use things being assumed when they shouldn't be as starting points for wider thoughts.

I've written about this sort of stuff before—simplistic things like my “rant about foreigners” in which I complained about an American website using units of measure that were familiar to them, but that a wider, non-American audience found awkward or even incomprehensible. I've also written about what's in the solar system, trying to use language that most objectively describes the reality of what's there, as well as removing the historical misemphasis particularly of Pluto, but also of the “major planets”. (I only just realised that that entry was relevant to this.)

A lot of my pictures on Flickr have a theme of decay and imperfection. In Four (I use ¡Forward, Russia! nomenclature for the pictures I publish) I tried to make a picture of a murky sky over Hartlepool (Great Britain, Earth etc.) look bright and sunny; the result has a clear air of artificiality (quite possibly due to my lack of GIMP mojo).

For Ten, I drew around the photo by hand, sloppily, creating an outline that was clearly produced in this way. Both of these were an attempt to highlight how the reality of what I photographed gets filtered en route from the camera to the viewer, by artificially filtering the pictures even more; and in the case of Ten, by intentionally introducing imperfections.

As another example of me playing with imperfections, I began my Thirteen series by focusing on the most obvious imperfection the camera recorded (part 1)—the overexposure of the Sun. I then focused on the same area but with the imperfection removed and the sky recoloured to blue, the colour you'd expect of a sky; the resulting picture (part 3) is—in my opinion—less interesting than part 1. And finally, I couldn't bring myself to “waste” such a good photo (again, my opinion, of course) by not publishing the full thing as it was “supposed” to look (part 4)—an example of the valiant fight against decay.

One more thing: there's an article on The Twaddle, a now-mostly-defunct website I run, about the English language (indeed any language) being an intrinsically imperfect representation of what the speaker is trying to express; it argues that this imperfection, the nuances that are applied to any perception that passes through a brain, ought to be appreciated. 00101 01110 00111 01100 01001 10011 01000 01001 10011 00011 01111 01111 01100 wasn't written by me (the author now prefers to remain anonymous for unstalkability reasons) but it probably comes closest to the type of thing I intend to write about on this blog.

(By the way, earlier, “our” applied to anything that can perceive, which I think means any animal.)

Questions? Comments? Plaudits? Microblog at me, @gregknicholson on Identi.ca, or with the tag #walkingdataloss; or email me at walkingdataloss@gkn.me.uk.