Friday, June 14, 2024

The "Color" Grey

A few years ago, someone asked me my favorite animal as an "icebreaker" question.

I have a lot of favorite animals and many of them are incomparable.  I have a particular fondness for hamsters (as a very good pet) and for rhinos (as probably not a very good pet).  I like hoatzins, which are a bird,which I have given their own category outside of "animal" because if we include birds and fish and dinosaurs into "animal" then it gets even harder to choose a favorite animal.

But my knee-jerk response was to offer up the objectively correct answer to the question: dog.

Dogs are not simply my favorite animal.  They are everyone's favorite animal, and that is because they are designed to me.  They were the first domesticated animal and they've been selectively bred for 10,000 years to be our favorite animal.  The incredibly long, long history of man and dog, interwoven for over four hundred generations of humans, makes dogs the best animal, the subjective favorite of mankind, and their influence over our civilization and the ways we've co-evolved cannot be understated.

Anyways, after I said "dog," I was informed that this was a "boring" answer and that I seemed like a boring and uncreative person.

I think a lot about that interaction because if that person had engaged with my answer, we could have had a real chat about some deep, heavy topics.  In the end, they were the shallow one for assuming there was no nuance to the answer, because the answer was a "common" one.

But sometimes common answers are common for a reason, even if folks can't articulate those reasons well (or, in my case, aren't afforded the option).

And sometimes "boring" answers are less boring than they seem at face value.

So today I'd like to talk about one of my favorite colors: grey. According to the sixth sentence on grey's Wikipedia page, "in Europe and North America, surveys show that grey is the color most commonly associated with neutrality, conformity, boredom, uncertainty, old age, indifference, and modesty. Only one percent of respondents chose it as their favorite color." 

Way to do the color grey dirty, Wikipedia.

A seemingly "boring" color, it's actually one of the most interesting.

(I have a minor bias; my first pet was a grey cat and I have always been partial to grey cats.)

This isn't the first time I've talked about colors.  But grey is a unique one in that it's not really technically a color at all.  

Most people would agree that the definition of "grey" is some kind of halfway point between black and white.  But most of us know that white and black also aren't colors.  Black is the absence of color.  There's no place for it on the spectrum of visible light; rather, what we call "black" is what we see when all color is absorbed.  And, likewise, white isn't on the spectrum; it is the spectrum.  White is what we see when all colors are reflected back to us.

In mathematical terms, we could also say that black is zero and white is infinity.

So, mathematically... what the hell does that make grey?  It would seem it's a mathematical impossibility at first glance, a mixture of zero and infinity, of everything and nothing.  A real divide-by-zero kind of situation.

Before I explain to you what grey really is, I'd like to address the spelling of it.  The first recorded use of the word "grey" dates back to the year 700 A.D.  You might be aware that, in our modern language, there are two spellings.  "Grey" is commonly used in England (the "e" stands for "England") and "gray" is commonly used in America (the "a" stands for "Abraham Lincoln of the United States").  This division in spelling is purely aesthetic and there is no correct answer.  Both spellings derive from the Old English word grǽg.  As we transitioned into Middle and then Modern English, folks like Chaucer played fast and loose with grǽg, spelling it both "graye" and "greye."  Seeing that everyone does seem to agree it should have an "e" in there, I opt to spell it "grey."  But whatever spelling you enjoy, from grey to gray to gruy (the "U" stands for "United Kingdom") is fine.

 So, back to math. 

How can we define grey mathematically?  The answer is that "grey" isn't defined by a wavelength (as are most colors) but instead of its absorption and reflection (just like black and white).  Grey exists outside of the spectrum of visible light.  When you see grey, what you're seeing is all colors being absorbed and reflected at the exact same percentage.  "White" is all colors reflected at 100%.  "Black" is all colors being absorbed at 100%.  And grey is every percentage in between, when all colors are getting equal reflective treatment.  In this sense, "white" and "black" can be seen as shades of grey themselves, albeit with far less problematic messaging than the E.L. James novel.  

(Incidentally, while "shade" is often used to refer to a darker or lighter color, let it be pointed out here that "shade" actually refers only to darker saturations, and the technical term for a color that is lighter than the base color is a "tint," making the term "tinted windows" highly confusing to anyone who is really pedantic about color theory.  The correct term for shade would be "tone."  A tone refers to mixing a color with grey, which alters its tone by making it either darker or lighter.)

I'm happy to report that grey is such a unique "color" that it has its own special little category. Since it's not a "true" color (in the sense of being on the visible spectrum of light), grey is categorized as an "achromatic color," that is, a color we can see but one that lacks hue.  ("Hue" refers to the relative mixture of colors within a color.  For example, a light green might have a "yellow hue.")

Achromatic colors (also sometimes called "neutrals," although this category includes "chromatic neutrals," which are greys with bits of color mixed in) are defined by colors that contain all wavelengths of light within them but have no saturation or dominant hue.

I was deeply curious as to when this color category was formed.  We know that Isaac Newton famously observed the separation of white light into the visible spectrum of color in 1666, using a prism, and that Thomas Young was the first to measure and define the wavelengths of color in 1802.  But "grey" is, obviously, visible, and as early as 1374 we were making distinctions between tones of grey ("æsce grǽg," or ash grey).

The answer isn't an easy one and I unfortunately couldn't tell you.  It might be a concept that predates our understanding of color in the first place.  Back in 350, Aristotle suggested that there were five "pure" colors (red, green, blue, purple, and yellow) and that all other colors arise from mixtures of them along with black and white... "colors" that he clearly thought of as "non-colors," with their own little outsider category.  And not much has changed since then.  In 1925, F.L. Dimmick published a paper in Psychological Review titled "Discussion: The Series of Blacks, Grays, and Whites" arguing for achromatic color class, and later, in 1949, E.G. Boring published a paper in L'année psychologique titled "A color solid in four dimensions" making the same argument.  But the "official" creation of the "achromatic color class" didn't properly arise until the advent of the digital screen, when, to display color, all colors needed to be defined in terms of RGB, much like the human eye "defines" or perceives them with its three types of cone cellsAchromatic greys, on a computer screen, are input as "colors" in which the RGB values are exactly equal.  (Standard "grey" has the hex code #808080, which is 50.2% red, 50.2% green and 50.2% blue.  Or in other words, halfway between black and white, with no hue or saturation.)

So, there you have it.  Grey is not nearly as boring as you might have once thought.  And it's not only interesting and seeped in history and math, but it's also probably the color you see most often, out of all the colors.  Because every time you close your eyes, or try to see in the dark, or perceive "grey" because there's not enough light to make out colors, what you're seeing is a specific color called eigengrau, or "intrinsic grey."  Also horrifyingly called "brain grey," this cozy "default" color exists due to a visual adaption to human vision, one that helps us see in the absence of light by emphasizing light/dark contrast instead of color tones.

In other words, like dogs, it's something that's been with us for thousands of years, unappreciated due to its apparent "commonness," but with a long and fascinating history, so long as we're willing to look for it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

April Updates: Eclipse & Other Whimsies

Short and sweet update on my life!

Last month, April, I traveled with Andy to Pittsburgh (his hometown) to go see the big 2024 eclipse.  

I have always wanted to see a total solar eclipse.  It's a major item on my bucket list, and I was planning to see the one back in 2017, in Oregon.  Unfortunately, my father died that week and I had to miss it.

With the next North American total solar eclipse not coming until 2045, I knew I had to make this one.

So we went to Pittsburgh with plans to drive out at dawn to get into the path of totality.  Our original plan, like many people's, was to go to Erie, PA, or Meadville.  But on the day of we discovered that clouds had moved in and it would not be good viewing conditions, so we went with our backup plan: Wooster, OH.

I invited my friends Kevin and Tom along for the roadtrip, which spanned Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and finally Ohio.  Kevin couldn't come but Tom showed up at dawn, and we ended up having an amazing time riding out to Wooster.  It was the typical roadtrip experience of sharing stories, pointing out horse-drawn carriages and signs for antique gun dealerships, stopping by crappy diners and gas stations, and getting increasingly excited for the big event.

In Wooster we went to the Wayne County Library.  We were there so early that there was not much to do except go by a local brewery and kill time.  

The eclipse began and took about 40 minutes to reach totality.  In the final 10 minutes the vibe was really one of total excitement.  The whole town stood still and everyone stood on lawns or in the street, staring up at the sun with eclipse glasses on.  (Calvin described the eclipse as looking like a cookie.) (He got nervous as the 2 p.m. afternoon, clear and sunny, slowly got darker and darker; he wanted to go inside the library near the middle of it.)

When the sun finally blinked out, everyone cheered.  Somewhere, someone set off fireworks.  The photo sensitive street lights blinked on.  It was dark, but dawn was in every direction; we could see the dim light on the horizon all around us.

And the ring of fire?  Amazing.  It wasn't moving, precisely, but it felt very alive, like it was buzzing or vibrating.  Tiny red specks (which I later found out were solar prominences, which are rings of plasma) were on the bottom of the ring.  The ring itself was a sort of opalescent color that doesn't quite have a name.

It was a sight that I had heard cannot be understood unless experienced, and I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.  It literally brought tears to my eyes.  It was worth the trip.

Pictures don't do it justice but here's one, courtesy of my brother-in-law, who was there with us:

After seeing the eclipse on Monday, I got on a plane that Tuesday and flew to St. Louis to visit with my brother and his partner, Jonah.  We hit up City Museum, which is less of a museum and more of an architectural playground, and what I would consider the crown jewel of St. Louis.  You can learn more about it here or just look through these pictures of the whimsy and madness, although, like the eclipse, pictures just don't do the experience justice:

Other than that, we played Yahtzee, fed ducks, drank (at both the Armory, St. Louis's biggest bar, and a very tiny disco dive bar, possibly St. Louis's smallest bar) and, and generally just hung out for a couple days before I went home on Thursday.

It was a brief but very well-realized vacation, and when I returned to work I found that I had gotten Employee of the Month for March (another random thing I've always wanted!)  This bodes well for the long summer months ahead; my only goals for June and July are to work hard and save up for my next big trips in August and September.

Which isn't to say I'm not finding time to dress up as Spider-Man and hold baby goats.

Sometimes the best moments of our lives are the briefest moments of magic shared with our loved ones, be they friends, family, or baby goats.

Friday, February 2, 2024

2024: Tony, Wine, & More

Welcome to 2024! 

Back in 2022, I mentioned I got a new part-time job at Whole Foods.  Well, sayonara, Whole Foods!

I quit back in October, shortly after passing my sommelier exam.  This coincided with my hours getting violently slashed.  As much fun as I had (I make my own fun), I felt increasingly underappreciated and undervalued there, especially when new part-timers were being hired even as my hours were being cut.  It felt like they were pushing me out, and I was more than happy to make room.

One of the things I got out of 2023 was that all of my most valuable experiences were travel opportunities.  Travel ain't cheap.

So after I quit, I took a month off and then began a job search.  I almost, almost, became a tour guide at Alcatraz, but opted instead to join Total Wine and More, which felt like it would really fit my current vibes.

And so far... it has!

It was a huge financial raise from Whole Foods.  While the commute is much longer, it's well worth it.  I knew I was in the right place when my first day involved signing paperwork and then attending a wine tasting.

For the last three weeks, I've been working with a team of other new hires to get the new Corte Madera store in proper working order.  (The Venn diagram of sommelier certification and forklift certification is just a circle, it turns out.)  It's been rewarding physical labor combined with the satisfaction of seeing everything coming together into a very well-organized and attractive little store.  (Plus, I got to do the signage!)

I feel like I'm really in my element, being surrounded by wine and people who love it.  All of my coworkers are fun to be around and they're a breath of fresh air; Whole Foods employees always seemed rather depressed, whereas the Total Wine team seems genuinely enthused to be there.

The whole putting-together-a-new-store endeavor came to a crescendo with a big grand opening party.  I have always wanted to see a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and I did, completed with Big Gold Scissor Action!  

I'm hopeful this is a job I can stick with a bit longer than I did with Whole Foods.  I know I'm still a bit in my honeymoon period, because the job is so new, but overall I just have a very good feeling about this.

I'm looking forward to the new year.  One of my major plans involves going to England in September to attend my writing partner's wedding.  Me and Imo have known each other about ten years digitally, as writers, and we're both really excited to meet in person!  

Other plans include a return to Labyrinth of Jareth (this time with my little sister Kellen), more SCA wars, and viewing the total solar eclipse in Ohio this April!  This job will help offset those travel expenses.

Onward to 2024!

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Christmas 2023 Recap

2023 ended on a really high note for me, because I spent the last week of it at my brother's house in St. Louis!  He offered to host Christmas, and it ended up being a perfect movie-standard holiday vacation, complete with tree, presents, and even snow, though I can't give my brother full credit for that last one, unless you count "enduring residency in St. Louis" as a contributing factor.

My brother is three years younger than me.  We're not especially close because my family just isn't like that, or maybe I'm just not like that.  But typically we only speak a few times a year and even then it's mostly just me sending unhinged memes with zero context.

Despite this sort of gentle estrangement, I like Nate a lot and enjoy his company, and the invitation to Christmas came with a fairly interesting backstory.

The context is that my brother had been with his high school sweetheart for fifteen years in what was basically a common-law marriage, though not a legal one.  In 2023 they broke up, and shortly thereafter, my brother had his new boyfriend, Jonah, move in.

The invite to Christmas seemed to be a kind of "Meet the Family" litmus test, and I was intrigued enough by the new boyfriend to accept.  I wanted to meet Jonah, and I'd never seen my brother's house in person, and Nate (my brother) hadn't met Calvin at "talking" age yet.  Calvin is now old enough to actually greet people by name and have conversations (so long as the conversation is about Peppa Pig).

So we arranged a flight on Christmas Day and arrived in the afternoon to a delightfully decorated home.  Nate's new boyfriend, Jonah, had made a ton of food, and had had the foresight to ask us about dietary restrictions beforehand to ensure we could eat it.  


Calvin had a nice haul; his favorite toy was the Peppa Pig doll in his stocking, though he was pretty fascinated by the Hot Wheels loop-de-loop playset, which was very loud and promisingly dangerous.  (Launching small, die-cast cars at child eye level at 1 million MPH = fun!)

He wouldn't pose for a family picture.

Over the next few days we did typical tourist-y stuff.  We went to the zoo on the day after Christmas, where most of the animals weren't really out and about due to the weather.  My favorite was the hippo, who was paddling around with gusto.  The sleeping hyena got an audible "wow!" from Calvin.

The day after that, we checked out the science museum, which had a lot of interactive "building" exhibits for kids.  I found it a bit overwhelming but the animatronic T-Rex made it (probably) worth it. 

The best day, far and away, was going to City Museum.  City Museum is difficult to describe; Google calls it an "architectural museum" and journalist Whet Moser called it "a wild, singular vision of an oddball artistic mind." 

 City Museum was my brother's suggestion, and it was jaw-droppingly amazing.  Once a shoe factory, it's been repurposed into a sort of giant, bizarre jungle gym that looks kind of like what Tommy Pickles thought "work" was in that one episode of Rugrats.

I'm no architecture but I can tell you that this was a masterwork of madness.  There are tunnels, caves, galleries, castles, a circus, an arcade, a skatepark, and tunnels galore.  Nate suggested putting an airtag on Calvin, which we declined.  We regretted this immediately when he tore off into the tunnels, which go between levels and on the ceiling and into the floor.  

His favorite part was one of the ball pits, and a castle with a trampoline net.
Down the staircase... 
...and out through the fish.

You basically have to crawl around like in "Die Hard."  There's a 10-story slide but Calvin was too little to ride it (and it was closed, anyway).  Peppered throughout the museum are side shows: storytime with Mrs. Claus!  A magician!  A circus with an acrobat!  (We went, but Calvin found her act too scary; there was a part in which she suspended herself from her hair and twirled rapidly, and he sat in the audience aghast, crying, "Oh no!  Stop!  Stop!" clearly distressed that no one was helping her.)

This is a place I would love to go to over a weekend as just an adult (note: there are bars in City Museum!) but it was also immensely fun to see it through a child's eyes, although indescribably hard on the knees.

Some might say the easiest part was slithering down the narrow vertical tunnels on the ceiling.

On our last (or maybe second-to-last?) day, we swung by the St. Louis arc, as is custom.  

So, all in all, a very packed trip for only four days!  Jonah seemed a little nervous (understandable, meeting your new boyfriend's entire family over the holidays) but generous, and I was impressed by his hospitality.  Nate seemed happy which is the best anyone can ask for, really.

Honestly, even without the zoo, museum, and City Museum Architectural Fever Dream I would have had a great time just hanging out with my family playing Mario Party and day drinking.