Archive for: February, 2012

Some things I think are elitist.

Given that some presidential hopefuls think it's elitist for President Obama to support universal access to higher education, and given that I work in higher education, I figured this might be a good time for me to tell you about some things I think are elitist.

It's elitist to decide "college isn't for everyone" -- not that people who choose not to go to college don't deserve guff for that (I agree, they don't), but that the people you've decided are needed to do the manual labor in your society shouldn't go to college, because really, what would be the point?

Perhaps the point is that some of the people who attend to your manual labor needs want to go to college. Maybe they would find immersing themselves in higher education for a while enjoyable, something that feeds their needs as human beings. Just because higher education is not a requirement for workers in a particular kind of job does not mean that it would be "wasted" on those workers. Making the blanket assumption that it would be wasted on them is elitist.

It's also elitist to decide that, even if it's not strictly necessary for a career path, college is a fine way for people of means to spend their time and money, while deciding in the same breath that it's an extravagance for people without lots of disposable income to partake of it. This attitude casts higher education as a commodity that only the wealthy deserve. It's the same attitude that scolds college students for accumulating lots of student debt studying "useless" subjects with which they will not be able to secure big salaries upon graduation and swiftly pay off their student loans. It's the same attitude that motivates tax payers to lean on lawmakers in their states to get rid of "frivolous" subjects in state university curricula (usually humanities, but pure sciences -- and really, much of what isn't business or engineering -- regularly make these lists of curricular frivolity), the better to turn publicly supported higher education into no-frills trade schools.

Indeed, I don't know how it isn't elitist to decide for loads of other people you don't even know (let alone for people you do know) what it's worth their time to study. I have no problem if you decide that you don't want to explore Latin American philosophy, or German literature, or interior design, or forensic chemistry, but once you tell someone else that she shouldn't? You're deciding that you know what's best for her with no clear basis for this judgment beyond your commitment that people like her don't need to study [X] (and thus shouldn't).

And the cherry on top of the elitist sundae is for anyone -- professors, politicians, parents, whoever -- to decide that it's appropriate to remake someone else in your image. No other human being, child or grown-up, is a lump of Play-Doh whose role is to take your impression. Treating others primarily as fodder for your attempts at self-replication is deeply disrespectful and elitist in that it singles out certain people as appropriate impression-makers and everyone else as an appropriate impression-taker.

My job as a liberal arts college professor is to give my students the tools to set their own paths in life (to the extent one can in a world in which we share space and other resources with other people, and have to pay rent, and such). I'm not going to tell them who to be. I don't want to tell them who to be. I want to help them find the space, and to have the freedom, to figure out who they want to be, and then to set about being that person. And, I believe that all of my students (and all of the humans who are not my students) are entitled to this without regard to socioeconomic class.

If that's what's passing for "elitist" these days, then I'm going to need a new dictionary to keep up.

3 responses so far

On being asked a question to which I did not have a ready answer.

Feb 23 2012 Published by under Academia, Passing thoughts, Philosophy

After my "Ethics in Science" class today, one of my students asked me a question:

"What is philosophy?"

My immediate response was, "That's a good question!"

I didn't have a course catalogue handy from which to crib a pithy description, nor my department website (although it turns out that describes instrumental reasons one might want to study philosophy rather than pinning down what exactly it is that you'd be studying).

I could have gone the Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" route, but I have too many memories of people doing this in my graduate department -- and in a way so narrow that is seemed often to put everything that was not logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, or old school philosophy of science on the "That doesn't look like philosophy to me!" side of the line.

What I ended up saying is that philosophy tends to take things we take for granted -- justice, right and wrong, friendship, time and space, knowledge, science, beauty, what have you -- and interrogate what we think we know about them.

Do we have a coherent concept of (say) cause and effect? Do we have a consistent view? Is it a view that corresponds to actual stuff in the world, or just to the structures of the human mind organizing the information we can get about the stuff in the world? Do we need that concept to do other stuff we care about? Would we be better off without such a concept (and if so, how)?

What comes out of these efforts at interrogation varies. Sometimes we come away with a better understanding of the concept or practice about which we've been asking questions. Sometimes we come away with a lot of unanswered questions (some of which may even leave us without good strategies for trying to nail down answers). Sometimes we piss people off, upset the social order, and get handed the cup o' hemlock.

Maybe this means that philosophy is less a unified subject matter than a set of habits of mind, "question[ing] everything ... except your intelligence," as the Philosophy Talk guys describe it in their tagline. Or maybe it means I need to be sure I have a concise answer at the ready the next time this question comes up ... except that I had a real Suzanne Farrell moment* thinking about the question: I didn't know the answer to the question, but I love that my student made me think about it again.

* Let the record reflect that this was a Suzanne Farrell moment that did not involve an affair with the parent of one of my students.

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Is it time to go Lysistrata?

In the ancient (written circa 411 BCE) Greek comedy Lysistrata, the character of the title attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by getting the women of Greece to leverage what power they have to influence the men in charge of that society. These women agree that until the war is over, there will be no sex.*

It strikes me that in the year 2012 we are seeing in the U.S. a political war waged against women's personhood and bodily autonomy.** As part of this war, lawmakers have required women to endure waiting periods (in the span of days) to obtain a legal medical procedure which becomes progressively less safe the longer it is delayed. As part of this war, lawmakers will require that women who seek a legal medical procedure be subjected to a medically unnecessary procedure that, when conducted without consent, amounts to rape. As part of this war, other lawmakers are seeking to remove the legal right to this medical procedure altogether (and to treat doctors who perform it as criminals). The warriors rolling back bodily autonomy elide termination of pregnancy with prevention of pregnancy, and frame as a matter of religious freedom the desire of members of certain religions to restrict the bodily autonomy of people who do not even adhere to those religions.

This is a war in which, in the year 2012, the very availability of contraceptives (which, by the way, have reasonable medical uses besides preventing pregnancy) is now up for grabs.

I don't know about you, but my plans for 2012 ran more to jet-packs than The Handmaid's Tale. And I'm starting to wonder if it might not be time to go Lysistrata to end this damn war.

You see, the fact that in the U.S. women make up more than half of the voting age population doesn't mean that women make up a proportional share of elected lawmakers (or judges, or presidents of the United States). And members of the U.S. House of Representatives apparently think it's just fine to convene hearings on contraception coverage featuring 10 expert witnesses, eight of whom are male, and none of whom testify in support of contraceptive coverage. And politicians from the party that's supposedly carrying the progressive banner think it's politically smart to use our bodily autonomy as a bargaining chip -- to get stuff that's more important, apparently.

What's more important to you than autonomy over your own body? If you can make a list here, I'm guessing it's not very long.

What if we declared a sex-strike until the people who purport to represent us came around to the view that our personhood and bodily autonomy is non-negotiable?

Sure, such an action is unlikely to reach the forced-birth theocratic extremists, since they are pretty open in their view that women are lesser creatures, not to be trusted with decisions about their own health or lives.*** My guess is that these people do not care terribly about the wishes of women with whom they are partnered**** (or, if they do, that they regard these women as exceptional compared to the women against whom they seek to use governmental power). Persuading these extremists of my personhood would be about as rewarding trying to have a dialogue with a hexagon, and significantly less likely to succeed.

But maybe a sex-strike would grab the attention of our fair-weather feminist allies, the ones who pay all kinds of lip service to our personhood and bodily autonomy when there's an election to win, then turn on their heels and start bargaining it away for their own political advantage.

These folks might change their ways if they had skin in the game -- or, as they case might be, if they got no skin and no game.

Far be it from me to suggest that men are more vulnerable to their desire for funsexytime than are women. They are not. However, I reckon it's easier to be in the mood for funsexytime when your very personhood is not up for debate.

I find legislative threats to my bodily autonomy a real mood-killer. And, I'd much rather share funsexytime with a partner who takes my well-being seriously enough to view the war on woman as a war that needs to be stopped in its tracks, now. Someone who wouldn't see it as politically expedient, let alone clever.

Because guess what? I would never presume I was entitled to funsexytime with someone whose personhood and bodily autonomy I didn't step up to fight for when it was under threat. Heck, I would step up to fight for the personhood and bodily autonomy even of people with whom I have no desire to have funsexytime because that's what decent human beings do.

And my choice is to refrain from funsexytime with anyone to whom my interests do not matter at least that much. People who cannot manage to see me and others like me as fully human do not deserve to get any action that might not also result in a repetitive stress injury.

Not being all-in in the fight to protect the bodily autonomy and personhood of women and others with uteri is a deal-breaker for me. Is it a deal-breaker for you?

*Including no "Lioness on The Cheese Grater," a sex position upon which we can only hope SciCurious will one day blog.

**This is also a war against the bodily autonomy of other persons with uteri.

***And yet, to be entrusted with babies that they may not want. If ever there was a non-standard logic ...

****This does raise the question for me of how men of this sort can have sex with women who they view as not-fully-human by virtue of the very fact that they are women. Wouldn't such sexual congress amount to bestiality, the next step on the slippery slope after gay marriage, which they are generally against?

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Things to do instead of grading that first stack of student papers.

  1. Staple any papers held together by paperclips, folded corners, or sheer force of will.
  2. Print out papers turned in by email, stapling if necessary.
  3. Alphabetize papers by students' surname.
  4. Divide papers into sets of ten and paperclip together.
  5. Create a grading rubric.
  6. Create a spreadsheet in which to record the grades.
  7. Find a supply of appropriately colored grading pens.
  8. Try to locate your drawing board.
  9. Double-check that the state and county correctional facilities will not, in fact, correct papers, not even those from state university courses.
  10. Leave papers, grading pens, and rubric on kitchen table overnight to see if elves will come to grade the papers.
  11. Write a blog post about ways to put off actually getting started on grading those papers.

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Passing thoughts from Casa Free-Ride in Exile.

Feb 14 2012 Published by under Passing thoughts, Personal

This week has been (and I daresay will be) sort of discombobulating.

Late last fall we discovered that we had hardwood floors hiding under the ratty wall-to-wall carpeting in Casa Free-Ride. We also found out from our friend who refinishes hardwood floors that if we were to refinish ours in February, we could get a deal on it. February, being part of our rainy season (to the extent that we have anything describable as "seasons" in the Bay Area), is part of the slow season for floor refinishing.

Given that we have held the carpeting in contempt for some time (did I mention that it was ratty?), it sounded like a great idea to us, even though it would mean completely clearing all the rooms in which carpeting would be pulled up and floors would be sanded and finished. Yeah, it meant boxing a lot of stuff and moving a lot of furniture, but we'd have time to get on that ...

After the holidays.

And after the kids went back to school.

And after ScienceOnline.

And after my semester got going.

Yesterday was the day of reckoning. The rooms were not quite cleared by 7:30 AM, but we had the last one emptied by 11:00 AM. By the end, we pretty much abandoned organizational principles in favor of getting it done, which means some of these boxes will be ... interesting to unpack.

We are lucky enough to have a place to stay within a couple miles of Casa Free-Ride (which is especially convenient given that the rabbit is still holding court in her backyard run, and demands regular water, kibble, carrots, and watercress stems as tribute).

I keep hearing how going carpetless leads to a remarkable decline in airborne allergens. I expect I'm likely to experience our return to Casa Free-Ride this way whether or not it's true; the place we're staying for the duration has enough residual cat in it (possible in time-release form) that my eyes have been scratchy and my throat itchy for the 30-odd hours we've been in residence. When I get that stack of papers today that will need grading, maybe I'll take them to the cat-free cafe. However, the cafe has wifi, which our current lodgings do not, which might make the grading harder.

In any event, I'm hopeful that the sock-skating we'll be able to do when the floors are finished will make the trouble of being dislocated totally worth it.

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GRE scores and other tools to evaluate people for lab positions.

In the last 24 hours there has been an interesting conversation on the Twitters (with contributions from @drugmonkeyblog, @CackleofRad, @mbeisen, @Namnezia, @dr_leigh, @doc_becca, @GertyZ, @superkash, @chemjobber, @DoctorZen, and a bunch of other folks) on the value of standardized tests (like the GRE) in evaluating candidates for a lab position.

The central question at issue seems to be whether GRE scores are meaningful or meaningless in identifying some quality in the candidate that is essential for (or maybe reliably predictive of) success in the environment of an academic lab. And, it's worth noting that the conversation has not been framed in terms of using GRE scores as the only piece of evidence one has about applicants. Rather, it's been about the reliability of GRE scores as a predictor compared to college transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays, and the like.

I have thoughts about this issue, thoughts which are informed by:

  • my teaching experiences
  • my own experiences with the SAT and the GRE (I aced them)
  • my own experiences doing research in four different lab settings (three of them while I was an undergraduate)
  • my experiences teaching test preparation courses (for SAT I, SAT II, and MCAT)
  • my experiences as the graduate student representative on a graduate admissions committee (albeit not for a science department)
  • my experiences on hiring committees (where GRE scores weren't an issue but things like letters of recommendation, grades, and personal statements were)
  • broader ongoing conversations with colleagues about the challenges of finding reliable proxies with which to assess the success of our educational efforts.

What I have observed from these:

  1. There are extremely smart, capable people with severe test-anxiety. I'm talking puking-at-the-very-thought-of-sitting-fot-the-test anxiety. The people I've known with this manifest it most strongly when faced with standardized tests; generally they've found ways to deal with the other kinds of exams that are part of their schooling. I doubt that GRE scores would be reliable indicators of the fitness of such people for a position in an academic lab, unless that position involved taking standardized tests on a regular basis.
  2. My own success on standardized tests is mostly a measure of how well I understood the structure of those standardized tests. This is a lesson that was reinforced by my experience teaching others how to do better on standardized tests. I did not make my test prep students smarter about much of anything except strategies for taking the standardized tests. (In a few instances, my work with them may have helped them identify conceptual issues or problem solving skills that they needed to sharpen before test day, but again, I take it the "help" they got was primarily a matter of knowing what material and skills the test was going to assess.) Is understanding the structure of the GRE, or developing a good strategy for taking it, a crucial component of success in an academic lab? Probably not. Is it a reliable proxy for something that is? Maybe, but it would be nice to see an explanation of what that is rather than just putting our faith in the test to tell us about something that matters.
  3. Plenty of people with awesome test scores are hopeless in the lab. Plenty of people with non-awesome test scores are really successful in the lab. What's the level of correlation? I don't know, and you probably don't either. Maybe someone should do an empirical study so we know.
  4. One place that standardized tests seem to be of use (or so I've heard repeatedly over the years from lots of admissions committee folks) is in "calibrating" grades, especially of schools with which one might have less familiarity. What does an A at Podunk U. mean compared to an A at Well-Known Tech? Presumably the GRE scores of the candidates give us some information (so, if they're really low from the Podunk U. student, maybe Podunk U.'s As aren't requiring the same level of mastery as Well-Known Tech's As). But, there's always the possibility that Well-Known Tech has a better developed organization from the point of view of getting its students into grad school, and that part of this might include in-house test prep. Also, what if the lone Podunk U. student who is applying to your program has test-anxiety?
  5. GRE scores are often thought of as an objective counterbalance to letters of recommendation because, as the common wisdom has it, letter writers lie. Or maybe they just put the best possible spin on the candidate's talents. Or maybe they're actually just overestimating the candidate's potential. Or maybe they don't write good enough letters for the students who are not like them in certain relevant respects (including scientific style, socioeconomic background, gender, race, sexuality, etc.). Surely, in many cases there is something like a positive bias in letters of recommendation (and some faculty will advise students to ask someone else for a letter if they themselves are unable to write a glowing recommendation). And, there are instances in which a letter writer will undervalue the talents and potential of students (although one hopes that the other letter writers in such cases will compensate). Still, the letters at least present a space in which actual concrete examples of the student's awesomeness (or shortcomings) can be discussed. Some of these examples may touch on situations or challenges directly relevant to what the applicants may have to face in the academic lab in which they are seeking a position. Plus, at least in fields that are not totally enormous, there is (or could be) a professional cost to lying to a colleague in the profession, even in a letter of recommendation for a student.
  6. If I had to rely on just one proxy, it would be the applicant's personal statement. Again, it strikes me that this is an instrument that creates a space where an applicant can describe past experiences and current interests, challenges overcome and lessons learned from them that might be applied to future challenges. A personal statement can give you a glimpse into what the applicant cares about and why. It can also give you a sense of whether the applicant can think and communicate clearly. However, this is probably another area where someone should do some empirical work to see what kind of correlation there actually is between the quality of the personal statement and the success of the applicant in the position for which the personal statement was part of the application package.
  7. Every single proxy we might look at to select among applicants can fail. It's not clear to me that it could be otherwise, especially given that we're using the proxies to try to predict future success, which you can't do with perfect accuracy unless you have a machine for seeing into the future (and even then ...).
  8. It strikes me that active thinking-on-your-feet interview questions might provide more relevant information. It used to be that you couldn't really use these for things like grad school admission because you couldn't afford to fly all your applicants out to campus. (By the time you saw prospective grad students, they were admits trying to choose between the programs that had accepted them.) But maybe now with tools like Skype those looking to make sensible choices among applicants should do some video interviewing?
  9. Then again, if video interview questions for lab positions become a thing, someone will probably set up a video interview preparation company.

Yeah, I'd say to take GRE scores with a grain of salt. But, I think that's the right attitude to take to all the bits of evidence an applicant presents. Honestly, my attitude toward test scores probably has a lot to do with my knowledge about how easy it can be to do well on them (at least compared to the other pieces of one's application package). It probably also has to do with at least a few gatekeepers who treated GRE scores as definitely more reliable simply because they were quantitative, rather than qualitative.

If you have an applicant-screening item that has never led you astray, please share it in the comments.

10 responses so far

#scio12 traces in real life: sketch notes from my department meeting.

One of the highlights of ScienceOnline 2012 for me was getting to meet Perrin Ireland, a graphic facilitator who specializes in science communication, and to see her in action. Before the conference, Perrin had emailed to ask if she could "live scribe" the citizen science session Amy Freitag and I would be co-moderating, creating a visual record of the content of our discussion with markers on foam core boards as the session unfolded.

Of course, we accepted the offer, because how could we not? (Stills of Perrin's work from our session and others can be seen in this post.)

Perrin also offered a Science Scribe 2.0 Workshop (which I missed, because one can only be so many places in a time), in which she taught participants how to create these visual records ("sketch notes") and then turned them loose to practice these skills in other conference sessions. Here's a slideshow with examples of their work.

Michele Arduengo participated in this workshop and gave a vivid (and illustrated) account of it on her blog. This was enough to embolden me, the Tuesday after the conference, to take sketch notes of our start-of-the-semester department meeting.

They are not nearly as visually arresting as the sketch notes that Perrin's apprentices created at ScienceOnline. However, I did observe that being alert to how I could make my notes (of pretty mundane academic and administrative stuff) more visual seems to have gotten me to pay more attention to the meeting as it was happening -- to look for unifying themes or recurring motifs, for example. And, it left me with a set of notes that, more than a week later, makes the big issues and small details easy to remember ... which means that, potentially, my notes will actually be useful in a few months, too.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: You call this living?

As I mentioned on the Twitters, when, upon my return from ScienceOnline 2012, my family members hit me with the question, "What did you get me?" they were thrilled that the answer included science-y watercolors by Michele Banks (who, by the way, has a show ongoing).

Science watercolors by Michele Banks

My favorite is this cute phage, not least because it prompted a conversation between the Free-Ride offspring.

Phage watercolor by Michele Banks

Dr. Free-Ride: Isn't this cool?

Younger offspring: It looks like a bug with a balloon on its butt.

Elder offspring: No, it's a phage.

Younger offspring: What's a phage?

Elder offspring: It's a virus that eats bacteria.

Younger offspring: Aren't viruses and bacteria the same thing? Don't they both make you sick?

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, viruses and bacteria both fit in the category of "germs".

Younger offspring: Don't they both make you sick? Isn't bacteria the same level of bad as viruses? And why would a virus eat a bacteria? Wouldn't that make the virus sick?

Dr. Free-Ride: There are some bacteria that are totally benign that are probably living in your intestine right now, without which you would have a hard time getting all the vitamins you need, for example. So, there are some bacteria that actually do good work for you.

Younger offspring: Oh.

Dr. Free-Ride: But there are definitely other bacteria that can make you sick.

Elder offspring: Like E. coli for bladder infections.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah.

Younger offspring: TMI.*

Dr. Free-Ride: To be fair, some of the bacteria that are in you, doing fine without making your life miserable, are E. coli. It's particular strains of E. coli that can make you sick.

Younger offspring: Isn't it bacterium?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes, bacterium is the singular, bacteria is the plural. So ... what's the difference between a bacterium and a virus?

Elder offspring: A virus isn't really living. The only thing that it does that is similar to living things is reproduce, and it doesn't do that by itself -- it needs a bacterium to reproduce.

Dr. Free-Ride: Say more about that. Is it like a photocopier, which reproduces but needs someone to push the button?

Younger offspring: Wait, if bacteria can help viruses reproduce, isn't that another way for bacteria to hurt us?

Elder offspring: It's not like the bacteria are doing it by choice!

Dr. Free-Ride: They are sort of being commandeered by the viruses, aren't they?

Elder offspring: Yeah. The viruses just attach on and then insert their genetic material.

Dr. Free-Ride: And say, "Hey, bacterium ..."

Elder offspring: "... do THIS instead of your normal life functions!"

Dr. Free-Ride: So, instead of your normal life functions, make more of the stuff that I've shot into you, which is basically virus-stuff?

Elder offspring: Yeah. And then when the bacterium gets too full of viruses? It goes BOOM! and all the viruses go find new homes.

Dr. Free-Ride: It explodes like an overheated spaghetti squash.**

Younger offspring: That wasn't really needed.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, you know, sometimes it's good to have a mental image. OK, back to your claims that viruses aren't alive. Strictly speaking, we humans need other stuff in our environment to conduct our life functions. I'm always curious about how we decide where to draw the line between what counts as being a living thing and what doesn't. And I'll bet there are probably some people who think that viruses ought to be on the "living" side of the line rather than the "non-living" side. What's the justification for keeping viruses out of the club?

Elder offspring: They can't produce energy by themselves.

Dr. Free-Ride: Whereas you can? Didn't you recently have a conversation with an organelle that pointed out your shortcomings in this area?

Elder offspring: They can't produce energy by way of mitochondria or whatnot.

Dr. Free-Ride: Ohhh, so because we have mitochondria, we can lord it over the viruses? You think having mitochondria is a requirement for being alive?

Elder offspring: No, you just need to produce energy from something to be alive. Just reproducing yourself isn't enough. I'm pretty sure viruses don't get energy, they just reproduce.

Dr. Free-Ride: Wouldn't that suggest that they're even more advanced than us "living things" in that they don't need energy? I mean, they don't have to stop to eat. They're very nose to the grindstone, achieving the task at hand of making more of them.

Younger offspring: Except that viruses don't have noses.

Dr. Free-Ride: Think of how much more you could get done if you didn't have to stop to eat.

Elder offspring: But then I'd miss all the prettiful flavors.***

Dr. Free-Ride: For that matter, think of how many more of you there could be running around if you displayed the virus' seriousness of purpose about making more of you.

Elder offspring: Ewwww. No.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, not in one of those bizarre animal kingdom kind of reproduction methods. We're talking about you harnessing bacteria to multiply your genetic material.

Elder offspring: Yeah ... still no. One of me is enough.

Younger offspring: Yes it is.

Glaring ensued. As it does.
*Let the record reflect that the younger Free-Ride offspring was objecting to the general information that bladders can be infected, not objecting to an overshare of personal information (and indeed, it was general, not personal, information the elder Free-Ride offspring was sharing here).

**We did this accidentally not too long ago. It blew the door of the microwave oven open in spectacular fashion. It was still pretty tasty, and no one was hurt.

***In case you were wondering, this is a discussion that happened at the dinner table during dinner.

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Things my mother never told me about astronomical observations.

Feb 01 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Or, maybe my mother did tell me about this particular reason to "clean up" images from deep space and I just wasn't paying attention? (But how could that be?)

Space Cats

When Super Sally has a chance, I hope she'll check in (in the comments) to explain to us the optical principles behind these artifacts.

One response so far