We don’t see the world as it is …

Someone said something like “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Who? A search, filtered through my web bubble, ascribed it to Stephen R. Covey, Anais Nin, Albert Einstein… The trail is complex enough that the Quote Investigator has an article on it. When you start thinking about the path from the the eye to the perception of the world around us, you realize that the world is so complex that the brain’s computations can only create an approximation. A frog sees a world of moving objects in exquisite detail. A butterfly sees the bright patterns in ultraviolet light that flowers have evolved to attract them. We do not. And the camera, that instrument that we carry around in our pockets, does not see what we see. So it takes a little work to tweak a camera’s output to get the impression of dark water, its surface reflecting the clouds above, its transparency letting you see a rotting leaf slowly sinking, its beading on the fresh leaf to reflect the sun, into what you think you see.

The cold war led to the development of CCDs to act as eyes on spy satellites. In the same year, 1976 CE, that they were first used for this purpose, they were also used for astronomical observations. The very next year they were put into the Voyager satellites, our first eyes to travel to other planets. Kodak labs had developed the first CCD camera in 1975, but it wasn’t till 1988 that the first commercial digital camera became available. There is enough information in the output that what looks like a perfectly black image at first can be used to tease out details. Even without using raw data, I could recover an image of a gaur (Bos gaurus) that I saw on a dark night in a forest. You see that imposing creature in the photo above. This was an old camera, so there is a lot of noise, but I like it that way. After all even our eye/brain does not see too well in the dark.

Colour perception is another whole kettle of fish. The simple RGB colour space model which cameras use is a very crude approximation of what our eye sees. Actual human colour perception is still an active research area. So the images that come out of a camera require colour correction. And the interaction of attention and colour; let’s not even go there. When I looked at this lotus pond inside a forest my first reaction was to the bright red of the flowers. Only later did I realize that the number of insects on it was enormous. And was the water strider (Gerridae) there for the flower, or its shade? I forgot all about the red. To reproduce a semblance of this attention I had to tweak the photo.

Lens artists will want to see the” originals” too. The step from raw to jpeg is all digital magic, so nothing is really original. For that matter, our eyes are not particularly great instruments, so the brain’s chemical-electronic magic is really needed to build up, see, the world around us.

Lotus farming

This lady extracts lotus silk from its stems

Life on lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar is different. As you can imagine, living in houses suspended above the water can change the way you live. One of the most interesting developments is that silk is extracted from lotus. The lady whose photo you see alongside showed us how. You break the stem and slowly pull apart the broken edges. You see strings of sap joining the ends. These are rolled together to produce the fiber. You can see a tray at her feet which contains these fibers. It is a long and laborious process. She knew little English, so I could not ask her the questions which came to my mind. How long does she work every day? How much fiber does she get each day? In the same workshop I saw an old man at a spinning wheel, spinning the fiber into yarn. There was an amazing look of concentration on his face which you can see in the photo. Another few steps down the corridor the yarn was being woven into cloth. The dyeing of the yarn seemed to take place in an upper floor. The colours were lovely muted browns and greens, a touch of earthy red, and the colour of raw yarn.

Farms of lotus on lake Inle

As our boat made its way through the village to the workshop, we’d passed a lotus farm. I went back there to look at it. A walkway surrounded a fair acreage given over to growing lotus. As I looked at it I wondered about the economics of this process. In other places I’ve seen bees fertilize the flowers. Where would bees hive here? is the ferilization done by hand? Is there enough money in the trade to keep villages occupied in growing lotus, extracting fibre, spinning yarn, dyeing and weaving it?

Some of the answers came indirectly. I learnt that the fabric woven from lotus silk was once reserved for the use of kings. Now you can buy it in a shop adjoining the workshop. The Family looked at a little stole. They were beautiful, but a single stole cost about USD 100. The turnover is small, but the costs are large. There is clearly enough income from it to support families at the same level of income as their neighbours who work at other things. But this way of life could disappear soon as surrounding areas grow more prosperous.

China and the lotus


The Chinese believe the lotus to be a symbol of purity: rising unmarked from the dark depths of ponds and rivers to flower in the sun. Interestingly, this is the exact symbolism that Indians use. Two neighbouring cultures with the same symbol, completely in the dark about the other!

The use of the lotus in Chinese landscape gardening seems to be much better developed. Perhaps because water is such an important element in Fengshui, palace architecture contains ponds, in which the lotus is cultivated in profusion. The photo above is from the Summer Palace in Beijing, where three kinds of lotus and pond moss are harmonized.