From: (Matthew Skala)
Newsgroups: talk.bizarre
Subject: Tetrachromat women (Cross Product ch. 8)
Date: 1 Dec 2000 21:08:08 -0800
Organization: Ansuz
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[Chapter 8 of a larger work.  Previous chapters at .
Sorry it's not complete, I probably could finish it up today, I've got most
of the bits already, but quality might suffer and that wouldn't be in the
spirit of FTSD.  Also I have homework I'm supposed to be doing.  By the time
anyone bothers to read through to the end I'll probably have finished it
anyway.  Thanks to Annie for telling me I ought to write it, no thanks to
GigaNews for server reliability.]

Tetrachromat women

One of the many things I hate about direct marketing is the way marketers
share their lists.  If you get on one mailing list, then pretty soon you're
on two, then four, and in just a short time, you're on all the lists.  If
you have a name that people commonly misspell, you may even end up on all
the lists more than once.  In my however many years as a programmer, I'm
proud to say that I've never been in the direct mail industry, paper or
electronic.  You'd think that the Universe ought to be extra nice to me for
that, and maybe I ought to be exempt from some of the advertising junk.
Things don't work that way, though; the only times I get what I deserve are
when it's something bad.

People who invite me to parties apparently work on the same general
principle as marketers; once you're on one list, you end up on others.
That's not to say that I really object; I don't.  It's just that I don't
invite these invitations and I often don't have a good time and I don't know
why they or I bother.  Anyway, the occasion I'm thinking of in particular
was when a guy named Rick, who I'd met at a previous party given by my
acquaintance Taylor, sent me an email inviting me to a "star party".  As far
as I can tell, that's a party where you look at the stars.  He's an
astronomy student, so I guessed that would be his idea of a fun event.

When I was a little kid my Dad had a friend who was an amateur astronomer,
and every so often we'd go over to this man's house and look through his
telescope.  It wasn't very impressive.  The mount wasn't stable enough, and
so it would vibrate any time you touched the telescope, for instance to
focus it or in a vain attempt to get your eye close enough to the eyepiece
to actually look in.  Stars looked like big oval rings, from the vibration.
Every so often he'd show us a nebula or something instead; those looked like
big fuzzy oval rings.

One time he showed me Saturn, which looked like a big bright ring.  For half
a second I was fooled into thinking I was looking at the actual rings of
Saturn, but then I realized I was just looking at the telescope vibration as
always, and the details of the planet were much, much smaller.  I actually
did see the real rings as a poking-out bit at one end of the blob, but they
looked tiny and my eye was in the right space only for a fraction of a
second.  This was at the maximum magnification, too, and I knew that more
magnification would just make the vibration worse anyway.  For a kid who
grew up looking at the Voyager false-color images, which were pretty new at
the time, it was a big disappointment.

I expected the star party to be the same sort of thing.  Rick's house was
out in the newly subdivided "Highlands" area (now there's a place name
cooked up by marketers if I ever heard one) and to get there I had to take a
long bus ride, on a road that turned a thousand corners.  I worried about
whether I could get back to town afterwards, but a check of the schedule
showed that the busses actually ran until very late.  I figured the
developers must be playing footsie with BC Transit in order to get a good
schedule so people would move there, although on thinking about it some more
that didn't really make any sense.  Suburbs by definition are sport-utility
territory; people like me, with a solid middle-class income from the
computer industry but still riding the bus, are an insignificant blip in the

The house was dark and locked, so feeling a little uncomfortable and hoping
that I really did have the right place, I made my way around the back.
There were a bunch of people on the patio and some equipment set up in the
grass back there, so I thought that yes, I must have the right place.  It
was even darker back there and for a minute or two I couldn't see much of
anything except the glowing orange tips of a few smokers' cigarettes up on
the patio.  As my eyes were adjusting Taylor came down the steps from the
patio and pressed a bottle of beer into my hand.  "Rick's down there with
the telescopes waiting for it to get dark." She picked her way back up the
stairs, leaving me unsure whether I was meant to follow her or seek out
Rick, "down there with the telescopes".

I also felt silly holding the beer because I've never learnt the trick of
opening then properly.  Yes, even the "twist-off" kind.  I don't know if I'm
just a weakling or if serious beer drinkers develop protective callouses on
their fingers or what, but when I try to just twist it open I always wind up
hurting myself.  I feel self-conscious about it, too, because I only ever
drink beer in social situations where looking like a pathetic geek is the
last thing I need.  Of course, even worrying about this sort of thing makes
me a geek anyway.

I stood there for several more moments wondering what to do, then gave up,
untucked the bottom of my T-shirt, and wrapped that around the bottlecap
for better traction and to protect my fingers.  In twisting off the cap I
inadvertently tilted the bottle a bit, and the beer foamed up and moistened
the fabric, but when I wrung a few drops out and tucked my shirt back in, I
figured it wouldn't show.  I hoped that my body heat would dry it out soon;
at the moment, the cold clammy feeling against the skin of my groin was less
than pleasant.  I took a big sip of the beer to prevent future spills and
was about to walk towards the telescopes in search of Rick when I saw him
approaching, out of the gloom.  He greeted me warmly, then turned to call up
to the people on the patio.

"Hey, people, I figure it's about dark enough now.  We can get started!"
This was met with laughter and facetious cheers; I had the idea that Rick's
astronomy training had given him the ability to distinguish between shades
of "dark enough" and "not dark enough" that you or I would see only as
"Look, it's plenty dark and cold out here, can we please get on with it?"  A
motley assortment of students, young professionals, and various hangers-on
started trickling down the stairs into the backyard.

He had a list, a plan, and two telescopes in elaborate mounts.  I noticed
large counterweights and flywheels and such and hoped that meant I could
expect a better view than what I remembered from my father's friend's little
Sears-catalog telescope so many years before.  The general idea seemed to be
that we'd form a line and take turns looking through one telescope while
Rick fussed over the other one pointing it at the next object, and then we'd
switch.  Just like double buffering in computer graphics.

Unfortunately, Rick was an astrophysics student, and his idea of an
"interesting" thing to look at was educated by his interest in spectra.  I'd
have been happy to get a really good look at Mars, say, or Saturn; the easy,
flashy stuff.  But the first thing I got to see was a red dot that Rick said
was "due to go supernova any minute now!" which I figured meant something
like "at some time in the next million years".  The next one was a little
blue dot, and I skipped the third in order to go up on the deck and look for
food.  I found some chips and a bowl of pretty good bean dip, and came back
down in time to look at a grey blob.

In fairness the host, all the things we saw were rock steady and bright
enough to be clearly visible, so I guess he was doing pretty well from the
point of view of an astronomy geek, which I'm not.  The other guests for the
most part weren't astronomy geeks either; they seemed to be having fun
looking at the colored dots and talking with each other and doing the usual
"party" stuff, but I couldn't find much in common with them to talk about.
The group seemed to be unusually deficient in computer people.

I was watching Rick set up one scope to point at a barred spiral galaxy (oh,
goody, a swirly blob!) while he talked at me over his left shoulder about
CCDs and wavelength filters.  I think he'd learned somewhere that I had once
worked on satellite imagery, and thought I'd like to hear about his ideas.
I couldn't claim to have anything better to do.  A nervous-looking young man
came up to us to complain that he couldn't see any of the colors, everything
was just grey, and Rick gave him a pep talk about looking a little to one
side so as not to hit the eye's blind spot, but "Everybody's vision's
different," and these objects might not be bright enough to trigger this
guy's cone cells to let him see color.  "Don't worry, there's some brighter
stuff on my list for later, when the sky's a little darker."

"That reminds me," he said as he bent back over the innards of the
mechanical drive on the telescope.  He seemed to be reconfiguring a set of
linkages that controlled its motion.  "I was reading this article the other
day about tetrachromat women.  You know about RGB color, in computing,
right?"  Naturally.  "Well, apparently there are some rare individuals,
they're called tetrachromats, who actually have four visual pigments instead
of just three.  I think it's red, blue, and two different greens.  That
makes sense because yellow-green is the middle of the visible spectrum where
our eyes are most sensitive already anyway.  It's linked to the X chromosome
so it only happens to women and they usually have a lot of male relatives
who are color-blind, because of the way the genes work out."

I said, "That's a fascinating idea, if it's true.  I never heard of it.  I
wonder how someone like that would perceive color?"  "Well, that's the thing,
isn't it?  We, ordinary people I mean, map the three-dimensional RGB into
hue, saturation and value, and hue is a bit weird because it's a circular
scale, so the whole thing turns into a cylinder.  With a fourth color
dimension, what's going to happen to that mapping?  My favourite idea is
that you'd get two circular dimensions, so instead of having a color wheel
for hue you'd have a sphere."

"Well, maybe," I said, "but that's going to consume a whole lot more brain
CPU power than regular color, and I'm going to go way out on a limb here and
say that I don't think it's consistent with what happens to color-blind
people.  I think the basic shape of the space is fixed by the wiring and
what you'd get with an extra input dimension is just the same three
perceptual dimensions, with a lot of extra resolution along the hue
dimension in the green range.  I don't think our brains can accept entirely
new kinds of input without a really big effort, it'll just interpret them in
terms of the same old standard senses.  What I mean is, just look at
psychics and so on - they describe seeing auras as a visual phenomenon, like
exactly the same as regular vision, also clairvoyance and clairaudience and
emotional empathy and so on.  All the extra psychic stuff appears as extra
input to standard senses, not completely new ones."

"Well, of course that's what they describe.  Where would they get the words
to talk about anything else?"  "Fair enough.  Hey, this is something you
should ask Taylor about.  She's into all kinds of color stuff."  "Speak of
the devil."  Taylor appeared seemingly from nowhere, offered us each a
Twinkie, and said, "What?".  As I choked down the chalky dry cake, he
explained it to her.  "Hmm.  Interesting idea.  My brother's color-blind, as
a matter of fact."  "Well, there you go, then!  You could even be one of
them.  Have you noticed your color vision being any different from anyone
else's?"  "Well, not really..."

Rick looked reverently up into the dome of sky, and mumbled.  "Imagine not
just four, imagine being a polychromat, with five or seven or even more
dimensions in your eyes.  Imagine actually being able to see the spectrum of
stuff."  He lowered his gaze again and grinned at us.  "There are species of
shrimp with ten pigments in their eyes, so there's some precedent for it in
nature.  Obviously, it's necessary to start a breeding program and get this
off the 'rare' list.  Just imagine the things humanity could do if we could
see in more dimensions!"  "Like what?" I asked, but he was rushing ahead
with his pitch.

"We've gotta start as soon as possible.  The particle accelerator folks
could trigger a vacuum energy collapse and wipe out matter and energy as we
know them without warning at any moment, so the longer we wait the more
sights we'll miss seeing."  I decided I'd rather not find out what a vacuum
energy collapse meant or whether it had any truth to it at all; Taylor saved
me by dragging the conversation back to the eugenics program.

"So what would you do, just somehow find these women and encourage them to
have more children?" "Well, for a start.  But also we could find the people
who are carrying the right genes to create more tetrachromats, and encourage
them to have children with each other.  One problem is the gender barrier.
We'd never get funding if it's a no boys allowed club, especially not when
there will probably be two or three color-blind men born per tetrachromat
woman.  I'm not sure it's even fair to deliberately go out of your way to
conceive children where you know the male ones are probably going to end up
having a reduced quality of life on account of being color blind.  We'd have
to figure out some way to move the gene to another chromosome to eliminate
the sex bias.  That's not such a big thing because you're gonna have to use
that level of manipulation eventually anyway in order to get more than four
pigments.  Maybe splice in some shrimp genes."

"Why not just abort all the males?"  "Uh..."  "You could do it at the
just-a-few-cells level, after in vitro fertilization, so that you aren't
wasting a lot of expensive womb time."  Rick sneered.  "Have fun explaining
that to the Ethics Committee, not to mention the egg donors."  Taylor
laughed.  "That's what I love about being in art instead of science.  No
Ethics Committee.  If my work raises serious moral issues, it's good!"
Personally, that's what I love about computer programming, but I didn't say
that because it would take a long time to explain to these people.

Even if the Ethics Committee is annoying, I'm still glad such things exist.
I've read a lot of science fiction about genetic manipulation, and the idea
of letting people like Rick and Taylor actually do the sorts of things they
were talking about, even for a purpose as innocent-sounding as improved
vision, gives me cold shakes, halayatchkies, and tetrachromatic heebie

I could feel his pain, though.  I remember one time when I was working on a
project that was funded by a government research grant.  My boss wanted to
give some copies of the half-completed software to users to see how they
liked it.  Pretty straightforward beta test, right?  Well, the guy from the
funding agency got all excited because apparently in his scheme of things,
that would constitute "research on human subjects", and therefore require
dozens of pages of paperwork.  Better to just avoid that if possible.  So we
developed the software and released it without ever testing it, and it
flopped miserably, albeit mostly for other reasons.  I get paid whether the
company makes money or not, but it's still annoying to see that happen.

By this time the telescope was aimed or configured or whatever, and I got
back in the line to look through it, so I don't know where they took the
color vision eugenics idea.  I got half-involved, in the line, in a
conversation about mutual funds, and the next time I talked to Taylor and
Rick was when he reached the end of his list and was sending everyone home.
I checked my bus schedule and saw that the next bus wouldn't be for another
twenty minutes, and as I was wondering whether to go wait for it anyway, the
two of them came up to me and announced that they wanted to climb the

Apparently Rick had told Taylor about my unusual photographs, and they were
both eager to cross-examine me about them, especially upon hearing that I'd
gone back there with Jeff and things had been different.  They wanted to
organize a full-scale expedition to go camping with notebooks and a GPS and
other implements of destruction.  I was able to beg off the complete
discussion because my bus was coming soon.  But they both said they would
phone me, and I had no doubt that they would do so.

Matthew Skala                   :CVECAT DELENDA EST