Thursday, January 31, 2013

Responses to Soc Images. Re: "Children's Books and Segregation in the Workplace"

I really do like SocImages. Really. I do. Even though I often critique the articles written there.

No. I'm being honest: I like the site.

However, I sometimes think that there is a bit of jumping-the-shark that goes on with the stuff that they write about. Recently, there was a post titled, "Children's Books and Segregation in the Workplace" in which the post author wrote the following summary of a book:
As children, many of us encountered Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day? A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in “Busytown.” The book is an example of a brilliant piece of analysis by sociologist John Levi Martin (full text).

To oversimplify greatly: Martin analyzes nearly 300 children’s books and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs).

Pigs in particular are substantially over-represented in subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.

In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves. Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn. As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the American workplace.
This seemed to me to be a - to put it mildly - "odd" assessment to make. And so I wrote my first reply:
Yes, in the Babar series, it's all about this exact "hidden language or code inscribed in children's books". In the Babar series, we learn that elephants "ought to be professionals," because "jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others [like Babar the king] tend to be held by predatory animals," which we all know elephants to be!

... oh, wait.

Okay, that one's an exception. Definitely, though with the Frog and Toad series, we can see two laze-about predators who represent upperclass toffs who go about just talking, reading, and riding bikes. Never an example of hard work between the two of these predatory animals who - since we know them to be predatory - must be characterized as being able "to exercise authority over others".

... oh, wait.

Okay, maybe the author is talking about the Berenstain Bears, you know that series with the corporate executive father and university professor mother and their two children who are in officer training school. Oh, wait... that's not right; the father is a carpenter who is clumsy and bumbling, the mother is a homemaker that gardens and makes quilts. You know... just like your average bears: in jobs that exercise authority over others.

... oh, wait.

Okay, maybe the author is trying to talk about how My Little Pony would be subservient to Thundercats? (I mean, I knew this to be true when I was a boy, even if my neighbor kept saying that I was stupid and a poopoo face for thinking that sort of thing. Still, what did she know?) The findings of this article indicate help indicate the inherent truth that - of the popular 1980s cartoons - Thundercats was the one that held the greatest authority over other animal-based cartoons, which were (in descending order of authority): Thundercats and Care Bears (and effective tie, since these are populated by top-predators), Garfield (who comes in next, since he's a tame predator that doesn't actually predate), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (they totally destroy those peperoni pizzas), and finally My Little Pony (sorry, but they're all indolent herbivores).

... oh, wait.

I'm starting to scrape the barrel on my memories of childhood storybooks with animals making up the majority of the cast of characters... Does Curious George count? Or does he not count, since he is a monkey in a human world, and not an anthropomorphized monkey in an anthropomorphized world? What about Finn Family Moomintroll? Nah, those are fantasy creatures. And anyway, they're not majority-culture American, either. Probably, the Southwest Native American stories about coyote also don't count, either. Nor the Japanese stories about tanuki, swallows, or the animal companions of Momotaro. Nor Chinese stories like children's adaptation of the famous Journey to the West, which had two anthropomorphic animal characters (Sun Wukong and Zhu Baije) Nor German stories like the Brementown musicians.

... oh, wait, I think I get it now:

I must have been given the wrong books to have read to me as a child.
Yeah, kinda snarky, even for me. However, another point really started to itch in the back of my mind: the problem of categorizing animals into the simplistic "predator/prey" dichotomy. This categorization is not useful. It's a bifurcation that mean that an animal is either a predator or it is prey. It provides too much agency to the predator, and the prey is only given the option of "receiving" the predator in order to die. It's replete with cultural bias and ecological fallacy. (Not surprising, this last part; many cultural biases are scientifically erroneous.) It also leads to (what I think of as) lazy thinking, and what precipitated me to write out my critique of this categorization was a comment by "Lori S.": Gender correlation is even stronger. I'm thinking children's clothes here. Boys get to wear (and be represented by) predators: lions, tigers, T. rex. Girls get to wear (and be represented by) prey: giraffes, zebras, bunnies. It's kind of disturbing after a while. (We are all aware of the associations between gender and agency, yes? Okay, moving on.) With that in mind, I wrote:

After thinking about this for a bit, I've come to realize that there is a major problem of ascribing these animals into the categories of "predator" and "prey" instead of "carnivores," "omnivores," and "herbivores." (Let alone talking about them in finer shades, such as making distinctions between "obligate carnivores" and "facultative carnivores.")

I find the generalized implications of "predator" and "prey" (as seen in the comments section and in the article) to be simplistic and kind of sloppy. Collapsing animals into only the categories of predator and prey fails to recognize the more complex nature of inter-species dynamics, such as:

A) evolutionary strategies of carnivore avoidance,
B1) presence of danger incurred by carnivores when hunting,
B2) ability of many herbivores to kill carnivores, and
C) social cues among groups of animals.

Where, then, are the omnivores? They're completely missing from the above assessment. What are the assumptions of the social roles that they play? For example, pigs are not merely docile, objectified "prey" species, but can be predators and scavengers themselves. Indeed, the very concept of a pig being a "prey" species is ludicrous when you think of wild and feral pigs: those suckers are dangerous to almost any hunter, much like hippos can easily tear up any potential threat, and are far from any idea of "prey" species that you can imagine.

What's Martin's justification of collapsing his assessment into the false dichotomy of "predator/prey"? Where are the assessments of the different types of carnivory (that then precipitate to the various forms of predation), herbivory (that make certain animals less or more prone to predation from the other locally present fauna), omnivory (are these animals "predator" or "prey" or both, but how could they be both if it's a binary classification?), and scavenging (recognizing the thorny point that you can't classify vultures, condors, and hyenas so easily into the "predator" OR "prey" categories)?

Furthermore, animal behavior is far more complex than functional feeding group (which I focused on here), but also include group/herd/pack formation vs. individual, levels of matricarchy vs. patriarchy, and a whole slew of things that animal behavior scientists study and any half-way interested 8 year old would already know something about. .... and which appear to be completely missing from Martin's "assessment".

So maybe there also ought to be an assessment of the ecological validity of the illustrators' (assuming that Martin looked at multiple illustrators' works) depictions of animals in conjuction with the pigeon-holing that Martin forces these illustrated animals into.
Yes, I understand that depictions of anthropomorphic animals are likely to rest heavily on our socialized assumptions of the animal in question as well as the socialized assumptions of gender (and the gender that we might most commonly apply to that animal). It's why we think that Santa's reindeer are male (even though male antler retention among male caribou is highly unlikely when the night of December 24th rolls around), and why we have films that completely balls up the gender and social roles of animals (especially anthropomorphized insects, most infamously in Antz and Bee Movie, but also - strangely - with the male cows in Barnyard).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Around the World

I like RĂ©mi Gaillard's video of people dancing from all around the world, all wearing a black t-shirt that appears to bear the message "L'est en faisant n'importe quoi qu'on devient n'importe qui."

It isn't as seamless as the Where the Hell is Matt videos. However, it made the TCK part of me happy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How linked is your Website? (Ver 2)

Back in 2007, I had stumbled across a website that showed how linked a website was. Back then, this blog was a pretty little flower

What a difference a few years make (especially considering that I've actually continued writing on this blog):

Website connectivity

Maybe in a few more years (if the graph-making site is still active or if I remember to do it), I'll be able to make a "Ver. 3" that will be even more connected. Of course, at that time, the graphic might have become too complex to actually view it while being able to actually appreciate the different scales of linkages. We'll see.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Using Known Technological Limitations to Prove that the Moon Landing Hoax is a Hoax

People apparently forget what film and video technology was like in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To put it simply, it was more simple for NASA to send people to the moon and bring them back to Earth than it was for NASA to make a hoax of the moon landing.

Friday, January 25, 2013

That Rhetoric of Obama's Inaugural Address

On Wednesday, January 23rd, Jon Stewart did a bit about the President's inauguration speech, and how it twisted back the "makers and takers" language that Rep. (and former VPOSTUS candidate) Paul Ryan made during the 2012 campaign:

Stewart corrects Ryan's false assertion that the President used a "straw man." (Yet another lie that Ryan makes for no apparent reason, other than because it was a dig against Ryan.) Although Stewart ends with a verdict of, "Plagiarism!" he is technically not correct.

According to, the rhetorical device was:
  • Antimetabole is reversing the order of repeated words or phrases (a loosely chiastic structure, AB-BA) to intensify the final formulation, to present alternatives, or to show contras.
The line in Obama's speech is, "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." Here, you can see how "make us a nation of takers" is (kind of) reversed to make, "take the risks that make this country great." Okay, so it's not a perfect example of an inaugural antimetabole, but it's not bad, especially considering that it's doing additional duty in referencing Rep. Ryan's statement during the campaign while simultaneously blunting Ryan's statement and inserting the President's own message.

More pure (and well-known) examples of antimetabole were made by JFK in his inaugural speech by JFK:
  • Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
  • Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Now, Ryan's own construction of "we are becoming a nation of makers and takers" is also based on a rhetorical device that is based in the Latin expression Repitio mater memoriae, "Repetition is the mother of memory." As Joe Romm states in his book Language Intelligence:
Consider one of the most popular figures of repitition: rhyme. Studies suggest that if a phrase or aphorism rhymes then people are more likely to view it as true. People more readily believe "woes unites foes" describes human behavior accurately than they do "woes unite enemies." All these years after the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's phrase "If it doesn't fit, you mush acquit" still sticks in the mind. It's a powerful mnemonic that hardwires what the jurors saw in the courtroom - when Simpson tried on the bloodstained "murder gloves" they didn't fit - with the verdict Cochran wanted and ultimately won for his client. Even simple repetition remains powerfully persuasive.
Of course, while rhyme is repeatedly used to advance an assertion of truth (i.e., Ryan's "makers and takers" trope), if it isn't resting on factual evidence, it is necessary to recognize that it is merely standing on the logical fallacy of an "argument by rhyme," which can only be strengthened by repetition (and, boy, did Ryan really get to repeat that smoldering, smelly, sack of lies). As Bo Bennett describes in Logically Fallacious:
The argument by rhyme uses words that rhyme to make the proposition more attractive. ... Rhymes tend to have quite a bit of persuasive power, no matter how false they might be. The best defense against this fallacious rhetoric is a good counter attack using the same fallacy.

Whomever smelled it, dealt it!
Whomever denied it, supplied it!
In this it is no small wonder that Obama's line ("They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.") stands as an effective countermeasure to Ryan's baseless claim of "we are a nation of makers and takers"), since it not only powerfully flips the words of the spoken phrase (i.e., it's an example of antimetabole), but it also makes use of the rhyming construction of the original lie to install a new message.

Finally (and this has nothing to do with the example of revenge-rhetoric), it was plainly obvious that Obama was using another rhetorical device - anaphora - when he repeats his opening phrase (five times in all), "We, the people." This echoed the opening words of the US Constitution. This echoed the anaphora and cadence that Martin Luther King, Jr. used when he repeated "I have a dream" eight times to underscore his message. Finally, too, it resonated with Lincoln's own (far more brief) use of epistrophe (which is the inverse of anaphora) in the Gettysburg Address in referring three different times - and in succession - to "the people".

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reasons to Ride a Bike

Now that Ann Arbor is gripped in real winter weather again, it's interesting to see how many people are still cycling.

Back on September 8, 2011, Intelligence Squared posted their "Cycling Festival" podcast that went into the many reasons why people start (and continue) cycling. (You might not really appreciate the "high-falutin'" argumentation of the lead presenter, though.) I felt it a perfect fit to where my mind is currently: thinking about what I would have done if I didn't start riding my bike:
Two wheels, a frame, and two pedals. Nothing could be simpler than a bicycle. People start cycling for practical reasons or for fun but before they know it, it's become a passion, an obsession, a career, an instrument of self-torture.

It's an antiquated mode of transport, and yet hundreds of thousands take it up every year in Britain. Clean, green and cheap, it can turn your journey from A to B into a flight of inspiration, give you a sense of speed, grace and limitless potential, and add a frisson of danger to your otherwise humdrum existence.

Intelligence² are bringing together the most articulate amateurs and professionals from the world of cycling to celebrate the endeavour and endurance, the risk and reward of this extraordinary partnership between man and machine.

Taking part will be:

Bella Bathurst, author of "The Bicycle Book", who will introduce us to the diverse and unpredictable world of the bicycle with stories from the past and quirky anecdotes from her more recent observations.

Vin Cox, record holder for circumnavigating the globe by bike, will argue that the bicycle is the fastest and slowest form of transport you'll ever need.

Geoff Dyer, novelist and keen amateur cyclist, will discuss how photography can capture the romantic allure of two-wheeled bliss – and nowhere is that bliss more ecstatically displayed than at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

Patrick Field, founder of the London School of Cycling who’ll be proposing a city cycling manifesto for the 21st century.

Graeme Obree, Scottish cyclist who twice broke the world hour record on a home-made bicycle who'll be talking about design and innovation.

Will Self, writer and keen amateur cyclist who’ll expand on his love of the bicycle’s purity and simplicity.

I really like the advice that Patrick Field gives, especially starting around 29 minutes, basically stating that there is no "correct" way to go about bicycling. Looking at all the rusting bikes that appear abandoned in the winter snows around campus, this lesson from Patrick Field is important to bear in mind:
If you treat a modern, aviation-grade bike, designed primarily for Americans to ride about in the sunshine, like the bike your great-grandfather rode to the mine, it will fail. Feed a racehorse on thistles, and it doesn't turn into a donkey. It dies. It's not a moral question. Nobody goes to heaven for having a clean bike, but the people who invented and perfected the derailleur would be with anyone starting a journey on a dirty bike. You don't have to use a machine exactly as its users intended, but you do need to understand what it was designed for.
In short: don't treat your bike like crap, based on the ideas of what you grew up thinking a bike to be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Debt Limit Explained

Thank you, again, C.G.P. Grey:

So, in brief:

The debt limit is something set up by Congress (and can only be extended by Congress) to cover expenses that Congress approved and that the President is obligated to honor.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

I have never listened to the whole speech, until today. While the final quarter of the speech (which starts at 12:00) is uplifting (and is also the best known portion of the speech), I find the first three-quarters of the speech (i.e., most of the speech) to be quite enlightening.

The full text (from here):
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"