Monthly Archives: September 2008

Gender, Causality, and McCain

I was riding the bus today thinking about a paper I’m writing and John McCain (two totally unrelated topics), and it occurred to me that a good way to explain gender as a “social construction” is to think of John McCain and his reputation as a maverick. To wit:

As many of you probably know, John McCain recently asked Barack Obama to postpone the presidential debate that was to be held yesterday so that he could travel to Washington to help fix the economy, as if he had any influence on the standing committee that was actually debating the Paulson bill. Coincidentally (?), the day before that happened, Sarah Palin was interviewed by Katie Couric about, among other things, the $700 billion bailout proposal. When Couric asked Palin to defend her statement that “John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business,” despite his having a thirty-something year record of opposing governmental regulation of Wall Street, Palin replied, “Well, he’s…known as the maverick” *shrug*.

Palin’s use of mcCain’s maverickness is what’s at issue here. McCain doesn’t do things because he’s a maverick, he is known as a maverick because he does things. He got his reputation as a maverick because of his tendency to do things that are unpredictable based on his past behavour. Palin’s use of his maverickness to explain his behaviour is a good example of how social constructions that are posited as causal forces help to make the world easily intelligible. By appealing to McCain’s being a maverick in order to explain his behaviour, which is to say, by positing his maverickness as prior to his behaviour, rather than subsequent to it, Palin (unconsciously) precluded the need to interrogate the actual reasons that McCain was flip-flopping on the economy, or failing that, explain her inability to comprehend his platform. McCain is a maverick, and mavericks do things that are unpredictable. It’s what mavericks do. It all makes perfect sense.

But McCain’s being a maverick doesn’t explain his behaviour, it’s a result of his behaviour. Gender is often used the same way. Gender doesn’t cause people to do things, it is a result of people doing things. Gender isn’t prior to people’s behaviour, it’s subsequent to it. The use of constructed concepts as causal mechanisms is a phenomenon that McCain used to his full advantage: by asking to postpone the debate so that he could go “save the economy,” he avoided having Palin’s cringeinducing interview plastered all over the front pages on Thursday morning, no real explanation necessary. After all, suspending a campaign is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a maverick.

A Tale of Two Children

I was riding my bike through a random industrial part of town when I stumbled upon this (click then click to enlarge):
I was understandably puzzled. It turns out that this is a piece of public art by none other than famous Canadian artist Ken Lum, who happens to be the guy who taught the lecture portion of Visual Art 182 when I took it back in 2003. On the first day of class he introduced himself as Ken Lum, explained how he was a practicing artist, and deadpanned, “So if you’ve ever wondered what a real artist looks like, here you go. Sorry to disappoint.” His class was the first place I ever heard about the Gaze.

This piece is called “A Tale of Two Children.” It was commissioned by the city and sponsored by Grosvenor, a huge international property development and investment group. Most accounts claim that the piece references his experiences of growing up in a somewhat ghettoized Chinese-Canadian community; according to Robin Laurence of the Georgia Straight,

[I]t’s not clear what Lum is trying to tell us about language and culture as they affect parenting styles and expectations. There’s a provocative element in much of his work that does not find easy resolution in the mind of the viewer.

For me, it’s ambiguous message and unorthodox location made it more of a treat, especially considering the serendipity of its discovery.

Say “Lewis”

Posting that Stevie Wonder video reminded me of another music video that I find fascinating:

I found it on a blog written by Robert Zimmerman (no, not that Robert Zimmerman) called Re:harmonized. Dr. Zimmerman is a music professor at Duke University, and he used this clip to teach jazz history. This clip overshadows any doubt that it’s not just Armstrong’s music, but his musical personality — the way his music is inseparable from his personality — that makes him such an enduring figure. According to Zimmerman,

He effortlessly dominates this ensemble, as he did most every group he played with, but when it’s time to share the spotlight he doesn’t just step aside–he directs his enthusiasm at the band so everybody knows that he digs what the other guys are doing, too. …[H]is musical thinking comes through in his body language.

It would probably be fairly easy to find someone who can play a trumpet as well as Armstrong, and maybe someone who can sing as well as Armstrong (though not necessarily in the same way), but damn they won’t be half the musician Louis is without that radiant enthusiasm. You can see the same thing in the way Stevie Wonder throws his head back and gets that huge grin when he feels that his music is going down just right — check out how he reacts after going “ooowee ba-by” in the clip below, and if you have the time please watch his performance on Sesame Street in 1972.


For some reason I find this video fascinating. I wish it was longer.

24 Hours of Loathing

I’ve been spending an unusual amount of time on the Skytrain over the past month or so, and lately I’ve noticed that often 24 Hours and Metro will both have a hawker standing at the entrance to the station, competing for each passenger who passes through the doorway. The technique of positioning hawkers in high traffic areas around the city has been around as long as the papers have. The more papers these people hand out every day, the higher the papers’ circulation numbers, and high circulation numbers equal big bucks for the ad space provided in the papers (advertisers know this!). The competition created by locating both 24 Hours and Metro in the same doorway apparently elevates the level of aggression to the point where the hawker of one paper will often lunge back and forth to capture the passengers that the other has missed. It’s impossible to enter these stations without having at least one of them walk directly up to you to try to hand you a paper, and if you’ve spent any time in Vancouver in the past 50 years, this phenomenon will probably remind you of something else: aggressive panhandlers.

By 2004, aggressive panhandlers had become such a nuisance that the province passed a piece of legislation called the Safe Streets Act to make the streets of Vancouver feel more welcoming for tourists and convention planners. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, which represents major convention and higher-end tourist destinations in the downtown core such as the Fairmont and Hotel Vancouver, estimates Vancouver hotels had lost contracts worth $500,000 due to safety issues involving aggressive panhandlers and drug dealers. But by July of this year, the Province was reporting that aggressive panhandling was down 80%.

Aggressive newspaper hawking, on the other hand, is up 100% since 2005, when the papers were launched. Out of curiousity, I looked at the wording of the Act to see how well it would apply to newspaper hawkers:

Solicitation in aggressive manner prohibited

2 (2) A person commits an offence if the person engages, in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to be concerned for the solicited person’s safety or security, in one or more of the following activities during a solicitation or after the solicited person responds or fails to respond to the solicitation:

(a) obstructing the path of the solicited person;

(b) using abusive language;

(c) proceeding behind or alongside or ahead of the solicited person;

(d) physically approaching, as a member of a group of 2 or more persons, the solicited person;

(e) continuing to solicit the person.

While I’ve never witnessed a hawker using abusive language, (a) (c) (d) and (e) are not uncommon. But wait! There’s more:

Solicitation of captive audience prohibited

(2) …a person commits an offence who does any of the following:

(a) solicits a person who is using, waiting to use, or departing from a device commonly referred to as an automated teller machine;

(b) solicits a person who is using, or waiting to use, a pay telephone or a public toilet facility;

(c) solicits a person who is waiting at a place that is marked, by use of a sign or otherwise, as a place where a commercial passenger vehicle regularly stops to pick up or disembark passengers;

(d) solicits a person who is in, on or disembarking from a commercial passenger vehicle;

(e) solicits a person who is in the process of getting in, out of, on or off of a vehicle or who is in a parking lot.

Hmm, a place where a commercial passenger vehicle regularly stops to pick up or disembark passengers…

(4) No offence is committed under subsection (2) (a) if the person soliciting

(a) has express permission, given by the owner or occupier of the premises on which the automated teller machine is located, to solicit within 5 metres of the automated teller machine, and

(b) solicits only on the premises.

So loosely interpreting item (4)(a), it seems like 24 Hours and Metro would probably need the permission of Translink to hawk newspapers on their property, right?

As it turns out, that’s exactly the case. In 2005 Lamar advertising renewed its contract with Translink for another 15 years, in order to serve as Translink’s exclusive advertising agent through the 2010 games. 24 Hours (and presumably Metro as well) was given the right to distribute its papers on Translink Property by Lamar, with a contract that goes back to at least 2005.Of course, the Lamar contract isn’t just about flooding the Skytrain system with crappy newsapers and television screens that can cycle through 36 ads every minute; it’s about making a profit by thrusting ads into commuters’ personal spaces in situations where the commuters don’t have any power or recourse to avoid them. Example? Jon Kanngiesse, a marketing sales rep for Lamar, describes the Seabus TV screens as appealing to “a captive upper income North Shore commuting audience waiting to board the Seabus” (emphasis added). What’s next? “Increasing the number of Blue Tooth communication boxes that are currently being used to convey direct text/visual messages to Seabus passengers’ cell phones.” It’s hard to say what I find more offensive: the ads themselves, or Translink’s double standard that says “up yours” to every passenger that passes through the Skytrain entrance.

"Arches National Park Blames Erosion, Gravity"

This is a picture of Wall Arch that I took when I was in Arches NP in late July. The arch is so named because it formed from a long fin of rock that resembles a wall. (Click to enlarge.)

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the arch was poised to collapse a mere five days later while I was in neighbouring Canyonlands NP. Although the event occurred at night, and no one was injured, park rangers decided to close the trail that passes nearly underneath it to access Double O arch, the Dark Angel, and other features to the north, partly because of the threat of further rockfall, and partly because the trail was covered with rubble. Here's an after picture:

While my own courtship with Wall Arch was short-lived and pitifully uneventful, and the Arch's passing rouses little emotion in me, I can't help but be reminded of the words of the venerable (and sexist) preservationist Edward Abbey, whose sojourn among the pinyon and juniper of Arches inspired me greatly: “Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear. The Earth remains, slightly modified.”

Dirt: It’s What’s for Supper

Sorry for the delay; in the past couple of days I have both moved houses and started grad school, and both activities have predictably taken up a lot of my time.

I wanted to make a comment on the brief statement I made a week or so ago about sterile environments contributing tho the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I heard a brief interview on the radio this morning about the massive increase in allergies among school-age children of late. One of the theories that is currently being tested to explain this increase is that the increasingly sterile environments that children grow up in nowadays is leading to poorly-developed, “spoiled” immune systems. While part of this phenomenon is a result of antibacterial cleaning products, studies have also indicated correlations between prevalence of allergic diseases and tight seals around doors and windows, household pets, farm animals, and the number of siblings in a household, among other things. These all seem to indicate that a dirty environment is an ideal environment to grow up in with respect to the likelihood of developing immune diseases (see here for some interesting references if you're willing to search).