Monthly Archives: January 2009

Compare and contrast

Everyone who reads Feministe will have seen this already, but I wanted to plagiarize it anyway because I like it. It’s very poignant.

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003:


And the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009:



Photography and the (Lost) Art of Seeing 2: Vignetting

I can’t trace the trajectory taken by Holgas from their invention in 1982 until they became available for sale at Urban Outfitters, but a quick browse through Flickr shows the indelible effect they and other “toy” cameras have had on (trend-driven) photographic sensibilities. Unfortunately, these sensibilities have spilled over the levees limiting the artistic use of crappy cameras to the realm of crappy cameras and into the unfortunately large underbelly of Photoshop. Yes, I have another gripe to add to my previous list, and that is the digital addition of vignetting to otherwise uninteresting photos, in order to give them the appearance of éclat.

A wise man at, Steven Taylor, once opined that “the photos that capture the best ratings are almost exclusively over-saturated, over- sharpened, over-processed images that, no doubt, have little resemblance to the original file.” While this could be the talking point for any number of arguments that I’m not interested in pursuing here, one manifestation of over-processing that appears repeatedly in the top photos at is fake vignetting. Browse through some of the top photos in the gallery and, once you get past all the nudes, you see a lot of photos like these:


Similarly, if you browse the “interesting” photos on Flickr, which are selected based on “where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing,” you get photos like these:


They’re even on Facebook:


The problem with fake vignetting is that it is so ubiquitous among highly rated and highly lauded photos that people seem inclined to believe that vignetting is desirable or even necessary for a good photo. Some photographers on Flickr go so far as to add vignetting to every photo they upload, as if having a photo any other way would be embarrassingly pedestrian. I sifted through hundreds of photos to get my Desert Roads group off the ground, and I was amazed at the number of otherwise good photos that were ruined by heavy-handed overprocessing. Do these people remember when vignetting was a lens aberration, that thousands of dollars went into designing and building lenses that wouldn’t have this problem? Have these people noticed that the tool they use to add vignetting is located under “lens correction”?

I can understand, and even appreciate, that some photogaphers, every once in a while, want to use a Holga to add some pizzazz to a roll of film; that photos taken with a Holga have some nostalgic aesthetic that makes them curiously attractive in moderation. But what is the attraction of adding vignetting to all photos, even those taken with a great camera? Where is the creativity in making all photos uniform? What is the lesson learned in giving nascent photographers the impression that post-processing is the be-all and end-all of good photography? Because of the overuse of Photoshop in general, and the ubiquity of fake vignetting in particular, collections of top-rated photos have become increasingly banal, and finding genuinely good, original, artistic and creative photos on the internet is becoming increasingly difficult.

Composition bias

Since I started a Flickr account a week or two ago I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through my photo folders, and I noticed that I have a tendency to prefer photos where the horizon, or whatever the main element is, slopes down to the left. I don’t necessarily take more photos that are composed like this, but I find the ones that are to be more aesthetic. I created this composite with the hope of demonstrating the slope tendency so that you can be the judge (note that this isn’t a representative sample of all my photos):

Correlation does not equal causation

One of the central talking points in the recent hullabaloo over evolutionary psychology has been the difference between correlation and causation.  Thanks to Echidne, I came across this remarkable example of correlation being confused with causation in USA Today (not exactly a bastion of good science):

Breast-feeding has well-documented benefits. Studies have shown it nourishes babies while fighting off infections and even boosting IQ. Now a study in Monday’s Pediatrics suggests nursing also may protect infants from neglect.
In a study of 6,621 Australian children over 15 years, researchers found that those who were breast-fed were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers. Babies who weren’t breast-fed were more than 2½ times as likely to be maltreated by their mothers as those who were nursed for four months or more, the study shows. There was no link between breast-feeding and the risk of maltreatment by fathers or others.

Apparently a hormone released during breastfeeding that strengthens the bond between mother and child is responsible for this correlation. Although this dubious claim is discredited by a disinterested psychologist later in the article, the wording of the claim contains an interesting linguistic twist. Compare the sentence in the article

those who were breast-fed were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers

with a revised version that switches the components around:

those who were neglected or abused by their mothers were far less likely to [have been] breast-fed.

What exactly is the difference between these two sentences? Well, among other obvious things, I had to change the aspect of the second sentence because the abuse usually comes after the breastfeeding, and the present perfect aspect indicates a completed action (i.e. the breastfeeding was completed before the abuse started). The order of events are important in this case because the two sentences have no overt semantic indication of causation other than the order in which the events occurred.

If we took a sample population that was made up of 20 cows and 20 dalmatians, and out of the 20 cows only 5 were Holsteins, we might say that those animals that are spotted are much more likely to be dalmatians. This claim has no inherent or implied indication that the cause of the animals being dalmatians is their spots; rather, the relationship between being spotted and being a dalmatian is simply one of strong correlation. (Note that the inverse, “those animals that are dalmatians are much more likely to be spotted,” is also true without need for the present perfect.)

However, if we take the same sample, and out of the 15 brown cows 13 of them were born in May, we might say that those cows that are born in May are much more likely to be brown. In this example, although their are still no overt or deliberate signs of causation, the sentence is more easily interpreted as depicting a relationship of causation because of the time element. Unlike in the case of the last example, the inverse of this sentence has to be “those cows that are brown are much more likely to have been born in May.”

I don’t want to give the impression that the cow examples are meant to be parallel to the breastfeeding example; I just want to show that the time element is encoded in the first type of sentence, and that time element implies causation rather than simply correlation. The use of the progression of time to indicate a relation of causation is known, in the parlance of our times, as the post hoc fallacy – post hoc, ergo propter hoc is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” and it is the name for the classic tendency to confuse correlation with causation that has been around since the dawn of argumentation.

Like the post hoc fallacy, the tendency for researchers to notice relationships of correlation and then make up reasons why the correlation might be causal is one of those things that just won’t go away.

Obama’s Blackberry

The New York Times article announcing Obama’s victory in the fight to keep his Blackberry contained this short exchange:

The news was disclosed by Mr. Gibbs at the first White House press briefing, on Thursday afternoon. Several questions about the presidential e-mail, however, were not addressed.

“What’s the address?” Major Garrett from Fox News asked Mr. Gibbs.

Mark Knoller from CBS Radio News said, “”

Knoller obviously confused “e-mail address” with “URL,” and presumably meant something more like “”

Interestingly, the victory announced by the NYT is actually a defeat, because the Blackberry Obama is allowed to use is not the Blackberry he wanted to keep. It’s actually this one, known affectionately by some as The Brick:

Not only does he not get to keep his old email address, but all of his contacts have to be pre-approved and briefed by the White House before they can be added to the list. So the original impetus for keeping his Blackberry, which was based on a fear of “losing touch with the struggles that people are going through every day,” has categorically been overruled by the Secret Service. At least there’s still Twitter.

Studying up and feminist rut-riding

We’re reading Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers for our (you guessed it) methodology class this semester. It’s by Joey Sprague, a sociologist at the University of Kansas, and I have so far been impressed with her level-headed, non-reactionary approach to feminist research methods and methodologies.

One thing in particular that caught my attention was the concept of “studying up,” which is the practice of studying people or groups who are less disadvantaged or more privileged, socially, than the researcher is. While I had never heard the term until I read about it a couple of days ago, I was familiar with some sub-fields of women’s studies that have made it their business to study up, most prominently masculinity studies and whiteness studies. As Sprague acknowledges, the vast majority of feminist research involves studying marginalized, systemically disadvantaged, abused or otherwise vicitmized groups of people — rape victims, spousal or domestic abuse victims, prostitutes, immigrants, racial minorities, the poor, the disenfrachised, single mothers, gays and lesbians, transgender people, refugees, and so on. Each of those groups, among others, is vastly overrepresented in the research journals, and all of these types of projects are instances of studying down. Masculinity and whiteness studies, and the rest of the poorly-established fledgling fields interested in studying the powerful and advantaged, are instances of studying up, and they are vastly underrepresented in feminist research journals.

Not surprisingly, the advent of masculinity studies was met with a great deal of opposition from feminists who were engaged with the “traditional” kinds of research, out of fears that (among other things) masculinity studies was buying in to the men’s rights movement. The men’s rights movement, quite unlike what masculinity studies turned out to be, was a critical response to feminism that saw feminism as a threat, or at least an unfair advantage, to women in such arenas as law and the workplace (because of affirmative action and sex-based legislation, for example). In contrast, masculinity studies has been concerned less with augmenting or reinforcing men’s advantages as studying why men are advantaged; although women are rarely blamed for their social subordination, the concept of studying the etiology of that subordination by going to its “source” was relatively unheard of until the 80s.

Despite the fact that masculinity studies is gaining currency within women’s studies departments, studying down is by far the status quo among feminist researchers. So much so, in fact, that that many people take it for granted that research by feminists or within women’s studies departments will deal with disadvantaged groups. Even Sprague, who champions the reflexivity of feminist research, tends to slide back into the status quo on occasion; she claims that one of the three ways that researchers have power is that “they come from relatively privileged positions in social structures of inequality”; in a section on studying up she focuses more on the disadvantages of studying up (such as the participant dominating the interview) rather than the need for it.

Still, her point remains a good one: she says, “the focus on what’s wrong with disadvantaged people creates a picture in which those on the downside of hierarchies have, and thus are, problems. Researchers ‘studying down’ make the relatively powerless even more visible to observation. Posing questions in this way implies that those with power are normal; their traits, behaviours and social position require no justification.” Those in power are at least half the problem, but they get much less than half of the attention from feminist researchers.


From Crooked Timber comes this report of the average hotness ratings of various university departments, based on data collected from


Clearly, Women’s Studies is by far one of the ugliest departments in the university. As regrettable as that is, it brings me a great deal of consolation to know that we’re hotter than engineering, computer science and chemistry, where professors spend more time formulating their positivist drivel than they do working out and getting their hair coiffed. (Just kidding.)