Category Archives: Misc

Passive Voice Day

That today is passive voice day has just been brought to my attention. This new tradition will be strictly observed by me from this day forward. Thus, for this occasion to be commemorated, a happy passive voice day shall be wished to you all by yours truly!

On No-Drain Tuna

A few words on the issue of no-drain tuna. I tend to think about no-drain tuna in the context of people being estranged from real experiences. Along with the car, no-drain tuna is an excellent example of that old Lame Deer maxim, “White people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it.” A car, in comparison to walking, is designed to prevent sensory stimulation; it’s designed to be quiet, to ride smoothly, to have soft, comfortable seats, to restrict air temperature to a comfortable medium, and now to divert passengers’ attention away from the outside world and onto LCD screens often depicting idealized representations of that world. In general, a better car is one that is more isolating. This is necessary because we’ve manufactured spaces for cars to move through that are abjectly hostile to human beings—interstate highways, parking lots, underground garages—when they’re compared to our primordial byway, a trail through the woods. The experience of using no-drain tuna is similar when it’s compared to catching, cooking, and eating a fish.

I’m not sure exactly what the complaints were that the tuna company received about the draining of traditional canned tuna. Maybe some of the juice splashed onto people’s hands, or maybe it smelled bad; maybe it increased the amount of time it takes to make a sandwich (although increased in comparison to what, one might ask), I don’t know. Maybe some people forgot to drain it and they ended up with watery tuna by accident. I really can’t think of any other possible objections to drainable tuna. I also don’t know if the tuna company—I haven’t taken note of which one it is—produced this product in response to consumer demand, or in response to complaints they received about having to drain tuna, or as a result of extensive research involving focus groups opening and eating different kinds of canned tuna, or because they just needed a gimmick to set them apart from their competitors.

Whatever the case may be, I’m reasonably confident that the underlying motive behind this product, and the reason the tuna marketing team surmised that this product would appear attractive to consumers, is the ease of not having to drain tuna before you eat it. It doesn’t matter if no one found draining classically-canned tuna particularly difficult; if given the choice between having to drain tuna and not having to drain tuna, most people would probably pick the latter because it’s easier. For the marketing team this is a two-pronged tool that recruits both the people who resent traditional tuna because they dislike the process of draining it, and the people who don’t particularly care about whether they’re required to drain it or not—all things being equal, both groups would likely pick the no-drain tuna if given the chance, and that probably covers about everybody.

This concept of ease is often taken to be self-evident as a marker of human progress. The easier our lives are, the more advanced a civilization we belong to. Whether or not they’ve given any thought to the matter, I would be surprised if most people wouldn’t consciously choose to do something easier rather than something harder, because their conscious knowledge about what they want is underlain by this idea of ease. It seems self-evident, but it’s more likely that the preference for ease is a cultural thing that’s been adopted unconsciously by our being bombarded by the idea that we should want things to be easier. Other cultures might recognize more readily the value of things being hard. (Only lip service is paid to this counteridea; it usually appears in the form of an inspirational quote from someone like Siddhartha Gautama, unimaginably far-removed from our everyday lives.)

Research has shown that what people think they want is not always what they actually want. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, pointed out in his TED talk on spaghetti sauce that when people are asked what kind of coffee they would like, they almost always indicate a preference for a “dark, rich, hearty roast,” but when given samples of coffee to taste, they generally gravitate toward coffee that’s weak and milky. The idea that we might actually want a life of difficulty, on some less-than-conscious level, is not unprecedented; see, for instance, the criticism of a life of unadulterated ease presented eagerly in the film WALL-E. The disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually want, I think, explains, at least in part, why some people are attracted to certain unpleasant activities, like camping or jumping off a cliff into a cold lake. It’s because on a level deeper than their consciousness, they crave real sensory experiences; they desire to escape, temporarily, from this world governed entirely by ease.

Curiously, within each of these “unpleasant” activities is some measure of variation in the degree to which the activity severs one from his or her easy, everyday life. In camping, some people will take along a giant RV and a couple of motorboats, rendering the overall experience not much different from the experience of being in their backyard (apart from the boats), while others will load up a pack and spend a week huffing up and down mountainsides and sleeping on rocks. And even within this latter group, some people will spend a lot of money on lightweight sleeping pads and Gore-tex boots, while others will carry a box of melons on their head and wear flip-flops made out of old tires. The key is that even when seeking real sensory experience, the countervailing desire to lapse into ease is sometimes overpowering. It’s much more common, I imagine, for people to go car camping than it is for people to do grueling multi-day backpacking trips.

What predisposes a person to one or another of these categories is hard to say, but it could be figured out with some cursory empirical research. Is their something that distinguishes backpackers from RV campers, like socioeconomic class or level of attained education? And what is the significance of camping and backpacking being predominantly the activities of white people? Perhaps other groups of people get their sensory stimulation in other ways, through sex (BDSM?), through food (arugula?), through drink (IPA?), through music (Metal Machine Music?). Perhaps other people succumb to their conscious desire for ease, and then wonder why their lives are so unsatisfying—indeed, these are the people depicted by marketers, people continually haunted by the burden of figuring out how to stack tupperware containers in their cupboard so they don’t avalanche out when the door is opened, or people concerned about the possibility that their child might come into contact with monstrous germs coating their countertops and door handles, or people perplexed by the problem of figuring out by sight whether or not their beer is cold (so they don’t have to touch it, I suppose). Approaching these advertisements as a form of dramaturgy, is there any evidence that the people depicted therein derive any fulfilment from their lives?

Youtube poem

Fat Kid Gets Owned

Fat kid gets owned by the floor
Fat kid gets owned by ride
Fat kid gets owned by automatic door
Fat kid gets owned by swing
Fat kid gets owned by helmet
Fat kid gets owned by a garbage can
Fat kid gets owned by a river
Fat kid gets owned by paintball
Fat kid gets powned on a bike
Fat kid gets owned by diving board
Fat kid gets owned by slap
Fat kid gets owned by skateboard
Fat kid gets owned by a ball in the FACE

These modern times

Illinois Poison Control posts summaries of some of their calls. On February 10th, someone called because

A child was found licking a doorknob after it had been sprayed with Lysol® disinfectant.

You have to wonder what would have been more harmful: the bacteria on the knob that Lysol is supposed to kill 99.9% of, or the Lysol itself.

Greener than Kermit after a cheap jewelry bender

Siemens recently unveiled an electric chopper custom-built built by the folks at Orange County Choppers.  Here is an interview with the OCC patriarch, Paul Teutel:

If you skip to 0:16, Paul points out that his new world headquarters building is so environmentally friendly that it is actually “fifty-two percent above green.”  If the arrival of green as a meaningless catchphrase has not yet been announced, I propose that this serve as its announcement. The thing that makes catchphrases meaningless is, of course, the fact that they can be applied to nearly any referent without causing any logical contradictions: nowadays, you can see green used to describe New York, the Pontiac G5, Gmail, and various other random things. When Paul uses it to describe the baseline LEED certification requirements, then, he isn’t breaking from any conventional use of the word that would associate it with a particular thing.

According to this site, the OCC headquarters has been certified as LEED Silver, which means that it scored between 50 and 59 points during the LEED auditing process, whatever that involves. Aside from the fact that he apparently confused LEED points with percentage points, Paul actually deserves some commendation for his new building; 75% of the materials used were recycled, all of the lighting is attached to motion sensors, a top-of-the-line HVAC system controls the internal environment, and the building is clad with “Dryvit Outsulation,” which allegedly offers an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions over the lifecycle of the product compared to brick.

Prolegomena to any future dumb questions about Women’s Studies

Someone asked me the other day, with a straight face, if there are women’s studies conferences. Being the diplomat that I am, I said, “Yeah, of course”; in response to his comment that perhaps women’s studies would be better off if there was a man teaching courses along with the “five” women professors, I feebly replied, “our department has like 30 professors!” I would have liked to pursue an extended diatribe about the ignorance that it takes to completely overlook the contributions of the forty-year-old department not just to academic knowledge but to real women’s lives all over the world,  about how our department receives a yearly $1 000 000 endowment for the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair, has eight full professors and 18 additional faculty members, and joins 44 degree-granting Women’s Studies programs in Canada, 900 Women’s Studies programs in the United States (this many that offer graduate degrees alone) and 250-odd programs worldwide to teach tens of thousands of students every year, how the Canadian Women’s Studies Association is a member of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and American Women’s Studies programs are overseen by the National Women’s Studies Association, which has been around since 1977, that a professor from my department recently published a column in the Georgia Straight, that everyone should read, about the ongoing importance of Women’s Studies .

It did get me thinking, though, about what the hell is wrong with the modern university that would allow one department to be so oblivious about what is going on just down the hall, or just across the quad, or on the other side of the student union building. And unfortunately I don’t have any good answers that extend beyond woebegone sentiments. I do have a theory, though, that I’m hoping has been taken up in detail by some clever scholar, and that I will one day stumble across in a thick tome dug up from the back corner of a used bookstore that will answer all of my questions once and for all. My theory is that the humanities and social sciences, especially the humanities, somehow project a perception toward laypeople that no special training is required in order to achieve proficiency. This is not to say that people aren’t aware that there is the possibility of graduate and post-graduate education in the humanities, or that people can and do devote their lives to studying things like “power” or theorists like Bourdieu. Rather, there seems to be a perception that even though this is the case, a layperson can still engage in a conversation with a humanities scholar and assume that they have all of the knowledge and competence that is required to formulate an argument about a topic in the humanities to a degree that is appropriate to engaging the arguments of the scholar on a peer-to-peer basis.

There is a stark contrast, then, between how laypeople approach the sciences versus how they approach the humanities, and more importantly, how people in the sciences versus those in the humanities regard these laypeople who are trying to interpret the work done in their fields without the necessary competence. Let me give a quick example. A quick Google search of blogs coming out of the sciences reveals a vast distaste with the way that science journalists handle science topics (Language Log, Bad Science, and Neuroskeptic, for instance, are highly critical of science journalists misinterpreting science stories). While some of their complaints can be attributed to laziness on the part of journalists, many of them can be more accurately attributed to science journalists having poor or deficient knowledge of the subject matter, which leads to them misinterpreting things that would be obvious for anyone proficient in the field. The humanities, on the other hand, don’t have a well-embedded and -accepted body of critique of the way that laypeople (e.g. journalists) misinterpret humanities topics, even though such misinterpretations happen all the time.

I think this is for a couple of reasons. First, there is no clear demarcating line between academic humanities topics and non-academic ones: academics talk about ideology, for example, but so do Republican talk show hosts. To a layperson, there is no reason to assume that what the academics are talking about is any different from what Rush is talking about, even though the difference is enormous. Similarly, academics talk about feminism, and so do our hippy moms; to the layperson, there is no recognition of the vast gulf that exists between the meaning of the term as it is used by academics and the meaning of the term as it is used by your mom (let alone the differences between academics). The second, related reason is that humanities jargon is often homonymous or heteronymous with everyday words. There is no reason for a layperson to assume that the word subculture has a different meaning in a cultural studies context than it does in an MTV context, or that the word competence has a different meaning in a literature studies context than it does in a Starbucks conversation context, or that the word problematic has a different meaning in a conversation about Althusser than it does in a conversation about a leaky faucet, or that the word imaginary has a different meaning in a sociology context than it does in a Disney context. Thus, when laypeople hear humanities scholars using the words problematic and imaginary as nouns, they get accused of being opaque for the sake of appearing erudite, when they are actually using terms of jargon that have decades-long histories of definitional specificity. Third, the humanities and social sciences, by their very nature, do tend to deal with issues that come up in people’s everyday lives, topics that are often dealt with by laypeople in Starbucks conversations and Disney movies (to some degree). However, scholars tend to use different tools and approaches to analyse these topics, and they often come at them from different approaches and have different goals than the laypeople. And not surprisingly, the approaches they use, and the arguments they formulate, require a great deal of training and specialized knowledge to create and comprehend. A person in the welfare lineup might have a lot to say about poverty, but they are not going to be saying the same things as someone in a graduate-level seminar about the same topic.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic of much debate, but it is a thing nevertheless. The salient difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is that the natural sciences are known to be “private” for the most part, in the sense that the inner workings of science tend to take place behind closed laboratory doors rather than out in public, and they deal with issues that are usually only of interest to specialists in the field; the humanities deals with issues that are public to begin with, so the divide between public issues and “closed door” social sciences/humanities is hard to distinguish, and thus specialist knowledge is considered, or appears to be, public property.

This is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because many social science/humanities types are wary of the way academic institutions separate scholars from the people and situations that they are studying. It’s hard to feel good about capitalizing on the experiences of the person in the welfare lineup by writing a thick dissertation on poverty and getting a cushy, well-paid tenure track professorship while the welfare recipient keeps receiving welfare. At the same time, this disparity between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is unfortunate because we live in a world where institutional legitimacy goes a long way; it’s tough being in a department that has limitless potential for improving people’s lives, and seeing that potential go down the drain because academic success is so incumbent on the pretense that quantitative knowledge is unassailable. But I digress. The meat of my theory here is that people ignore the legitimacy of the social sciences/humanities because of a fundamental difference in the way that the two poles are conceptualized by laypeople. Science is considered Scientists’ Business, and humanities is considered Everyone’s Business; this dichotomy erases the existence of the specialized knowledge and training that forms the basis of research in the humanities and social sciences. What’s the solution? More education for everybody.

Now where’s that book?

Gmngeri

I was searching Women’s Studies International for “Naming Our Work” by Christina Gringeri, but I couldn’t remember the title. This is what I eventually found:

screenshot-ebscohost-result-list-naming-our-work-mozilla-firefox

Aaargh! Of course, EBSCO has no simple feedback mechanism to correct errors like this.