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Murder Machines: A reflection on driving
Enuja, Inkscape
I really enjoyed my Florida vacation this spring: it was nice to feel nostalgic for Florida, to see family, and, especially, to get out of Florida before March ended. It was almost too hot for me, already, in late March. But, as with my Florida vacation three years ago, I did a lot of driving. That's because, in order to behave as a functional and autonomous adult, in very nearly every neighborhood in Florida, and certainly moving between them, one needs to drive their own personal vehicle. And I hate that.

Three years ago it really struck me how much it is true that you need a car in Florida. This time, I already knew that. So what struck me was how fatal vehicles are when they strike things. I had a safe and generally drama-free driving experience in Florida, although the construction on I-4 in Orlando as night fell was a bit harrowing. But the simple reality that, as my twin once memorably put it, F = m * v SQUARED, was very much in my mind as I was personally controlling a vehicle casually and routinely traveling at 70 miles per hour. When it had been over a year and a half since I had been behind the wheel of a vehicle, and three years since I did any substantial driving.

I discussed this with just about everyone I came upon on my vacation, and my father argued that humans are quite up to the task of not killing each other as we drive in cars. It does seem a miracle, but our general individual self preservation, and our ability to learn to calculate relative speeds and distances, means that fatal accidents are comparatively rare. Of course, as we were having this conversation, a terrorist had recently killed people by driving a vehicle on a sidewalk. Terrifyingly, terrorists have figured out that vehicles are very effective, very legal, and very accessible murder machines.

Even without terrorists, a truly enormous number of people die in vehicle accidents every year. I know that cars are not the only vehicles that kill people, and, although I have not been involved in a fatal car accident, I was once on a train that killed a pedestrian (at an at-grade street crossing). Well-functioning transit systems have many people on a train, so it is possible that more individuals have experienced being on a train that killed a person than being in a car that killed a person, but it remains true that per individual mile traveled, mass transit in general, and grade separated transit in particular, are much less fatal than individual car travel.

On my last Florida vacation, I was deeply disappointed to realize that I had driven for at least half an hour every single day. On this vacation, I did not rent a car until I had already been in Florida for 4 days, so I did not drive every single day, but, given that my parents live over 200 miles from each other, I did do a fair amount of driving, and it occurred to me that driving is quite a bit of labor. Labor that we often compensate professionals for, but unpaid labor in many situations, nonetheless. There is a strong American ideal that having your own car and driving it is a fantastic form of freedom. To me, driving is simply the freedom to do uncompensated labor, and waste precious time, without even getting exercise out of the ordeal (unlike walking and biking), but I understand how being able to go where you want to go, whenever you want to go there, can feel like freedom. The freedom to laboriously drive murder machines around on vast expanses of taxpayer funded asphalt, but freedom nonetheless.
Don’t get me wrong: I have felt great joy in the act of driving. Had I different morals (or the same morals, but an urge to be deliciously evil), I can imagine myself getting into racing cars, or otherwise fetishizing and enjoying individual internal combustion transportation machines. But using a non-renewable resource, contributing greatly to climate change, and supporting the expensive and resource intensive infrastructure required for cars is really, really, not my thing. Of course, the technology for electrical cars is currently becoming mainstream, and that helps. (Also, with an ordinary rental car, I was getting at least 40 miles to the gallon, and at one point the car claimed I was getting 44mpg. Fuel economy matters.) It doesn’t get rid of the resource intensive road requirements, but it makes the impact less extreme.

I have historically been skeptical of self-driving vehicles. I’ve thought that they could be very bad or very good for society and infrastructure, depending on the laws and systems that they are built around, and I was pessimistic about the laws and system the US would be likely to adopt. But, thinking about how effective human driven cars are as murder machines, I am now all in favor of self driving vehicles. As my sister argued, since we’ve already had driverless train cars for decades, driverless busses for public transit are very likely the first large scale application for self driving vehicles. And anything that makes public transit (or mass transit in general) cheaper and more effective is a good thing, from my perspective. Giving autonomy to the young and the old and the otherwise unable to drive is extremely important, from both a social justice and societal function perspectives. I am really adamant that we’ve got to be extremely careful with the rules we make for self driving cars: having them use driving around, empty, on public roads as vehicle storage would be terrible, and incentivizing more individual vehicular ownership would also be terrible, but I think there are ways that self driving cars can lead to fewer vehicles in circulation, less ownership, and, crucially, less murder.

I have often been mystified at people who morally condemn much of the behavior around them, including much of their own behavior. But, on this particular vacation, as I flew across the country, basked the glow of streetlights from the air (despite personally despising light pollution), and considered it personally worthwhile to drive hundreds of miles, I morally condemned my own behavior, while enjoying it. To conclude: Death to Murder Machines! Also, does anyone want to go on a roadtrip with me? I'm game.

Tilda Swinton, race, and how white people can do better
Enuja, Inkscape
A Jezebel article recently came out that included the full text of an email exchange between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho. Margaret Cho had referenced this email conversation on live television, in a way that Tilda Swinton, and her press people, thought was unfair. The Jezebel article seems to be rooting for Swinton in what they seem to see as a she said /she said case; right before the text of the emails, the article says "readers can decide for themselves if Cho’s characterization was fair."

Also, I originally had the URL for this article as http://jezebel.com/it-really-seems-like-cho-brazenly-misrepresented-their-1790207643, but when I searched on Jezebel's site for the article, I got this URL, which strongly suggests a title change, which I cannot find mentioned.

Although I'm uncomfortable about the article's attitude, and about the fact that Swinton shared an explicitly private email exchange, I don't wanna get lost in the weeds of who is more justified for their emotional reactions. Emotions happen. What we do with them matters.

There are three really important lessons for Tilda Swinton, and other fellow white people, from this exchange.

1) Talk to your friends of the relevant group, not to strangers famous for talking about race. If you don’t have friends of the relevant group, that’s a problem.* Two workarounds are to read things about it, and to talk to “woke” white folks who might be able to answer your questions. When using white folks as resources, make sure you are both reading things written by POC. Don’t value the answers of white folks over the answers of POC, no matter how “woke” the white person is-use their labor, not their ideas. (White Nonsense Roundup is a good source of “woke” white folks volunteering their intellectual labor.)

2) Just because someone is being polite to you, does not mean that they are actually comfortable. Figure out ways to use your racial privilege to help others, and work around the blindness your privilege gives you to the likely emotional responses of other people. When you discover that you were wrong about a conversational partner's reaction to you, apologize, instead of becoming defensive.

3) If you just want to vent (“but it’s not FAIR! This was a terribly stereotypical original character, we switched up the gender, which needed to be done, and we added an amazing Asian character!”), vent to a white friend, or your therapist. Don’t make your POC friends do your emotional labor about race. And definitely don’t vent to a stranger already doing your intellectual labor.

*Please, please don’t simply go out to try to make friends of the appropriate group. Instead, make sure you live and work and socialize in diverse contexts, and when you happen to come across POC who share values and interests and feel a friendship spark, then try to make friends. Because of the mathematical realities of majorities and minorities, minorities are very likely to have more majority friends than majorities are to have minority friends. And this imbalance can create a lot of labor, of many kinds, for the minorities. As with all friendships, don't be a burden. Be a friend.

If you do not live in diverse contexts, and that is not going to change, you are not going to have diverse friends. It’s a problem. You may not be able to fix it. But it means you don’t have diverse friends to explain things to you. An analogy: you are really interested in nuclear power, as a lay person, you read some books about it, and you think they got something really wrong. You don’t have any researchers into nuclear power as friends, so you email a famous scientist. However, instead of Margaret Cho emailing you back, the famous scientist is extremely unlikely to answer your email, because scientists (particularly in technological and military-adjacent fields) have not been socialized to provide free intellectual labor. So you have to make do with things you read, and conversations with fellow lay folks. And, yes, if you're a science fiction author, and you get something really wrong about nuclear power, and a famous scientist calls you out in public about it, they still might not answer your email, or, if they do, they might feel very put upon. No, they don't know jack shit about your fictional universe, and don't care about your excuses for the scientific error, even if they are still polite in email, and are doing intellectual labor they think will help society as a whole (because hopefully you won't write any more of that crap, if they answer you). It's still annoying.
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Irvine, Chicago, Race, and FiveThirtyEight
Enuja, Inkscape

I do love five thirty eight. But they aren't always perfect with follow through. Over a year ago, Nate Silver wrote this article about racial diversity and segregation in American cities. In the article, he said he'd write a follow up about metropolitan areas. For a while, I was waiting for this follow up before I commented on (and shared) the article, but at this point I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the follow up isn’t going to happen.

Silver talks about how integration and diversity are very different; if you don't have diversity, you can't segregate (because you don't have groups to segregate by). But, just because you have diversity, it doesn’t mean that you are integrated. So, the question Silver asks it is that, given the amount of diversity a city has, how much integration does it have?  And, since this is Nate Silver, he grabbed a database, and wrote a measure of integration: his integration-segregation index. His conclusion was that the most diverse cities in America are very segregated (and that the cities that are both diverse and integrated usually don’t have a lot of black people).

But what really struck me was that I moved directly from the city with the highest integration on Silver's integration-segregation index - Irvine, CA - to the city with the highest segregation - Chicago, IL. Here are screenshots at the same scale from this interactive dot map. Other differences jump out at you (in Chicago, total density is much higher, much more of the land has actual people living on it, and there is much more of a grid). And, of course, geographically, Chicago is much larger than Irvine; my Chicago screenshot shows the northside of Chicago, entirely leaving out the southside, while my Irvine screenshot has the very hispanic Santa Ana in the upper left hand corner, and the very white Newport Beach in the lower left hand corner, with diverse Costa Mesa in between. Both Irvine and Chicago score high on diversity (70% for Chicago, 60% for Irvine, out of a maximum of 80%, because there are five racial groups in this analysis). Irvine is about 45% Asian, 45% non-hispanic white, and most of the rest is hispanic. Chicago is about 33% black, 32% non-hispanic white, and 29% hispanic or latino. But those high diversities in Chicago and in Irvine and distributed differently across the city.

The database Silver used was Brown University’s American Communities Project, which uses data from the 2010 US Census to make five mutually exclusive and exhaustive racial groups, and that means that, to chose a particularly relevant example, any segregation of different groups lumped as “Asians” does not appear in this data. I’m curious: among “Asians,” is Irvine segregated? With, say, Chinese people living in a different area than Pakistani people?

When walking around Irvine,
Wobbegong and I would often head coast-ward, while much of the walking I've done in Chicago has been resctriced to the northside of Chicago. Nonetheless, these maps really highlight how much easier it is to walk into a neighborhood with a different racial makeup in Chicago than in Orange county. Wobbegong and I walked through industrial districts and under highway underpasses, but most people don't. In Chicago, just about everyone has experienced suddenly being in a different neighborhood. In the Chicago map, there is a a non-populated horizontal stripe, with a less-dense mostly white (which is blue, on this map) square right above it. My community garden is in that less-dense blue square, while my apartment is the organge area to the left (west).

I’m pretty sure that Silver’s integration-segregation index exaggerates the racial geographic differences between my most recent city and my current one. Except that there aren’t “two Irvines,” as there are “two Chicagos.” And Irvine (and Orange County, CA in general) has a tiny percentage of black people. So here are two approximately-county-sized screen shots. (Of course, neither of these counties are perfect squares aligned with compass north, so I've got some edges that are not in the counties.)

And, for those of you who have never lived in either Irvine or Chicago, and for those of you interested in race and politics, fivethirtyeight had a very interesting article on what “normal America” is, posted just a month ago: 'Normal America' is not a small town of white people.

Book Review: In Defense of Food
Enuja, Inkscape

Pollan, Michael.  2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. The Penguin Press, New York.

After writing Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan got a lot of fans asking him “What should I eat?” His answer is this book, summarized as “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I enjoyed reading this book. But I'm not entirely convinced by it. Some writers have accused Michael Pollan of being anti-science, both in general and about this book in particular, and they've got a point. I honestly don't think Michael Pollan is, personally, anti-science, but I think he tends to get carried away with his point of view, and I don't think he's a very good scientist. Which is a bad thing for a science writer, which he kinda sorta sometimes pretends to be. And it's also a bad thing for any popularizer of ideas, which he most certainly is, and is trying to be. I think the origin of Michael Pollan's science problem is two fold; he isn't a particularly skeptical thinker, and he doesn't do a great job at fighting the human bias towards essentialism,  particularly the bias that natural is automatically good.

Pollan talks a lot about mothers. In the introduction, he tells the reader that what his grandmother fed his mother is completely different from what his mother fed him, which is completely different from what he, and his mother, eat now. And, in the interest of defining what “food” is (as opposed to “edible foodlike substances”), Pollan tells us that food is what your great grandmother would recognize as food. While he is completely correct that food cultures have historically solved the problem of what to eat, there is absolutely no reason for him to focus on mothers and grandmothers. It's partly his essentialism and naturalism, and that he lives in a culture in which he perceives mothers to be the ones who guide short term food choices, so he figures that that's always been the case. But the broad cultural wisdom of what is food and what is not food is not limited to a particular gender or a particular child rearing role. And Pollan’s exclusive rhetorical use of mothers as the original and proper cultural decision-makers about food really rubs me the wrong way.

Another big problem with this book is Pollan’s approach to human body fat. He thinks fat is bad, and in large part caused by how much and what we eat. I am not willing to accept either of those as givens. They aren't particularly science-based, they aren't defended (simply assumed), and they make this book quite the fat shaming mine field. In fact, the fat shaming alone is quite a good reason not to read this book.

In addition to the grandmother rule, in order to decide what is “food” what is not, Pollan tells us to “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high fructose corn syrup.” This rule attracted much of the ire about Pollan being anti-science, because familiarity and pronounceability are effects of education. I took organic chemistry, I can pronounce all of those “unpronounceables” words, even when I have no idea what they are. And many people are very familiar with all those “unfamiliar” food additives. In the sentence directly after this rule, Pollan argues that none of these points, by themselves, make food unhealthy, but that all of these are diagnostic features of designed food products, which are not real food, and, in Pollan’s opinion, not likely to be good for you. So it’s not quite as anti-science as it looks on the face of the it; Pollan isn’t saying that things have to be accessible to the uneducated in order to be healthy. But it’s easy to get carried away (and unscientific) with the additive hate, and things Pollan has said in interviews certainly cross that line.

It is true that historic foodways have been tested by culture, and (mostly) only contain stuff that works for humans. So, yes, new foods are riskier than old foods. And the health of individual processed foods, whose ingredients change with faddish whims and exaggerated certainty from new studies and new products in the active and difficult field of nutrition science, can change without any obvious signs on the package.

But Michael Pollan reacts differently to different new foods, because of his biases, not because of science. For example, he is very skeptical of the health of processed food, but not about the health of frozen food, which is interesting because home freezers and microwaves are newer than canned and otherwise processed food. I agree with him, but I've got to admit that this is, again, not about the evidence. And Pollan even champions new foods in this book: one of his food rules is “eat like an omnivore,” which he expands by saying that we should add new species to our diets. That sounds like rapid change, and therefore risk, to me! Of course, it’s likely that all the the “new” species anyone reading his book is adding to their diet are species traditionally eaten by some human culture. But, still. Pollan really treats different change differently.

Which really brings me to the basic problem I have with this book: it’s a biased, faddish, follow up to Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was about the economic, ethical, and land use consequences of our current food system. Pollan writes here in In Defense of Food “I’ve found that, in most but not all cases, the best ethical and environmental choices also happen to be the best choices for our health--very good news indeed.” I’m deeply skeptical of that claim, and reading this book didn’t convince me.

Pollan spends a lot of time criticizing “Nutritionism,” and I’m actually on board with that criticism. Science, especially the science of diets, is very difficult. In food, when you think you’re isolating one variable, you usually aren’t. And, of course, interactions between foods and our bodies are incredibly complex. So “isolating” one “nutrient,” or even a food, and stating a health claim for it, is usually highly misleading. But the solution to this is to be skeptical of single studies, and to do better, longer term studies on whole diets. The solution is not to dismiss all food science. And I don’t think that Pollan really believes that food and health science are useless. But, as he’s simplifying his book in interviews, and as people are reading this book with their own biases, I think it’s very easy to come to anti-science conclusions. No, science does not solve all our problems or have answers to all of our questions. It’s just a process. A long, difficult, complicated, worthwhile process, which has the trend of eventually producing true knowledge. A criticism of “nutritionism” could very easily become a resounding defense of science as a valuable process, but that’s not what this book is.

I'm glad I read this book, because I'm glad I know Pollan's arguments, and therefore which to support and which to push back against. But, unless you're getting into disagreements with people who've swallowed Pollan hook, line, and sinker (which might actually be a fairly large category), I don't think that reading this book is a particularly good idea.

To be or not to be cool, that is the question
Enuja, Inkscape

I've been thinking about the concept of coolness for a while now. I don't think of myself as cool, and I don't think of myself as valuing cool as a good thing. But I've seen some people lately who are uncool in a way that bothers me, and people have complimented me as cool, so, here I am, writing about cool.

In middle school and in high school, I was deeply uncool. For the most part, that was a good thing; I was able to capitalize on being an uncool nerd. I was chosen for group projects because everybody knew I'd do the work, I was able to stave off boredom in class by simply reading a paperback book every single day, and I developed a group of friends interested in Star Trek and in fantasy books. The nerds stuck together, and I was happy to be a nerd.

But because I was in nerdy schools, and the nerds stuck together, I was never the nerdiest person I knew, and I had plenty of friends. Also, I wanted to be sexy, and often succeeded (even though I had zero luck dating anyone I went to school with, while we were in school), and I didn’t see the sexism in it at the time, but I understood that sexy women were not geeky. So I didn't always feel like a “real” geek or nerd. But I certainly wasn't cool, either.

I know that social scientists and historians have written about cool. I keep meaning to explore that literature, but, except for reading “The Conquest of Cool” (which is about the revolution in advertising and fashion in the 60s and 70s), I haven't. So here's my untutored opinion, maybe slightly informed by hearing some of the academia of cool 3rd and 4th hand.

Cool is, in many ways, primarily about competence. If you're good at something, it doesn't fluster or surprise you. And if you're familiar with something, it doesn't surprise you, either. So being cool is being so competent and so experienced that nothing fazes you. I think it's good to be excited about things, so I don't want to be cool in the sense of adopting a constant state of disinterest. But I adore competence, and I enjoy knowing stuff, so, in some ways, I do want to be cool.

I have a coworker who reads as a very awkward geek. He's super intense, and always running around. At work, we're not supposed to run, (because we're supposed to work safe, and, while I philosophically reject the idea that running is unsafe, I accept it as a reasonable institutional norm), and I've heard bosses expressing frustration that, after they asked him not to run, one minute later, he'll be running again. This coworker doesn't just run while on the clock; at break and at lunch he's also running, or otherwise moving really really quickly. He always seems stressed out about something; he doesn't seem to be able to just be at peace with where he is and what he's doing. Instead, he's always in a hurry to do something else and be somewhere else. And he’s not so good at following social cues, either. But I think the primary thing that labels this coworker of mine as clearly very geeky is that he is taking everything around him very, very seriously. I don’t work a particularly challenging or well compensated job. And taking something so easy so seriously just rubs me the wrong way. Which is odd, because mostly, my coworkers annoy me by goofing off on the job, not by putting their noses to the grindstone. I suspect that taking an easy job very seriously is uncool because it seems to be a sign of incompetence. In reality, it’s a sign of emotional approach, not skill level or intelligence, but it feels uncool.

I’ve been getting better at it, but, for a long time, I flat out refused to simply turn around, while on a walk. I had to get to a destination, or walk around a block (even crossing a street was enough). My problem was that simply turning around in my footsteps appears incompetent. It looks like you’ve forgotten something, or you don’t know where you are. And I do not want to look incompetent. So, in that sense, I’ve always been obsessed with looking “cool.” Except that plenty of cool people are perfectly happy to loiter and, yes, to turn around.

The interaction of “geek” and “nerd” with coolness has done some really interesting things in the last 30 years. If I remember correctly, Hugh Rawson’s 1989 “Wicked Words” (an excellent and highly readable dictionary of curse words, if even more dated than even the publishing date suggests) has only the circus sideshow freak definition for geek, and does not even include the word “nerd.” I feel like I knew the words “geek” and “nerd” just as soon as my vocabulary got large enough to encompass them, but both had clear negative connotations. As the digital industry has grown, there are now famous geeks and nerds who are very rich, and being a nerd is much, much cooler. Which makes sense because technically competent people get to show off their competence, and often seem to be surprised by nothing. But, still, in order to be a geek you’ve got to be obsessed with something, and obsession is the opposite of cool. So I think coolness is at a very interesting point, historically.

Personally,  I'm in to moderation in all things, including coolness. I want to be cool in that I want to be at peace, comfortable in my own skin, reasonably competent and informed. But I want to be able to make mistakes sometimes, I want to be able to be a novice while I learn new things, I want to be able to take some things seriously, and I love visibly and audibly expressing happiness.

My personal values are quite different than that of the mainstream. People in the mainstream might interpret this as some kind of coolness, but to me, it feels much more like being an unpopular outsider than a person with cutting edge, “cool” ideas.

I certainly enjoy the “being popular” part of coolness; it's fantastic to have friends and socially satisfying to be valued by those around you. But I'm also a loner who likes hanging out on the edges of the crowd, watching people, and being an outside observer. And you can't do that when you're the center of attention! While hosting a parties, sometimes I hang out in the empty-est room, and talk to one person at a time. I guess one could interpret this as the “cooler than thou” uninvolved and perfectly self sufficient type of coolness, but I think it is different.

So, yes, I want to be viewed as competent and informed, but my relationship with coolness will probably always be a complicated one.

The many ways SVU gets it wrong
Enuja, Inkscape
Content Note: Transphobia, violence against trans people, negative presentations of cross dressing, and confusion between being transgender and cross dressing.

I know I shouldn’t watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s sensationalized, and ideologically confused (with drama, suspense, “ripped from the headlines”, and titillation trumping realism and coherent themes), with the deeply wrong premise that police and the courts are the best way to fix society.  But, still, I keep watching it.

So I saw the first two episodes of this season (Season 17!)  of SVU. The first episode is a double episode, where a serial killer apprehended last season in a cross-promotion with Chicago PD (itself a spinoff of Chicago Fire) leads to another serial killer (these two serial killers end up being friends, and it felt like the launching of yet another spinoff, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that). This new serial killer has some aliases, and was sometimes in disguise, as a woman. The show itself, and the detective characters in it, were contemptuous of this occasionally cross dressing serial killer character. I don’t remember the exact epithets, but they weren’t nice. Sometimes, in procedural television, the detectives are impressed by the cleverness of the “bad guys” they are trying to apprehend, but, instead, the cross dressing was presented as a hilarious joke, that showcased how abnormal and messed up this particular bad guy was. And also as freestanding evidence of wrong doing (the wigs in his home mean he must be a serial killer).

The second episode of the season, “Transgender Bridge,” was about a transgender kid pushed off of a pedestrian bridge during a bullying event. The episode starts out with two high school “boys” going through their morning routine, getting ready for school. But, then, the white “boy” puts on makeup, a skirt, and high heels, and “turns into” a transgender girl. I looked at the videography of the beginning scene, and this was deliberate. In order to get a quick “gotcha,” and to present this character, Avery, as “other” and as explicitly, obviously transgender to the audience, she is presented, first, as male. In fact, it seems, at first, that both of these kids the show is cutting between are young gay boys. Which is nice in the sense that it creates a connection between them, but it super obnoxious because it is presenting, to its audience, the idea that transgender folks start out, even every morning as they wake up, as their gender assigned at birth. Which confuses the audience about gender identity versus gender presentation, about transgender folk versus cross dressing folk.

The other kid is a 15 year old black kid named “Darius,” whose mom works crazy hours and who does a great job of taking care of his kid sister. He’s presented as sensitive and artistic, and at risk of bullying himself. But, when he and his friends come across Avery in a public park, his friends disagree about Avery’s gender, and Darius runs up to her to flip up her skirt and “find out.” They get in a tussle, and Avery falls off of the bridge.

Darius is presented as deeply sorry for his actions. But he’s tried as an adult, for a hate crime. In Darius’ defense, a psychologist argues that “his insecurity caused him to react impulsively” because, under the age of 25, people have very little impulse control, he was trying to look cool and strong and not gay in front of his friends, and Darius had had very little experience with transgender folks.  Here are some quotes from the psychologist character, trying to defend Darius:

“Avery was someone very different from the biological boys Darius knows, someone “other” in ways that were threatening in a boy just beginning to mature sexually and emotionally.”
“…he had very little exposure to transgender individuals, certainly not enough to develop either tolerance or hatred.”

Oh, come on, SVU! You are the problem! You are the exposure to transgender individuals that so many in our society get. And you are poisonous. You try, a little bit, sometimes, when directly addressing transgender characters, to explain that gender identity, sexuality, and gender presentation are different. But it’s a bit subtle, and you’re way too busy othering cross dressers and transgender folks to actually portray them as healthy, ordinary, normal human beings. Who are different from each other.

If you watch mainstream television, you are constantly exposed to the idea that both cross dressing and transgender identity exist, although you are rarely, if ever, exposed to the idea that they are different. Cross dressers are almost always seriously messed up, and transgender folk, at best, are bullied and sad and crossing taboo lines. Transgender folk may be rich kids who have the privilege to be themselves, but they aren’t normal, they don’t cross all cultural and financial lines of society.

I guess I’m glad that SVU had a positive transgender character, who was forgiving and generous and awesome. But this episode really might have been worse than not having a transgender character at all. SVU presented her as different, as “biologically a boy,” and as a victim. While presenting a crossdresser as a deviant killer in an adjacent episode. Yuck.

And now, the only question is: do I have the self control to not watch this show?

David Hartt, Artist Talk
Enuja, Inkscape

Thursday night, I saw David Hartt give an artist talk. However, instead of a talk, it was more reading a prepared statement. David Hartt is an intellectual, and a photographer, and, as he said at the beginning of his talk, he's the adopted son of two Jewish academics. He sounds like a born and raised Canadian academic.  It's usually very disappointing when a talk is actually a read, but the text he was reading was a really well written artist statement and art analysis and curatorial analysis. It's fascinating how different the English language for writing is from the English language for talking. So I loved the novelty of hearing written academic English out loud.

The last artist talk I saw at the AIC was Charles Ray (whose talk was in a much larger auditorium, and who is a much bigger name). Ray takes ownership away from the craftspeople who actually execute his work, by having multiple craftspeople create different parts of it, by having workshops with rotating people so no one is working on Ray's work for too long (in which case it would become theirs - a clear no-no), by making the choice of execution method ostensibly more important than the execution itself. This might be a little bit forgivable because some of the intellectual questions that Charles Ray's work is about is ownership, identity, and who and what an artist is. But the fact remains that he's making mad bank and his crafts people aren't. Charles Ray wants the art to be all about him, to last into the unforeseeable future, to be important, to be ART.

David Hartt is very different. Maybe it's because he's privileged and comfortable, but not famous and rich. Maybe it's because he's adopted, and mixed race. Maybe it's his personality. Maybe it's because he works in photography and installation and video (while Charles Ray works in monumental sculpture). Maybe it's none of these. Whatever the reasons, Hartt is super excited about the composers, portrait photographers, installation photographers, and writers he works with. He's excited about his practice and the intellectual background and results of it, but Hartt's doesn't seem to be about him as an "artist," instead, it's about the art and the meaning. About where meaning comes from, about where our society is going, about what our social constructs and globalized culture mean to us.

It was really enjoyable to see quite a bit of other by Hartt. And his read-out-loud talk was very interesting. But by far the most interesting and surprising and shocking thing I learned was that in the original installation, in a closed florist shop in the Bonaventure Hotel in LA, you could actually see both the Sakalin Island and the Whitehorse videos at the same time. In his talk Hartt showed a good chunk of the installation videos on split screen, so we could see them at the same time. And the experience is really different.

The individual installations matter. And, as Hartt said at the beginning of the talk, the two installations are very different. So the show, itself, is a different thing, in the two places. And the delicious frustration I felt, wanting to see both videos at the same time, but not being able to, is a real, and important, and still deeply symbolic part of the exhibition, here at the AIC. But it's not central to all iterations of the piece, which I had assumed.

Another big surprise was that, in the Bonaventure Hotel installation, the space felt aged, empty, but still marked as a florist's, interestingly dilapidated. It was confusing to me that the wall blurb here at the AIC says that Interval is about LA, along with being about Sakalin Island and Whitehorse. Because, in the AIC, Interval didn't feel like it was about LA. I now know that, in the original installation, the show was very deeply about dilapidation in LA.

It's a bit surprising that the AIC installation didn't take advantage of the dilapidated feel of the gallery it was installed in. It's in an old basement, and it feels like it. The gallery walls are a beige fabric, a little bit stained and used looking. Almost no one ever walks into the gallery, so, except for the security, it usually feels very lonely. But, to give the LA feel, a glass curtain wall, meant to invoke the outside of the Bonaventure Hotel, was placed across much of the gallery. And this glass curtain wall looked snazzy and modern, and somewhat at odds with the imagery from Sakhalin Island and Whitehorse. Which means that the LA part of Interval-at-the-AIC was snazz and class, not dilapidation, loss of use, and reuse, as it had been in LA.
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David Hartt's Interval
Enuja, Inkscape
I was at the AIC today, and I saw the exhibition Interval by David Hartt. I've seen it before, early in its run, when I just spun through it very quickly. But because the exhibition closes this upcoming weekend, I spent some serious time in it today. And it's fantastic!

The exhibition consists of a somewhat see-through wall based on the LA building this show was first shown in, an opaque wall wallpapered with photographs at a right angle to the glass wall, framed photographs hung on that wall and on the gallery walls, music, and two videos, one on each side of the opaque wall (and seats to sit on). One video was shot in Whitehorse, Canada, and the other was shot on Sakhalin Island, a currently Russian island north of Japan. The images on the walls look like stills from the videos, but the photographs are in color, and the videos are in black and white.

The wall blurb references Anton Chekov, who visited (and wrote about) Sakhalin Island when it was a Russian penal colony, in the 1890s, and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who did a radio program about White Horse in the 1960s. As the blurb expounds: “Chekhov and Gould, each a prominent cultural figure, sought the periphery of their respective societies in order to comment on the center. Working, as they did, at the margins and the center alike, Hartt explores the hybrid identities of sites and individuals in a globalized world.” Yes, the wall blurbs at the AIC can be a bit much, but I like the idea of periphery being important, and I’m guessing that Hartt, not just the curator, is referencing Chekov and Gould, which I’m glad I read about (although, I’ve course, I’d only previously heard of one of those people).

There is no location in the gallery where you can see the two videos at the same time. They both seemed to match the music in the gallery, and it felt like they were talking to each other. In fact, although I’m pretty sure all of the outdoor shots in each video are from the specific location, both videos feature a disco ball and close ups on moving spotlights, and I’m equally sure that both videos contain (some of) the same footage of the disco balls and spotlights. But I couldn’t compare the videos directly. There was a wall in the way. It felt fairly frustrating, but that frustration felt pretty fantastic, and, of course, very symbolic.

The only label in the entire exhibition is the single wall blurb; there are no labels identifying individual photographs, and no labels pointing at the videos. So I had to figure out for myself that one video was taken in Sakhalin Island, and the other in White Horse, and which was which. The languages on the signs really helped. The images used as wallpaper and the framed photographs are mixed up: ones from White Horse are next to ones from Sakhalin Island. And, for several of them, I couldn’t figure out which location the pictures was from.

Both videos contain urban, derelict, and somewhat un-tamed looking images. The White Horse one goes from being very urban to showing a very “wild” looking landscape. I couldn’t figure out if the Sakhalin Island one had the same progression: I don’t think so, but what with my watching from the middle and not the beginning, and with my jumping between halves of the gallery to compare the videos (after I’d watched a full loop of each video), I can’t tell.

One visual that really entranced me was a sudden, jumpy change in focus. Foreground plants would be in focus, and the video would quickly shift, the the foreground plants blurry and whatever was behind them in sharp relief. I know focus shifts are a common strategy in film, but this felt different, in some way. I’m not sure how or why. But I liked it!

I realized that, while I do see plenty of black and white photography, I rarely see black and white film. It’s amazing how dated the black and white made many of the images feel. The welders made me feel like I was watching something from the 1940s or earlier, just because artists were so much more interested in the novelty of industrial processes back when they were novel. The Russian teenagers with cell phones, and the Canadian advertisement for the movie The Hundred Foot Journey, however, made it feel very modern.

A lot of the imagery in this exhibition is beautiful, some of it a might perplexing, and some disturbing. But it’s all interesting. I was surprised that I had spent over an hour in the gallery, but I’m very happy I did so.

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
Enuja, Inkscape
Mad Max: Fury Road. 2015. George Miller, director

I loved this film! Which was a little bit of a surprise, because going in to films with high expectations is often the best way for me to leave a theater disappointed. The first time I heard of it was that a bunch of MRAs were upset about the new Mad Max film, which of course, suggested that it might be doing something right. Then, on opening night, I got this text from Wobbegong "You must see Fury Road very soon. First great feminist action film.", and, shortly thereafter, I read this very positive review by a college friend who has superb taste in film. And everything I was seeing and hearing about the film was all about how fantastic it is.

On the other hand, I knew that Fury Road was an all out action film, and, although I enjoyed action films while I was in college, they haven't appealed to me for a long time. Growing up, I was very sheltered from violence, and in college I got that all out: I hit people with padded plastic swords, I practiced martial arts, and I watched action flicks. But I'm more of a pacifist now, and thought that my love of action films had expired. Apparently not.

I got to the theater late, missed the opening monologue, and so was plunged into the film in the middle of a chase scene. The action and the world were over the top. Each visual was more extreme than the last, and a world with all this craziness was just not believable.

Then the film seduced me. After another big chase scene, the screen fades to black, and opens on what looks like a mountain of sand. Which starts to move. This mountain is a character, covered in sand. The cinematography had been beautiful up to that point, but with a momentary pause in the action, and this shift in perspective, the beauty began to really effect me. Then, characters who had seemed to be tropes developed individuality. The crazy over the top world starts to have a certain logic, and every character starts to make sense. Minions who had seemed disposable develop individuality, and every death matters. There are a lot of deaths, but no one is disposable, and only the powerful people, using their power at the expense of others, are evil.

Fury Road is essentially nonstop action, but, with characterization and beautiful cinematography in that action, I still love action! If absolute fidelity to the world as we know it is important to you, or if high adrenaline action exhausts you, this film is not for you. But if fantastic symbolism, meaning, action, and cinematography are your thing, you will love this film.

Some people have called this a feminist film, and I, who identify as a feminist, loved it. But people who don't identify as feminists, for both good and bad reasons, will also love this film. I had read in some places that anthropologists had never found a matriarchal society, and in other places that anthropologists had found many. It turns out that anthropologists haven't found a society where women rule everything and men are property, but there are plenty of societies where property is matrilineal and women have equal power to that of men. The same definitional problem crops up here. Does Fury Road name check feminism? No. Are the only important characters female? No. It's much better than that. Everyone's agency and individuality matters. Men and women are important. "We are not things." Men and women are good, and not good, in physical contests. So, yes, absolutely, this is a feminist film. It's also much more than that. It's tense, suspenseful action with themes of redemption, learning, the importance of individuality, and the importance of using what you've learned in order to fix your broken society. This is the kind of film I want to see, and the kind of film I wish Hollywood made more of.

For some really good analysis, here is another article by the same college friend.

Book Review: The Wolf's Tooth
Enuja, Inkscape
Eisenberg, Cristina. 2010. The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

I read this book on the recommendation of my twin, and we both enjoyed reading  it, and got a lot out of it. But, after reading it, I couldn't figure out who the audience was supposed to be, and I didn't think it was well written. Obviously, the audience includes my twin and I, but we alone aren't enough. And the audience was really more my twin than I. I took an ecology course in graduate school, so I was already familiar with the idea of top-down versus bottom-up regulation of ecosystems. Bottom-up regulation is the idea that water, sun, and nutrients control how much photosynthesis occurs in an ecosystem, and therefore what the ecosystem looks like and how it functions. Top-down regulation is the idea that predators eat herbivores, giving the plants a chance to grow instead of being consumed into nothingness. Top-down regulation is also called "trophic cascades," because in a many-level food chain, the top predator reduces the abundance of the trophic level below it, which increases the abundance of the trophic level below that one, which decreses the abudance of the trophic level below that, and so on. Top level predators which control trophic cascades are called "keystone predators." My twin was also familiar with bottom-up versus top down regulation of ecosystems, but from a very different perspective. Having a history of natural area management (she worked for the Florida State Parks), she was familiar with bottom-up regulation, but thought of top-down regulation as a novel hypothesis under a large amount of controversy. I'd missed the controversy, assumed that both top-down and bottom-up regulation are happening in ecosystems all around me, and didn't quite get why anyone would argue about it.

The Wolf's Tooth is organized in a way that seemed strange to me: an introduction and basic information about ecology and the history of ecology, the basic mechanisms behind trophic cascades, a chapter about aquatic cascades, one about terrestrial cascades, and a chapter about old-growth rain forest food webs, followed by three chapters about biodiversity, restoration, and ecosystem management, using the information previously supplied. It was those three central chapters, separating evidence about trophic cascades in different categories of ecosystems, that really surprised and confused me. Why separate this data out? And it was further subdivided, with sections in chapters about rivers versus lakes versus the rocky intertidal and so on. It seemed like repeating the same sorts of experimental outcomes in different ecosystems was wasteful of space and a boring, annoying organization.

But my twin solved two of my problems with this book: the audience is land managers, who have heard of how well established the theory of keystone predation is in the rocky intertidal (when you get rid of sea stars, you lose diversity and productivity), but have heard great controversy about wolves as keystone predators, and are very skeptical about whether keystone predation is important on the land they manage. So the ecosystem-by-ecosystem approach works for them. I was also frustrated by the fact that Wolf's Tooth seems to be a summary for lay readers, with lots of definitions of terms and history of ecology, and then words like "palynologist" (a person who studies fossilized pollen) pop up undefined. Part of that is just poor editing, but I think that that sort of poor editing matters less to land managers (who are probably OK with looking up the occasional word they don't know, but appreciate having a lot of terms defined) than to the general public reading simply for enjoyment.

One of the things I think a lot about when reading and reviewing non-fiction is the difference between an author who is primarily a writer or a journalist, who researched the subject in order to write about it, and an expert in the field, who is writing about something very near and dear to their hearts, that they have encyclopedic knowledge about. I really enjoy reading nonfiction from authors in both categories, but they are often different. Usually, books written by professional writers have more finely crafted prose, and books written by experts have better information. Unfortunately, Wolf's Tooth has the uninspiring prose of an expert, without the incisive opinions of most experts. Eisenberg actually seems to be obscuring her personal expertise and opinions much of the time. She studies wolf trophic cascades, collaring wolves and quantifying tracks in the snow and herbivory on aspens. But then she uses the phrase "some researchers" think, both when it's what (reading through the lines) she thinks, and when it's what she vehemently disagrees with. I think that Eisenberg has fallen for the lie of objectivity, and wants to convince readers that she's presenting the data correctly by convincing them that she's an objective researcher. She's not. She loves wolves, and thinks that many ecosystems cannot survive without them, or can't thrive long term without humans at least killing herbivores to make up for the missing effect of the predators we've killed. I think Eisenberg should own her biases, and not deprive her readers of her special perspective. Yes, mention the people you disagree with, but don't pretend you agree with them, or that you have no opinion.

Suffice it to say that this book is a good read for anyone who wants to know about the research, from the beginning of the field until 2010, on trophic cascades. Readers without any particular interest in the subject, or with strong knowledge in the field, should skip it. Which I think is a shame. But that doesn't make this book useless. Just not for the general public, and not for ecologists.