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24 May 2016 @ 08:06 pm
In class a student giving a presentation asked if any of us had any secret vices, or at least things that jarred with our public image. I answered "Project Runway." It's not that I feel ashamed of liking Project Runway, but it certainly doesn't go with the kind of shows I recommend to my students, which include Game of Thrones, Vikings, Jessica Jones and suchlike—basically, fantasy violence, historical violence and superhero violence. Apart from the fact that there are a lot of men in skirts, they're not what you'd call fashion forward. Neither, for that matter, am I. Sure, I like to wear nice clothes, but it's not like I look forward to the latest Armani collection. What I like about Project Runway, apart from the opportunity to spend (low) quality time with my significant other, is watching people who are really good at what they do, doing creative and challenging things. I'd probably be just as happy if it were an industrial design competition.

My other not-really-fitting-my-image show is Survivor, which I got back into watching because my extra course load left me so brain dead that after working till 10 p.m. I'd just watch an hour of people surving then fall into bed. However, I found that this season the two shows have gone in opposite directions. I'm losing interest in Survivor (Turkish version) because all the contestants I really like have been eliminated, and the show could be renamed Catfight in the Caribbean. In contrast, Project Runway left us with a final at New York Fashion Week with our four favourite contestants, Kelly, Candice, Ashley and Edmond. (Yes, in Turkey we've only just finished season 14, though fortunately we were able to avoid spoilers to the extent that I only just found out it finished in November everywhere else.) So basically, there was no one we'd have been really pissed off to see win.

Nevertheless, we had our favourites, both as designers and as people: Kelly Dempsey and Candice Cuoco. Because, like most people, I tend to exaggerate the talents of people I happen to like, I was especially careful to establish that they did indeed have the best designs (check them out in the links in the last sentence if you don't believe me). OK, I know it doesn't make a nanodifference what I think, but it's good mental training IMHO. The other two contestants had pretty good collections (and Edmond had one absolutely stunning dress) but our lasses were well out in front; when the show was over and the jury got to talk, it was a toss-up between Kelly and Candice.

Or so we thought. Then the word came up: "plus-size". Ashley Tipton specialises in plus-size clothing, and her runway show had plus-size models, which means somewhere between "curvy" and "obese". Now Ashley's work wasn't at all bad (unlike some of her previous entries, which were hideous) but it wasn't in the same league as the other contestants unless you really, really, like lacy pastelly skirts and blouses that make you look fat—sorry, I mean, "celebrate your womanness". Am I being bitchy here? Yes, of course I'm being bitchy; this is Project Runway. But back to the point. Up to this point, the other designers were in with a chance, but then the other word came up: "inclusive". That's when we knew they were doomed. Having plus-size models would be inclusive, you see. (Having a Black guy win wouldn't be inclusive enough, I suppose, and the other contestants were just skinny White Trash.)

Now you'd think I'd be all for inclusiveness in fashion as everywhere else, and indeed I am. But just as in other areas, inclusiveness shouldn't ride roughshod over talent, especially where here it's largely a case of the fashion industry defending itself against largely justified claims of distorting female body images. Sure, it's nice to see some big models for a change, and it's great that people are designing clothes for big women, but please let's not think that we're better people because we try to balance a pile of size zeros with a few XXLs. That just reinforces the message that fashion is primarily for women with eating disorders. What would be really nice (as well as seeing the most talented people win, of course) would be for the fashion industry to acknowledge the middle of the bell curve once in a while. One of the best episodes was when the designers had to create a look for the members of the technical crew. That really got the message across—not that "real women have curves" but that real women actually come in all shapes and sizes.
07 May 2016 @ 02:00 pm
I have an ambivalent relationship with Malcolm Gladwell (a relationship of which he is naturally unaware). On the one hand, I love his ability to seize on apparently insignificant details (Goliath's myopia, varieties of spaghetti sauce, the Norden bombsight) and draw interesting conclusions from them. I love his amazing enthusiasm, which translates into wonderful talks that break several rules of presentations (a phenomenon I've dubbed "the Gladwell effect"—if you communicate enthusiasm about your topic, it doesn't matter if you say "umm" all the time, have a lousy Powerpoint or let your shirt come untucked at the back). On the other hand, it's not a good thing that such a wonderful writer and speaker manages to get things spectacularly wrong in ways that a little critical reading of the data could have prevented. Gladwell attracted some criticism for his attribution of New York's falling crime rate to Giuliani's "No broken windows" policing when in fact New York's crime fell more because crime across the whole of the developed world was falling. (To his credit, Gladwell admitted he "oversold" the idea.) Now, belatedly, his famous "10,000 hour rule" has been deflated by Anders Ericsson, the very person he got the idea from.

As a naturally lazy person, I was inclined to be skeptical of the 10,000 hour rule as soon as I heard about it. I was also reminded of my time as a music student. Gladwell's claim was based on research by Ericsson that found the best students at a music school in Berlin had, on average, put in 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were twenty. What I observed as a music student, though, was that beyond a certain point, the amount of practice my fellow students put in didn't correlate particularly strongly with their performance. Some people were just good, and only had to practice enough to stop their technique from getting rusty. Some people could practice all day and would never be more than competent, because actually being a great musician isn't primarily about technique; it's about feeling. (I'm speaking here as less-than-great musician; as my teacher at the time put it, "You're playing virtuoso material, but you're not a virtuoso yet." Ironically, I was one of the ones who might have benefited from those 10,000 hours of practice.)

Another person I admire (but also take with a grain of salt) is Tim Ferriss. In The Four-Hour Chef he points out the problems with the idea that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary (let alone sufficient) to master any skill. Firstly, we can't say anything on the subject without a clear idea of what we mean by "master". Is your standard for mastering golf the best player at your local course, a national champion, or Tiger Woods? (Ferriss takes being in the top 20% world-wide, which I think is reasonable.) Secondly, the amount of effort, practice or talent necessary to master a skill varies according to the skill being practiced. As Anders Ericsson himself points out, "Steve Faloon, the subject of an early experiment on improving memory, became better at memorizing strings of digits than any other person in history after only about two hundred hours of practice." At a more modest level, I've used YouTube to relearn several skills, from peeling a banana to tying my shoelaces. I can say with some confidence that I've mastered them (except for folding fitted sheets—I've got a way to go there) but it certainly didn't take 10,000 hours of practice.

Most importantly, Ferriss queries the cause-effect relationship. Remember that the data come from intensely competitive fields, as Andersson says: "The reason that you must put in ten thousand or more hours of practice to become one of the world’s best violinists or chess players or golfers is that the people you are being compared to or competing with have themselves put in ten thousand or more hours of practice." But as Ferriss notes, if you're in a highly competitive field where everyone is practicing like crazy, you are likely to practice like crazy too, regardless of how much practice you actually need to do. Maybe it's not just that practice makes perfect but also that perfectionism makes you practice.
22 April 2016 @ 10:20 am
I have just received some academic spam entitled "Top Ten Reasons to Submit Your Paper to Textile Research Journal". Apart from the fact that this sounds like an article from Cracked.com, how about the top reason not to: my knowledge of textiles is limited to not putting my sweaters in the same wash as my jeans.
10 April 2016 @ 09:45 pm
I've decided my social media fast doesn't apply to Instagram, because I need cute puppy pictures to calm me down before I go to sleep, and LiveJournal, because it predates the term "social media".
02 April 2016 @ 10:23 am
Happy birthday, miss_next !
10 March 2016 @ 07:30 pm
Happy birthday, asteriskhere !
I used to use yoga as a reductio ad absurdum of cultural appropriation, but it turns out some students are actually protesting against yoga classes on these grounds. Following the fashion of the hyper-privileged banging on about oppression, some students at Ottowa University lambasted the free yoga classes on campus, stating that many of the cultures Yoga comes from "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga." With the pusillanimity we have come to expect of universities these days, the administration reacted by cancelling the classes, though it was at pains to point out that this email was not the sole reason. Suuuure.

But let's assume that the university, after consulting with all parties (i.e., anyone who can invent a grievance), decides to resume the courses in a more ideologically sound manner. How exactly would we be mindful of oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas while practicing yoga? Should I be thinking about the British-inspired famines in India while relaxing in Savasana? Or should I be thinking about how Mr Patel who runs the corner shop has been diasporised? (As well as being a cultural stereotype, of course.) FFS, do you think about the Greek diaspora every time you eat feta cheese?

This aside, an indication that the person who typed the mail was simply vomiting rhetoric rather than actually thinking is the claim about "cultural genocide." It is sometimes meaningful to talk about cultural genocide, though personally I avoid the term, as I think it lessens the impact of the word "genocide", which in my humble opinion should only be used for actual genocide. But yoga comes from India, and India has not suffered cultural genocide; on the contrary, it has a vibrant, self-confident culture which it has exported worldwide, one manifestation of which is yoga.

In more specifically Canadian political silliness, the yoga teacher offered to rename the classes "mindful stretching" but that was dropped because they couldn't translate it into French.
18 November 2015 @ 01:46 pm
One of the sillier commentaries on the Paris attacks I have read so far is Niall Ferguson's "Paris and the Fall of Rome". It's ironic that it comes from a historian, given its romanticised view of history. The author draws an analogy between Daesh/ISIS's attack on Paris and the Goths' sack of Rome, quoting Gibbon to illustrate the savagery of both:
In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.

Apart from the fact that you can't really compare the sack of a whole city with a terrorist attack, Gibbon was, as usual, playing to the gallery. As it happened, the sack of Rome, far from being an unprecedented act of barbarity, was mild by the (admittedly brutal) standards of the day. Certainly a lot of Roman civilians were killed or enslaved, but that wasn't the Goths' main aim; their aim was to show the government in Ravenna who was boss, and carry off loot. The city was not put the torch and there was no systematic massacre. The Goths didn't want to destroy the Roman Empire but to be part of it, preferably the part that was ruling it.

Ferguson also goes along with the pop-history narrative whereby empires fall because they get soft and decadent. In this view, empires are started by hardy, plain-living folk who epitomise the manly virtues (think of those hunky guys in 300). Their descendants become victims of their own success, succumbing to luxury and debauchery, throwing orgies and eating big bunches of grapes. (It's a trope in historical/fantasy films that soft people eat soft fruit.) Too effete to practice the arts of war, they are overthrown by manly barbarian hordes, and so the cycle continues. Like Rome, Ferguson warns, Europe will be overrun by barbarians because we let our martial prowess droop.

There are two things blatantly wrong with this argument. The first is that the Roman Empire became more, not less, militaristic as time went by. From the end of the second century, the empire was basically a succession of military dictatorships, with the most powerful general becoming emperor. (Incidentally, "imperator" was originally a title bestowed on successful generals by their troops.) Late Roman field armies could wipe the floor with anyone—the problem was that there weren't enough of them because there weren't enough Romans. (The reasons for that are up for debate; poor agricultural practices, a slave economy and even lead poisoning have been suggested.) When the empire split into East and West, the depopulated, impoverished West didn't stand a chance, while the wealthy, populous Byzantine Empire carried on for centuries.

The other mistake is to think that Europe, because it has been relatively peaceful, is militarily weak. European states played a considerable role in the adventurism that brought about the current mess, from Iraq to Syria. It's true that mounting a full-scale invasion of a Middle Eastern country would be beyond the capability of any European state, but then wars these days are fought by coalitions, and a coalition of EU states, even without American support, could probably take out any of Europe's neighbours except for Russia. In any case, if we're talking a fall of Rome scenario, then Daesh would have to come over here as an army, not a handful of serial killers, and such an army wouldn't get further than the Turkish border. Alarmism about Europe's supposedly weak defences is no more useful now than it was during the Cold War.

It may be true that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, but we need to learn the right lessons. We also need to learn what things are different. Europe is not the Roman Empire, its neighbours are not barbarian hordes, and modern warfare is a world away from the Dark Ages.
18 September 2015 @ 02:43 pm
I've just been reading a touching but rather confusing article by a lapsed vegan that frequently mentions animal rights. After a while I realised what it was that I didn't like about this term. Our relations with animals should be based on compassion, not rights. It's a fairly safe bet that higher animals, including some of those we eat, are sentient, and if a creature is sentient then we probably don't want to cause it unnecessary suffering. Whether that implies veganism, free-range eggs, humane slaughterhouses or whatever, I'll leave to others to debate.

Rights are different. Rights are for people we may feel little compassion for but nevertheless have to get along with. Consider health care, which in most countries is regarded as a right. My granting you this right does not depend on my wanting to ease your suffering or promote your health; I accept your right to health care because if I don't, nobody gets that right. I don't have the option to provide health services only to people whose health I care about; if that were the case, it would be a privilege, not a right. Similarly, I respect the right to free speech of groups that I would happily see wiped off the face of the earth. With people we like, we don't generally think about rights; in fact, they can sometimes get in the way. If I'm preparing a meal for my wife and myself, I don't consider how much of it I have a right to. If we start thinking about rights, then we have a problem, because rights are about dealing with conflicts of interest.

Because of this, I don't see how rights enter into our relations with animals. If I argue that chickens should be allowed to roam freely rather than being cooped up in factory farms, or even that we shouldn't keep chickens captive at all, I'm not arguing that we're in some kind of social contract with chickens; I'm saying that I don't want chickens to suffer (assuming here that they're on the right side of the sentient/non-sentient divide). I'm arguing on the basis of compassion, not rights.
02 September 2015 @ 12:35 pm
I've just read Yasmin Alibhai Brown's article "I like Corbyn, but let's face it: we don't need another white man at the head of a political party" because it was generating so much controversy, with even Richard Dawkin wading in. Many of the comments accused Brown of racism, though I suspect many of these commentators hadn't read much further than the (admittedly very long) title. Personally, I found the article confusing. That could be because I teach academic English and I've come to expect a thesis statement that lays out the argument somewhere near the beginning, and I tend to get lost with this kind of op-ed journalism where you just ramble around a topic without coming to any definite conclusions. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in fact, it's pretty much what I'm doing here) but it's confusing to encounter someone taking what is obviously a controversial stance without being sure exactly what that stance is. Brown likes Corbyn's politics but would prefer the leader of the Labour Party to be female and non-white; that much is clear. The rest of the article is not.

Brown is obviouslyt saying that identity politics is important in Britain, but I'm not sure whether she regards this as good, bad or merely inevitable. Most confusingly, she praises the American political system for its acknowledgement of identity politics and its tacit admission "that America proclaims oneness but is, in truth, a land of many peoples, competing interests, and hostilities." Is she seriously suggesting that UK politics become more like US politics? Could it possibly be a good thing when a candidate's gender, skin colour or sexual orientation become as important as their policies? A lot of people voted for Obama because of his race, but then a lot of people voted for Margaret Thatcher because of her sex, and we don't want to go back down that road.

Brown does make some good points, though. Britain may well be less united than politicians would have us believe. She is also right that those in privileged groups (white, well-off males, for example) have a natural tendency to promote unity and underplay conflict because it is in their interests to do so. This does not mean, however, that unity is in itself a bad thing, or that conflict is inherently good.

Like Brown, I would also be happy to see more women, members of ethnic minorities and other marginalised people leading political parties and other organisations. However, my perspective is somewhat different. It would be great to see, for example, an Asian woman as prime minister of the UK. But this is not because Asian women would make better PMs, or that they would represent Asians or women better, or because I'm an Asian woman. (I'm not, by the way.) It would be good because it would be an indication that British political culture had progressed to the point where an Asian woman could become PM. This is where Goodhart's law comes in: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." (Note: this quotation is often misattributed to Charles Goodhart; the actual wording, though, comes from Marilyn Strathern). Goodhart's Law is the fly in the ointment of diversity. If we were to decide that Corbyn had the best policies and personal qualities to lead the Labour Party but voted for another candidate because we don't want another white man running a political party, we screw up our measure. Once identity politics rears its ugly head, we don't know if a candidate is being elected for their ideas or their identity.