Every year or so we got a new car when I was growing up; my father worked for GMAC. I looked at the color of our new car, and started noticing that a lot of other cars on the road had the same color ...
... and then we would get a new car ...
For many years I have had several Yahoo!tm email accounts, and I check each of them almost every day. I have not gotten around to blocking their ads; I just ignore them. Once I had a banner ad, an ad on the right side of the page, and an ad at the bottom ... and two of the three were for Yahoo! Personals. This seemed like overkill, but I went about my business and continued to ignore them for the most part. A few days ago, however, their ads slipped into the realm of creepy—an ad, which I have not been able to reproduce the past few days, said that we should stare all we want. That is to say, we should engage in a stalkerish project of objectification because it is just a picture, just an ad. Supposedly, however, these are ads for real people.
I decided to download and save the various ads that Yahoo! used for their personals site, so it quickly became a matter of reloading the page, hitting Control-I, and saving the right file. As soon as I began doing so, however, I ran into a problem; much like the double-slit experiment, my act of observation was an act of intrusion that influenced the results. Or rather: once I began looking for ads to save, they no longer provided them to me.
This is, in a curious way, a blessing, for I no longer have these annoying ads to view when I check my email. On the other hand, now I have even more ads about refinancing my house, consolidating my student loans, getting a degree online, and signing up for Netflix. Oh the joys of consumerism! And, of course, once I forget about looking for the personals ads, they will reappear.
The strategy for the ads is simple: clean-cut, slender, well-dressed but casual people, the setting blurry but not too busy, so that the people are foregrounded. In general the people presented appear to be in their mid-20s through their mid-30s, though in the case of “Lee & Peter” we have an older couple. Notice, however, that the only wrinkles either of them demonstrate are laugh-lines. In all the pictures, big smiles showcase red lips and white teeth. Men wear slightly more formal clothing than women, such as button-down shirts or sweaters, whereas the women’s shirts tend toward short sleeves and plunging necklines, as in the case of Ann, the most round or full-figured of the examples. Only Lee the older woman, wears a jacket. The images are iconic in a way, and it appears that Sharena and Jane even have the same shirt.
With the exception of Jane, who actually makes eye contact with her viewers, those being photographed are being captured candidly, either while chatting (if they are alone) or while sharing a somewhat intimate moment together (if it is a couple). As perhaps a nod to the reality of the audience, all the ads feature women, some feature couples, and none feature men alone. In contrast to the women, who have few if any phyical flaws and generally free-flowing or youthful hair (note Lee’s tussled look), the men tend to have a slightly receding hairline (Pat and Steven) or growing bald spot (Peter). The names supplied for the models tend toward the mundane, especially for the men, though Sharena is not that common.
Matters do, however, become amusing when or if we compare the ads for the personals site with the ads on the personals site itself. There are superficial matters to consider and then, perhaps, discount, such as image quality, hair, and clothing choice. But the gap still widens, for whereas all of the models are slender, their counterparts in reality rarely are; a large percentage describes itself as large, thick, or a few extra pounds. In the photos of the models none are encumbered by children; many of their counterparts in reality are.
Using attractive models to sell a product is nothing new, and complaints and critique regarding the negative manner in which stick-thin supermodels put forward an unrealistic ideal of beauty, etc., is probably older than I am. Objectification (Stare all you want!) is likewise old hat. Interestingly, however, in these other instances beauty and youth were being used to sell something else (beer, clothes, a “good time”); here it seems they are the product.
Were I to go to buy a car based on the ads and then discover that only beat up, used junkers were available, I would be upset. Likewise if Apple promised me a slick new iMac and all they could ship was a late-80s SE or SE/30 (cute and endearing though those machines are). The connection is, of course, a little less direct than that. Yahoo! walks a line between promising the people and promising a service. They say "Better first dates. More second dates," "Smile. Spring is here," and "Want to chat?" At the same time they provide names to make it all a bit more real: Jane, Miranda, Ann, etc.
This level of reality, though, more closely resembles matters of reality TV: Yahoo! goes out of their way to say that these are real people, not professional models (models are not real people, you see). As they state: “Yahoo! Personals is about one thing...Real People.” It is so real, in fact, that Real People must be capitalized (a prelude to being trademarked?) Since these real people are just like you and I are, they, like Yahoo!’s userbase, reflect a wide sprectrum of the demographic: white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, straight, gay, slender, and slender.
One of the questions on the final exam that I gave to my students had to do with the new Pope. When asked to tell what he knew about Ratzinger, one student mentioned that Ratzinger had been a Nazi soldier. That is not quite correct, though it is not helped by all the misleading news articles and blogs out there.
As the Times Online points out, Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth, as was required; he came from an anti-Nazi household; toward the end of the war he served in a batallion that defended a factory, but there is no evidence that he fired a shot; he deserted in April of 1944; and he spent time in a prisoner of war camp.
This is not meant as a defense of the new Pope. He does not need my defense, and furthermore, I have no interest in giving it; based on the types of policies he is likely to pursue, given his beliefs, I have no reason to like Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI. When the old Pope passed away many jokes were made, etc. I disliked John Paul II for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his attitude toward birth control and the resulting effects regarding AIDS/HIV in Africa. Curiously enough, on matters of economics and development (i.e. debt relief and developing nations), he came across as more liberal than just about any elected polician in Washington DC. Ratzinger—s own beliefs and background are far more interesting than those few years during WWII, for according to the reports I have read, it appears that his early Church outlook was rather to the left, and only took a decisive swing to the right in the wake of Liberation Theology:
Ratzinger’s main complaint was with the more extreme Marxist sub-group in Liberation Theology, and how it represented not an addition to Church dogma but a (universalizing) replacement for it. His overall approach is rigorous and based on doctrine. I do not particularly care for the man’s position(s), but he works toward consistency. I hesitate to call him “right-wing” (which seems to me to be too much an intrusion of an already-strained political metaphor into the realms of theology) without seeing how he actually interacts with the political realm in the future.
A number of my (former) students are Catholic and had a greater stake in the selection of the Pope than I did. None were particularly thrilled with selection, and since they had something at stake, it was interesting to see how they responded to it. Some pointed out that given the declining number of Catholics in Europe, a European Pope might be a good thing; this runs counter to the position that the Pope should be more representative of Catholics across the world, and thus an African or Latin American Pope should have been chosen. My students seemed to want a more liberal or progressive Pope, but reconciling that with the current choice was difficult. One solution went as follows: we want a more progressive Pope, but John Paul II was very popular; furthermore it will be difficult to affect change being the first Pope after John Paull II because one will always be compared to him; thus Ratzinger will be a caretaker Pope who maintains the policies of John Paul II and who, due to his short term in office (age) and relative unimportance, will pave the way for a more progressive Pope a few years down the line.
Because a law in Colorado prohibiting breed-specific bans was overturned, officers in Denver are going around collecting and killing pit bulls. I mentioned this to a guy in the department who is from Colorado, and he ended up suporting such a measure because, as he claimed, unlike normal dogs, pit bulls have a locking jaw, so even if they want to let go, they cannot, and due to issues with brain chemistry they are wired to go wacko in old age, just like chows.
There was little I could say against this. As a matter of principle I consider practices like the one in Denver objectionable and barbaric, but what does one say when a pragmatist comes along and says, “well, that is all fine and dandy, but they are still too dangerous, and here is the science to prove it”?
I still do not have an answer to that question.
There is an answer to this specific problem, however: the so-called science involved is no such thing ... it is just another round of myths and urban legends.
In short: there is no science demonstrating that pit bulls (or other breeds) have a peculiar brain chemistry that either causes or predisposes them to be dangerous or insane; and the claim of locking jaws and/or lockjaw is absurd and demonstrably false. The brain chemistry argument is made all over the place, but never is there a scientific study cited to back it up. The other main argument is that they are bred to be aggressive and thus it is “in their blood,” yet empirical evidence to the contrary indicates that they are not particularly aggressive compared to other dogs, and the historical fact is that they were bred to be aggressive regarding other dogs, not people. At other times it is mentioned that they have excessively large heads that give them superhuman ... er, supercanine ... biting strength, yet their heads are only large relative to many other breeds of the same size, and are much smaller than the heads of larger dogs.
What we end up with is an irrational fear of an animal that most people who complain about them have never encountered. Occasionally you end up with such irresponsible pieces of tripe as Brian C. Anderson’s “Scared of Pit Bull? You’d Better Be!” from 1999. The man saw local thugs with dogs and ineffectual local police and managed to conclude that a breed of dog that he only observed from a distance was the problem. I can understand the fear of those who were actually attacked by a pit bull, yet there is no reason to believe that their fear is any more applicable or relevant in making policy than is that of those attacked by poodles, German Shepherds, or retrievers. I am likewise curious as to where and when this fear originated.
For the longest time the pit bull had positive culural connotations, as is evidenced by Pete from The Little Rascals and other famous pit bulls. The pictures you will never see on TV or in the newspaper are of those dogs who are abused and tortured (warning: the preceding page was the first thing in months to bring tears to my eyes).
Many people are affected more by violence against their fellow humans, for they identify with them. If we take the position of Decartes, then animals are merely matter and what we do to them is ... immaterial. I think I have a higher tolerance for violence and cruelty against people than for that against animals, and it is not a matter of indentification with the animals as victims, nor is it because such animals are cute, whereas so many people are not (though that clearly plays into which people we are trained to feel sorry for ... which [white, middleclass] children make the news when killed, kidnapped, etc. ...). With some violence against people I can understand if not excuse the anger or hatred, even if it is a matter of projecting some past wrong onto a present person, but while I can and do accept the killing of animals for food and such (I was raised on a small farm of sorts) the abuse or hurting of something that caused you no harm, intends you no harm, and has little potential to cause you harm is incomprehensible.
In addition to the pseudo-science and urban legends on parade to support the myth of certain animals as vicious monsters, which I will call intellectual ignorance, there is a type of ignorance-of-experience that makes the situation more difficult to overcome. I grew up in the country in a small subdivision, not quite suburbia, though that is what it later became. My childhood experiences were formed in the context of pets and livestock: cows, sheep, rabbits, dogs, cats, and state fair fish that promptly died. My cousin had rottweilers and I grew to love them (in contrast: Dobermans were ferocious beasts that I only ever saw behind a gate protecting one farmer’s house and they always made me nervous). We did not have horses, and I always had a certain fear of them when I worked with them at the vetrinary clinic, even though I went on farm call after farm call and had to deal with them at least once a week. Many of my friends and colleagues from less rural upbringings had even less contact with animals, often only a cat or a small dog, and many of them scoff at the idea of having a large dog. Suburbia is often blamed for or characterized by a certain lack or loss of human-human interaction, but somehow it seems to me that we also have the potential to lose human-animal interaction, and I find that extremely disturbing.
—May 17 2005