Posts tagged "social equality"

google maps redesign, you’re bringing me down.

View An Object of Beauty in a larger map

Google does some things right, but other times they just make a mess.

Google Maps enables users to create personal maps in which they can save locations, add notes, embed images and videos, and share with fellow Interwebians—the whole shebang. I have certainly taken advantage of this tool, featuring personal maps on this very blog. I like incorporating Google maps into my blog a) because I am a cartophile and b) because maps are a different way to visually represent and enhance what I am trying to say, hopefully allowing my handful of readers to come up with interesting new thoughts that otherwise would not have been possible.

So I was smad today when I found that Google Maps has stripped away the functionality that allows one to search other user-generated maps (gosh-darn Indian givers*). Or rather, whereas the search process was originally slightly perplexing, it has now become nearly impossible and a downright headache. I wanted to see if anyone had created a map based on the various art venues described in Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, that’s a current little project of mine. Previously, the user-created content was available through the small “Show Search Options” link next to the main search bar; this link is now completely gone. A bit of research led me to this thread on the Google maps help forum, and I discovered that you actually can search maps using this complicated URL parameter:

The “London” above is just a search parameter; I typed in the following:

While various Google employees responded to questions on the aforementioned thread and confirmed that yes, you can only search using this weird little parameter, no one offered an explanation for this overhaul that ultimately makes life inordinately difficult for ardent Maps users.

My reasons for blogging this Google Maps minutia are twofold. First, I want to share this little searching secret and encourage others to make and share public maps! Mostly, though, I am disheartened that Google would make us jump through all these hoops to find maps that users created under the impression that they could share them the cyberworld. Google prides itself on the fact that anyone can easily use their services to find information, but a change like this makes it possible for only the web-savvy elite. Is Internet and technology classism the next form of discrimination? I’m kind of kidding, but then again, I’m kind of not. 

*Okay, calling Google Indian givers is offensive (not to Google, to Native Americans). I apologize, but the childishly indignant sentiment remains the same. Wikipedia tells me that the PC alternative to Indian givers is ersatzgivers…want to place any bets on whether this neologism will catch on?

let’s bring back social justice to descriptivism: a bit of a response.

My heart fluttered a bit I saw the words Motivated Grammar in bold on my Google Reader today. See, Motivated Grammar was, for a long while, my big blog crush: this grad student Gabe Doyle writes a linguistics blog whose slogan is “Prescriptivism must die!” so naturally it’s true love. Today he wrote a response to another person who was responding to Barton Swaim’s ornery-grammarian response to the re-release of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Well, now I’m going to respond.

This is the deal: Swaim is all huffy about the newest version of the style guide because it tends towards descriptivism, analyzing how people use language in the real world, rather than prescriptivism, dictating arbitrary grammar rules.* Mr. Swaim insists that prescriptivism is preferable because, as Doyle says, “it’s what people want to do and it’s fun.” Doyle disagrees, and is especially peeved with Swaim’s portrayal of descriptivists:

“To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they argue further, is to engage in class prejudice.” (my emphasis)

This is where Doyle and I start to diverge. I’ve been reading his blog for a year now,  and while I support his endeavors to crush the efforts of grammar extremists, there was always some inarticulable thing that bothered me. Now I know what it is.

Doyle’s responds to Swaim’s statement above like so:

"No. If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to that fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.” (his emphasis)

I’m totally down with the argument that prescriptivists’ so-called grammar “rules” are capricious and often downright inaccurate. What gets me, though, is the need to downplay any sort of social prejudice** that is embedded in a prescriptivist approach to language. Yeah, yeah, I understand that Doyle’s shtick is to debunk grammar myths like “there’s nothing wrong with anyways" and "Ms. is a standard and useful abbreviation,” but he often entirely overlooks the fact that language plays a huge role in creating, supporting, and dismantling society’s power structures. 

Take Ms. as an example, an issue Doyle wrote about somewhat recently. Even though (as he explains) Ms. was not originally a title invented by feminists, we can now use the title to undermine the patriarchal notion that a woman must be identified by her marital status, while a man is free to claim his own identity. I love Ms. I love what it stands for. I love knowing that its repeated use could potentially influence people to view women first and foremost as individuals, as opposed to merely someone else’s spouse. 

I don’t mean to attack Gabe Doyle and Motivated Grammar; I’m really glad this blog exists to foil the misguided prescriptivist efforts. But I feel like everyone does this nowadays—that is, write off blatant social justice issues as if they were pesky nuisances that get in the way of what we’re really trying to say. Because the truth is that, yes, women (as well as many other groups) continue to be unnecessarily disadvantaged every day. And yes, Swaim’s particular brand of rule-following does reflect and create class prejudice. We’re not being ornery, no-fun feminists; we’re addressing very real issues that exist in a very real society. By downplaying the connection between social justice and language, linguists do a grave disservice to their field as well as the hard work of activists everywhere. Descriptivists shouldn’t just be fighting against inaccurate and arbitrary grammar policing; we should address how language perpetuates the social structure around us. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do it.

* Read more about descriptivism vs. prescriptivism in my post on John Baldessari.

**I’ve also written about social justice and language in my West Wing and world maps post.

cartography, social equality, and conceptual metaphor, or, why I love the West Wing

I’ll more readily admit Degrassi: The Next Generation as a guilty pleasure than the West Wing. Yes, folks, since Christmas I have been totally hooked on the West Wing, over a decade too late.

One of my favorite tropes in the series is Big Block of Cheese Day. In the different two episodes, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry recites some worn out speech about how Andrew Jackson had a two-ton block of cheese sitting in the White House lobby as a symbol for listening to the little guys. His speech serves as a pep talk to the president’s staffers, whom he has assigned to meet with various obscure and supposedly insignificant lobbyists. The big shot staffers whine about what a waste of time these meetings are (and what goobers these fanatics are), but in the end are always swayed by the stories and issues brought to them.

In season two, my girl CJ Cregg is paired with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. What in Pete’s sake do maps have to do with social equality, you wonder? CJ was similarly incredulous:

The frumpy OCSE representatives lobby President Bartlet to “aggressively support legislation that would make it mandatory for every public school in America to teach geography using the Peters projection map instead of the traditional Mercator.” The Mercator projection drastically skews how we see the world in a way that favors Western countries. Greenland appears to be roughly the same size as Africa, when in actuality Africa is fourteen times larger. In effect, it “has fostered European imperialist attitudes” and “created an ethnic bias against the third world.” The Peters map ostensibly rectifies the situation (albeit with awkward, stretched out-looking land formations—maybe because we are so used to looking at that fraudulent and deceptive Mercator!) with its equal-area cylindrical projection.*

Peters projection map


In my humble opinion, the Peters projection still doesn’t do the geography of the world justice.** You’ve seen a globe before, right? It doesn’t look anything the Peters maps, which strangely truncates Canada and elongates all of South America. 

It’s actually simple geometry that explains the skewing of our world maps. The trouble is trying to take a three-dimensional sphere and transform it into a flat square. Go on, try it. Difficult, right?

Self-proclaimed comprehensivist*** Buckminster Fuller responded to this dilemma by designing the Dymaxion Map (Dymaxion=dynamic+maximum+ion. I love neologisms that can be expressed as equations.) Bucky decided that, to create a map more true to the surface of the Earth. He felt that an icosahedron, a shape with twenty triangular faces, was the perfect form to represent the world. The image below shows the flattened version of the Bucky Ball. I rather like this map because its truer to the actual dimensions of the world. I also love how the center (if you can call it that) is the north pole, and everything else spirals around it.


Another (more conventional) way that cartographers have tried to address the issue of making-a-sphere-into-a-rectangular issue is through interrupted projections, weird misshapen blobs that manage to keep the continents together. This might look familiar:


But back to the West Wing. What really blows CJ’s mind is the upside down map, where the southern hemisphere is at the top. We take for granted that north equals up.

Let’s weave in a bit of linguistic theory into this post, shall we? In Metaphors We Live By (a brilliant read, by the way), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss conceptual metaphors, or how we understand one idea in terms of another. For example, we traditionally think of UP and DOWN in terms of GOOD and BAD.

If you don’t believe me yet, here’s another metaphor: Heaven is above us in the sky and hell is below us. The idea that anything that is up is good is arbitrary and specific to our culture. However, it seems so natural to us—perhaps because it is embedded in the language that we speak on a daily basis—that we hardly ever question why something that is up must be positive.

The  metaphor NORTH = UP (and therefore, by transitive property, NORTH = GOOD) has some interesting implications on how we think about the world. Now, north isn’t actually up. The four cardinal directions are geocentric; that is, they their frame of reference is anchored to the planet, with north pointing to the mythical Geographic North Pole where Santa’s elves slave away and the one of the spots where the world rotates on its axis. I guess up-and-down are also framed geocentrically, but these occupy an entirely different dimension than the points of the compass, now bound by the force of gravity. North-south and up-down really have nothing to do with each other, but maps that place north above south convince us that they do. That’s why it recently took awhile to locate the box of Kraft when my friends were interrogating my inebriated self where I kept the mac and cheese and I insisted “in the cabinet that is north.” Drunk Desi consolidated the metaphor and substituted “the upper shelf” with “north.”

The southern hemisphere, the US South, southern Europe—these are regions that have been repeatedly downgraded compared to their northern counterparts. I’m not claiming causation here. At the risk of angering the OCSE representatives, I do not think that our maps create ethnic prejudices , but maps definitely reinforce them.

I like the Big Block of Cheese Day episodes because, by talking to the common folk, the high-stress, no-sleep staffers remember that there is a world outside of their intense political in-fighting. The West Wing characters spend a good portion of an episode making fun of these people, only to have their minds changed (“According to CJ, I wouldn’t be so sure about longitude and latitude”). Okay, switching over to the Peters projection may not be a concern that merits presidential support, but recognizing that maps perpetuate cultural prejudice is incredibly important. That’s why I like Sociological Images, a blog that analyzes visual content to critique the biases existing in our society (written in accessible and enjoyable language, no less). Sure, I’ve read countless posts from these folks about how advertisements/toys/books/comic strips/television oversexualizes women or tries to whitewash race, and often they are driving the same point home over and over. But the real point is that addressing these issues doesn’t happen overnight. If people recognize that we can’t take things like maps at face value because they are man-made and reflect cultural bias, then we’re getting a little bit closer to social equality, one harried White House staffer at a time.

*You can read the complicated formulae here. Wikipedia also just informed me that there is a little bit o’ scandal in the Peters projection tale.

**Another way in which this particular episode of the West Wing didn’t factcheck—its DUpont, not DuPONT. Sheesh Hollywood, any Washingtonian knows that.

***Bucky was an engineer, author, designer, architect, philosopher, artist, inventor, and futurist. I think he and my dad tie for the Man with the Most Hobbies and Leisurely Pastimes award.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Becca and Ari for confirming some important WW facts for me. Ari, I hope you’re reading this!

photo essays: an overview.

The photo essay is a genre that I’ve really come to appreciate. Devoid of words, the photo essay relies on pictorial means to tell a narrative. The versatile medium yields sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and often satisfying commentary on whatever subject is being addressed. It is certainly not a new form of expression—Great Depression era photographer Walker Evans was known for his photo essays—but I like to think (in my completely inexpert opinion) that the photo essay is reaching its prime now, in the Age of the Interwebs. New blogging platforms make it easy to produce and share these guys. 

Incidentally, I have a few Internet-based photo essays to share with you: 

  1. Last year, New York art blog Art Fag City ran a delightful series of artist-curated photo essays call IMG MGMT. The Cube Show presents the reinvention of a simple polyhedron in the works of various artists since the 1960s. Guest artist Deborah Kass’ image selection demonstrates how a cube can be used, constructed, and thought about in very different ways, from Tony Smith’s imposing six-foot steel Die to Janine Antoni’s chewed-away Gnaw.
  2. Another top IMG MGMT pick is Squiggles, Trees, Ribbons and Spirals: My Collection of Women’s Health, Beauty and Support Group Logos as the Stages of Life in Semi-Particular Order. First of all, I love comprehensively-descriptive-and-unnecessarily-long titles.* Furthermore, this essay is more than a compilation of similarly composed imagery. By placing the various women-related logos side by side, Shana Moulton recognizes a tradition of representing woman as fluid and organic objects, and that this tradition is rather ludicrous. 
  3. I present to you another satirical, feminism-fueled photo essay: Women Laughing Alone With Salad. Because eating salad is the way to every woman’s heart, right?

As much as I enjoy photo essays, AFC’s recent Things That Look Like Art left me feeling a bit uneasy. As part called the series BLNK,**photographer Juozas Cernius took pictures of everyday objects in Sudan and Egypt that reminded him of Western contemporary works. I first liked the essay because it is playful, if at times naive . As I continued scrolling through the images, the naivete became downright cringe-worthy (“The Sudanese—They’re Just Like Us!”).
Screen shot 2011-01-16 at 12.41.46 PMYes, it is fun to draw comparisons between the real world and contemporary art (which is often accused of veering so far off from the real world). Yet it strikes me as strange to take pictures of a war-ravaged country and then impose onto them our notion of contemporary art—art made mostly by middle class white men. I know AFC meant this as a harmless and amusing post, but the images suggest “it’s junk to you, because y’all lack the art historical background and ability for critical thinking that allow us Westerners to understand why this art is good.” It is an uneven comparison: “You have rope littering your streets, and we use rope to subvert notions of traditional art materials and therefore question the very nature of aesthetics.” The reasons explaining why a stack of worn tires sit in the middle of a Sudanese street and why Jean Michel Basquiat incorporated tires into his work are very different. Aside from making light of not-so-nice living conditions in Northeastern Africa, this essay fails to reveal any current artistic developments of the region and instead focuses on “masterpieces” of Western contemporary art. The truth is, it is nice to find all these kumbaya global connections, but not when these supposed commonalities blind us to understanding the local culture.

*As evidenced by the titles in this very blog. But on a more philosophical note: If we consider some of the ideas set forth in my recent post on John Baldessari, we can conclude that a title is an inherent and inseparable part of its corresponding photo essay. Again, we recognize that visual expression relies on language, at least just a little bit. In this case, the title provides a frame for how we should study the set of images together, rather than considering them individually. And now I would like to apologize for the excessive use of the first-person plural in this footnote.

**What a strange coincidence. It appears that all AFC bloggers’ vowel keys malfunction the moment they need to type in the title of a series.

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.