Origin of the species?

Catching up on a backlog of unread items in my RSS reader, I came across a nice one from the Feminist Law Professor blog about “Smile on a Stick”: a “useful solution” for women who are repeatedly being told to smile by the men in their lives. The blog entry in question included the leftmost portion of the image above along with a link to the online vendor where you could buy your very own portable smile. When I saw the original post, I’ll admit that one of the first things I wondered was whether this particular novelty item came in other skintones, and I was happily surprised to see that there was at least a small range of other options available . . .

. . . until I saw the labels for them, that is. Just when did “original” become another way to say “white”? And shouldn’t people of color get to hide their expressions behind a cardboard frown too?

Moving, marriage, mixedness

Margaret and I closed on the new house yesterday. And, of course, this has required a range of formal encounters with a host of different bureaucracies. Utility companies. Insurance companies. Title companies. And then some. In the process, we’ve been amazed and amused at the number of different ways our identities — especially Margaret’s — have been magically transformed by the default assumptions of different institutions. To wit:

  • Our insurance company knows that we’re not married. At least not to each other. In spite of the fact that the friendly agent we dealt with asked about our marital status so that he could process the policy accurately, the final paperwork showed up . . . and Margaret was listed as “Mrs.” More curious, though, is that her last name remained the same, so she’s evidently now married — by an astonishing coincidence — to some other member of the Werry clan.
  • Margaret handled most of the calls for fresh utility accounts on the new place, since all but one of the utility accounts on the old place are in her name — and her name only. When she called the gas company and gave them the new address, though, she found that she’d already been “disappeared”: when the previous owners of the new house made arrangements to close their account, the gas company automatically put the new owner’s name into their system. And, though both Margaret and I would have shown up on any formal records of the then-still-pending transaction, the gas account for the new house was already set up solely in my name. Perhaps the gas company figured I was so enraged by Margaret marrying someone else that they assumed I’d already kicked her out.
  • As we were signing up for thirty years of debt yesterday (and so I am no longer unencumbered), we hit the part of the paperwork where the government asks for racial/ethnic identifiers so that it can (ostensibly) make sure that fair housing laws aren’t being violated. And though no one at any point prior to this had asked either of us to self-identify along these lines, we were both listed as “White.” And only “White.” As I added the other relevant X’s to this form, I said something about how this new (to them) information had better not do anything to mess up the deal.* To her credit, the closing agent sounded genuinely horrified and disturbed at the very thought that such a thing could happen to anyone.

Meanwhile, the house remains lovely. But evidently, I’m now a single white male. And Margaret has been lucky enough to find a new husband who already had her last name. I do hope she’s happy. Maybe the gas company can tell me where she and Mr. Werry are now living.

*In Seeing a Color-Blind Future, Patricia J. Williams writes about a real estate transaction coming to a screaming halt the moment she corrected the same mistake on her paperwork.

You can’t spell “brains” without “bra”

Smart BreastsIt’s about time that advertisers started taking women seriously as intellectuals, rather than as pretty faces and hot bodi–

–waitasec. Nevermind. This is, after all, an ad for silicone breast implants.

Even better, though, is the that the site linked above gives you the chance to click through for a larger version of the same image . . . that turns out to be the same size as the original image. Which doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in what the product will do to enhance one’s . . . intelligence.

[Tip o' the linking hat to Stay Free!.]

We are all search engines

The tagline above is at the heart of the University of Minnesota’s latest “Driven to Discover” public relations campaign. It’s by no means the worst such campaign I’ve seen,* but it does seem to cut against the grain of the U’s public aspirations to become “one of the top three public research universities in the world.” Setting aside the problems with that campaign,** there’s a pretty big gap between saying “we want to be the best university in the world” and “we want to be just like Google.” There are certainly many different benchmarks that one might want to use for measuring and comparing universities, but I doubt that the ability to transform significant research findings into pithy soundbites is likely to improve Minnesota’s ranking very much. To a certain extent, I can understand the desire to add the proverbial human face to what many people see as a large and impersonal institution. But there are probably better ways to pull off the “human face” trick well than to try and make the U into a search engine with a face . . .

ms_dewey.jpg. . . especially given what a search engine with a face turns out to be: i.e., Ms. Dewey. As an example of an online game with a semi-slick interface, Ms. Dewey is very distracting and very disturbing, all at the same time. Someone spent an awful lot of time and energy scripting the dozens (hundreds?) of responses that the site’s namesake — a 21st century version of an old B-movie trope (the professional librarian who’s really an uninhibited sex kitten) — offers to various searches, and so there’s a certain ELIZA-like quality to the site: i.e., it’s easy (at least for me) to spend more time playing around with quirky, random, and/or perverse “conversational” gambits — just to see what sort of response you’ll get — than to play things straight and take the program at face value.

To be sure, part of what makes the site work is that some of those pre-canned responses are pretty damned funny. The site’s gender politics, however, remain a bit tricky: “Ms. Dewey” (who’s portrayed with style and sass by Janina Gavankar) offers up the occasional dose of (post)feminist self-reflexivity about how brainy women with multiple degrees get paid more to be eye candy than to strut their intellectual stuff . . . but most of the site still leans heavily on Gavankar’s ability to purr and coo suggestively for an audience of straight guys. And I’m still trying to sort out just how I feel about the site’s racial politics: Ms. Dewey’s style has more than a little racial/ethnic ambiguity to it, which is both cool (insofar as people of color aren’t often depicted as encyclopedic repositories of infinite knowledge) and not so cool (insofar as women of color are routinely depicted as fetish objects).

In the end, though, the site is still nothing more than Microsoft’s “Live” search wrapped in a fancy Flash interface*** . . . and all that flash and style ultimately makes Ms. Dewey into a pretty lousy search engine. If you’re serious about going online to try and learn about something, you’re probably not going to be happy with a search process that requires you to sit through 10-20 seconds of Ms. Dewey’s schtick (however amusing that might be at times) before you’re actually given a long list of sites in a box that’s (a) way too short, (b) difficult to scroll through, and (c) impossible (because of that Flash interface) to grab URLs from without copying them by hand.

Similarly, if you’re serious about promoting a university — any university — as a source of first-rate knowledge and cutting-edge research, you probably don’t want your sales pitch to imply (even obliquely) that your school is long on flash and short on substance.

*That “honor” goes to my previous employer, which once ran newspaper ads where the headline was “Don’t Think..” The “punchline” came in the smaller type below that bizarrely mis-punctuated thought (the double period was a “feature” of the original ad), where the ad suggested that readers should actually enroll at USF (and not just think about doing so) in order to complete their education. The double whammy of a university encouraging its prospective students not to think with an ad that hadn’t even been copy-edited properly is hard to top.

**There’s nothing wrong with setting lofty goals or with working to improve the University’s overall quality. But it also helps to set goals that can reasonably be measured and achieved. Maybe I’ve simply missed something in the multiple waves of task force reports and formal proclamations connected to this goal, but I’m at a loss to how one creates a meaningful set of global benchmarks here. If nothing else, there’s too much cross-cultural variation in how universities are structured and organized for straightforward comparisons to be possible at a global level.

***And, unless there’s some secret trick I’ve yet to unlock about working in Linux — which is more than possible — Ms. Dewey is coded in a version of Flash that I can’t actually access without revisiting the Windows portion of my laptop. So I can’t spend as much time “testing” Ms. Dewey’s response algorithms as I once did.

Book meme

Chaining off of a recent blog post from Jonathan Sterne:

  1. pick up a book which is the closest to you at the moment
  2. open page 123
  3. find the third sentence
  4. post it in your blog (plus the instructions)
  5. don’t choose the book, just pick up the one closest to you

As a not entirely sympathetic article in the Boston Globe (October 1, 2000) observed, there were two pieces of medical evidence against him, and both have been scientifically discredited: That particular gonorrhea test is now known to give many false positives, and the “notches” on one girl’s hymen, presented as evidence of penetration, are now known to be normal features in some 60 percent of nonabused girls.

[Katha Pollitt, Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time. New York: Random House, 2006.]

Biology is destiny?

This just in from the BBC: according to a Canadian study, homosexuality in males may be caused by their mother’s wombs. And while I’m highly skeptical — biological determinism generally doesn’t sit well with me — I’d love to see how the religious right tries to spin a story that suggests (implicitly, anyway) that the best way to “cure” gay men is to abort them in the first place.

I’m especially fond of the caption proclaiming that “Scientists have not found the biological mechanism for this effect” . . . beneath a sonogram image. Scientists who are still searching for the biological mechanism that results in pregnancy, after all, are probably less than credible sources about the causes of sexual orientation.