Compare and Contrast

January 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Male or female?

Look at the two faces for more than a second and you’ll realize that they are the same.

This bit of androgyny won third place in the Best Visual Illusion of 2009 contest.*

The illusion is that although it’s the same face, the one on the left looks more female, the one on the right more male. The reason is something familiar to all of us who read the make-up tips in Allure, Glamour, etc. We use blush to contour and highlight, to add shape and definition (i.e., the illusion of shape and definition). We use eyeliners in rich colors. And our lipstick, whatever color might suit us best, accents the difference between our mouth and the surrounding area. In a word, we add contrast.

Contrast is the crucial factor in this illusion: more contrast = female; less contrast = male. (Try downloading this .gif into your photo editor and then fool around with the contrast control.)

*Prizes were awarded last May. I discovered it only recently thanks to Brad DeLong’s blog. The original research is by Richard Russell of Harvard: “Russell, R. (2009) A sex difference in facial pigmentation and its exaggeration by cosmetics” Perception, (38)1211-1219.

Cabs, Culture, Class

January 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where to, Guv’nor?” It was my first cab trip in London, and the man asking the question was at least twice my age.

I mentioned this to my friend after I’d gotten to her flat. “The cabby called me guv’nor,” I told her, somewhat bemused.

“Well, you are a governor, aren’t you?” she said.

I wasn’t a governor, I was a kid in my twenties. I wasn’t someone in authority giving orders. Nor did I think of the relation of cabby to fare as one of governed to governor or servant to master.

I remembered this incident Sunday as I was reading Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review.
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered.
Dyer, a Brit, attributes this to two aspects of American culture – politeness and informality – and he contrasts it with the “rudeness in British life.”

But “sir” and “thanks” also stem from our ideology of equality. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the idea of social hierarchy. Those who call attention to class differences are accused of inciting “class warfare,” in other words, of being un-American. And since, according to this same ideology, we have unlimited social mobility, a person’s social position is not at all fixed or permanent. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, those immutable and inherited designations. In a European aristocratic system, if you are born an earl, you remain an earl no matter how incompetent and immoral you may be. Not in America.

Our belief in equality makes for some contradictions. We treat bus drivers and cabbies not as servants but as equals doing a job. But at the same time, we recognize that it is not a “good” job. Who would want to be a servant? Yes, people do service work – cleaning our houses, pouring our drinks, driving our buses and cabs – but we expect that they are striving for a better occupation. People are equal, occupations are not.

In the British tradition, “service” was* an honorable occupation (at least in the picture we get from “Upstairs Downstairs” or “The Remains of the Day”). The British did not treat servants as equals; servants were clearly not the equals of their employers (masters), and it would have been silly to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British ideal was not equality but fairness. Rather than apply the same norms to everyone– if the bartender calls me “sir,” I should call him “sir” – the British recognized a hierarchy, each level with its own expectations and obligations. Since individuals were not all judged by a single standard, occupations did not carry the same moral connotations.

“Where to Guv’nor?” depends on the rules of civility making for fairness between people who are unequals because of their unequal positions. In the American cab, there are no gov’nors. Just as in all those old movies, it’s “Where to, Mac?”**

*I use the past tense here because I have no idea how these ideas have weathered the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, and for all I know, I am referring to an England that has faded into history and is preserved only on film and videotape.

**Caroll Spinney, who does the voice of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, “says he modeled Oscar on the Bronx taxi driver who drove him to the old Muppet Mansion the first day he played the character, greeting him with a gruff, ‘Where to, Mac?’” (Washington Times)

A Low Dishonest Decade

January 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whatever you call this decade we’ve just been through – the aughts, the noughties, etc. – you have to think that it was not a great one. How bad was it? The Washington Post ran this simple graph showing job growth in each of seven decades, beginning with the 1940s. It also notes the change in GDP and household net worth.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Thinking back on these years called to mind (my mind at least) the opening lines the Auden poem “September 1, 1939”:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
As the title implies, Auden was writing on the occasion of Germany’s invasion of Poland,* but these opening lines seem apt for the Bush decade as well – and not just the economy.

Even with economics, many people will continue to believe that right-wing policies – tax cuts and deregulation – are good for the economy, regardless of evidence like that in the graph. Note that even the Reagan decade, the 1980s, finishes behind all but the Bush decade in job growth and GDP gains.

* The poem is probably Auden’s most famous work, and it was much quoted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (see the NY Times store here). But Auden himself had second thoughts about the poem soon after he wrote it. He tried to revise it, but gave up. “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.” He omitted it from his collected works and often refused to grant permission to reprint it.

Not-so-secret Admirers

January 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today loves polls. The bottom of page one often has a box showing the mood of the nation as a simple graph. These used to be accompanied by a “We” headline (“We’re Eating More Fish!”).

The newspaper closed out the year with a front-page report of their poll on the men and women we most admire. The idea of the poll is silly enough. Here are the results for most-admired men.

And the women.

Whatever the wording of the question actually is, what it’s really asking is: “Try to think of someone who’s famous but isn’t a rock star or TV/movie actor.”

But USA adds another layer of silliness with this interpretation of the results
The close finish by Clinton, named by 16% in the open-ended survey, and Palin, named by 15%, reflects the nation's partisan divide.
It does? Then why doesn’t the list of admired men also reflect the same close divide? Yes, the sitting president always gets top spot, but the margin varies. The results from 2006 were
  • George W. Bush 10%
  • Bill Clinton 8%
  • Al Gore 6%
  • Barack Obama 5%
The combined Democrat percent nearly doubled that of the one Republican. For this year’s results, even if you toss Billy Graham and the Pope in with Bush and Beck in the conservative box, Obama still outpolls them three to one.

Similarly, in this year’s women’s poll, the combined liberal percentage (Hillary, Oprah, Michelle Obama) beats the conservatives (Palin, Rice) 31% - 17%.

But the real mistake is to think that when you ask people to name someone they admire you are getting a political profile of the nation.