October 2008

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

John McCain’s Robo-calls (automated home phone calls) don’t work. Barack Obama’s text messages do.

Why is this?

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo answers the question: robo-calls are cheap and easy, but have no effect (other than annoying a ton of people); text messages are cheap, easy and effective, because they’re both personal and impersonal at the same time.

How does the text message have this sort of contradictory impulse? Because it’s on a cell phone, which is close to you every day, and because for the average user, text messages are like rare jewels, or limited editions–something you look forward to getting. Or a friendly reminder. For the Obama campaign, cell phones are like micro-targeting: if they have a cell phone they know where the person lives and whether they’re a likely voter.

And they’re currently unspammed. If you have a txt from Barack either you signed up for it…or one of your friends forwarded it on to you.

courtesy of Jessica Shannon and flickr

courtesy of Jessica Shannon and flickr

If you look at images of money or play with fake money, or do puzzles involving words associated with money, you get the flip side of the priming effect from the hot coffee experiment.

Basically, people who were encouraged to think about money subconsciously become more independent, self-reliant, and less generous than people who were not primed. The ones with money on their minds  refused help from others, did not provide help when asked, and were more likely to keep the reward for participating in the study for themselves rather than give it to charity.

courtesy of Ahmed Rabea and Flickr

courtesy of Ahmed Rabea and Flickr

John Tierney of TierneyLab in the NY Times mentions a Science article on priming research by Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh.

We’ve seen this before: give test subjects either a cup of hot coffee or a cup of iced coffee to hold for ten seconds a few minutes before you ask them to rate a hypothetical person, and the ones who held the hot cup rate the people as friendlier.

It works with heating pads, too. Tell the subjects you’re having them try out heating pads and cooling pads, and then give them the choice of rewarding themselves or giving a gift to a friend. The ones who held the hot pad were more likely to give their friend a gift.

So with the stimulus of warmth, we see other people as friendlier and more open, and we become friendlier ourselves.

I’m a graduate student. I need books.

Also, I’m in the Netherlands. Lots of books in the libraries here are in Dutch. I can’t read intellectual Dutch; right about now I’m at “De witte eendje vliegt boven het brug.” Or “The little white duck flies over the bridge.” In America I would just camp out at the library.

So here are my shitty options:
1. order from America on Amazon or B&N; pay 30% less for the books in USD but get screwed on shipping charges and wait up to 3-4 weeks for delivery

2. order from Amazon.co.uk, pay 35% less for the books, but pay in GB pounds and a little more for shipping each individual object.

3. order from Bol.com and pay for shipping inside the Netherlands, but pay in Euros with a 10% discount (and actually I couldn’t sign up on their site at all)

4. buy from a bricks and mortar retail store immediately, in Euros, with no discount, and a possible markup over the MSRP

5. buy from a used bookstore, if they have the books I want in English

I don’t like any of these.

But then I found

6. http://betterworld.com/

An online reseller of textbooks (from the US) used and new, which are previous editions, used books and library discards. They donate percentages to encouraging worldwide literacy, recycle books, limit waste, and my god, they’re cheaper than Amazon. And the shipping fees to the Netherlands were 10-21 business days for $3.97. And they carbon-offset all their purchases automatically.

Use the code READRIGHT for a 10% discount on top of their sale prices.

Cheap, green, socially responsible.

You had me at cheap, Better Worlds, but if you weren’t so nice I wouldn’t feel so good about linking to you. Like I was somehow doing the world a favor by promoting you to my friends.

I bought Understanding Comics, The Medium is the Massage, and Influence: Science and Practice (thanks, Matt). Feel free to borrow them when I get them here.

Some people might have interpreted my previous post about the car changing the landscape of America and helping create the obesity epidemic as calling all Americans fat. And how does that square with my previous post on the Body Project (for teen girls) or Reflections (for college women)?

The truth is that Americans as a whole are getting fatter: our environment is built to make it easier to eat more bad food and exercise less (because we made it that way). And the reason it’s most horrible for women is because while everyone around us gets fatter, women’s body images have become stuck on a thin and tall ideal that 98% of women (healthy, normal women) cannot genetically achieve. So American women have to work ten times as hard (spinning, jogging, Pilates, plastic surgery) to deal with environmental pressures.

In times of hardship, fat is attractive; in times of plenty, thin is in. Beauty ideals are always exaggerated and impossible to achieve without a lot of pain. Corset. High heels. Bound feet. Lip piercing.

So when Unilever did marketing surveys before launching their Dove Real Beauty campaign, they discovered that 2% of American women were happy with their bodies. This seems about right: about 2% of women are fashion model-sized and shaped.

Every woman out there now thinks she’s fat, whether she is or not. And it’s now impossible for her to judge accurately what size she should be, due to conflicting responses from media and real life. Vanity sizing is when manufacturers increase the measurements of clothing while decreasing the size number on the tags. And every woman in mass media is young, beautiful, heavily made up and thin, possibly Photoshopped.

2% of Americans look like fashion models. And at the same time, 65% of Americans are overweight or obese; if the numbers continue rising at the same rate, by 2030, 86% of Americans will be overweight or obese.

If everyone around you is fat, your idea of what your body is and what normal is becomes fatter, and the heavier you think you are, the less likely you are to have anti-fat attitudes. But at the same time, the less likely you are to like your body, because of the deep disconnect between image and reality.

This disconnect between image and reality is killing us. The reason people are fat is because our environment encourages it, and our image of ideal body is so insane that we’ve given up on achieving it.

Food is pornographic, an image of manipulable desire, and we’ve gotten used to frozen foods and fast foods and restaurant meals. The average person can be a gourmand. We can buy a pint of premium ice cream for $5. We can’t buy being 5 foot 10 and 135 pounds with a C-cup. But we still, astonishingly, feel bad about it.

Leibovitz and Sontag wrote in 1999, in the preface to their book of photographs of Women:

To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough.”

Excerpt from longer essay here.

“The medium is the message.”
–Marshall McLuhan

Before last Friday, if you asked me about media theory I would have been able to explain on an intellectual level that the properties of a given medium influence the perception of the content inside.

But something clicked in my head when I was reading Arjen Mulder’s book for class, and I got it. There are: things you appreciate logically, and then things you get fundamentally, and finally things you can explain to other people. And you don’t really, really understand until you can get to the third level.

So Marshall McLuhan came up with this idea in 1964. Everything communicates. Everything we use today is a medium for changing our daily lives in a subtle, barely noticeable, but significant way.

I’ll give you an example:

Why are Americans fat?

Number of cars per thousand people worldwide

Number of cars per thousand people worldwide

The car.

The car changed the shape of America. Suburbs, exurbs, road trips, highways.

Europe was mostly built before the popular adoption of the car. Even now, cities in Europe are walkable and bikeable, and people fit cars in where they can.

You go to the grocery store, and the most you can carry in one trip is what you can put in your bag and take home. With a car, it’s easy to load up on food. It’s easy to make packages bigger, portion sizes bigger, to sell things by the case. I had a CostCo membership in Tucson, and I did use 3-lb bags of ravioli and 4-gallon jugs of olive oil. (CostCo is AWESOME.)

And then you don’t have to walk anywhere except from a parking lot to the store. You couldn’t walk anywhere if you wanted to, everything in your city is probably built on a car scale. Utrecht has about half the population of Tucson, but most of Utrecht fits within a four mile-by-two mile area; Tucson is roughly ten times as large and large stretches of road do not have sidewalks. No one walks.

But a car isn’t a medium of communication, is it?

It is. A car is an obvious symbol of who you are, how rich you are, whether you have kids, whether you like to speed, whether you care about the environment…or not, whether you work on it yourself or couldn’t be bothered. Whether you’re gay or lesbian. Car manufacturers know the personality profiles of the people who buy their cars and target their advertising accordingly. Subaru, for instance, targets the gay and lesbian market.

I have friends who can tell a ’69 Ford Mustang from a ’73 Ford Mustang.

It’s not just to get us from place to place. The car is the medium. It’s the message.

I just spent forty-five minutes writing this post.

Then I googled for “Gay Cars” looking for a link to support my statements above. The first sentence: a quote. By Marshall McLuhan.

“The car has become… an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete.” – Marshall McLuhan

Every so often I allow myself the conceit of thinking my own thoughts are original. They’re not, really. I just haven’t read enough to realize it.

From the BBC: an analysis of why people prefer the same things, driving up demand and creating a bubble. 

In short: we think stuff other people like is stuff worth having. It’s got nothing to do with objectivity. 

This includes fads and trends, like Tickle-me-Elmos and Uggs; stocks and investments, like houses (people price their houses according to what the last three guys in their neighborhood sold theirs for); and people, from popular kids to married men.

Here we see the dark side of the wisdom of crowds — crowdsourcing, political trading, Web 2.0, etc. have been these big buzzwords lately. The wisdom of crowds takes the idea that crowds are smarter than the average individual: when estimating the weight of a bull, the crowd’s guess (an average of each individual’s guess) is more accurate than most individuals, even experts.

But the truth is that while crowds can be wise and useful and accurate, they can also be really really dumb. Surowiecki, in his 2004 book, mentions unreliable crowd results and why they occur. Basically, they can set the standard for what is correct and exclude outliers, and they can overrule the good sense of individuals. It’s important to remember that everything is complex: the crowd is both comforting and helpful, yet dangerous and unreliable. 

And our crowd, these days, isn’t just one farmer’s market in Surrey. It’s the whole damn world.

Flora's Mallewagen, Hendrik G. Pot, oils c. 1630

Flora's Mallewagen, Hendrik G. Pot, oils c. 1630.

Flora’s Mallewagen depicts a historic get-rich-quick scheme: a group of 17th-century Dutch weavers have abandoned their trade to invest in tulips. Not just any tulips: rare tulips of certain lineages, black tulips, tulips infected by a rare disease that creates an intense multi-color pattern, as if the tips of the petals had been dipped in ink. The painter depicts a literal “ship of fools” sailing a cart with the Goddess of Flowers.

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