Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

“…our way of life…”

First: Barack Obama is good for the U.S.A. and very likely for the rest of the world.

Second: I am convinced that even if the climate and context into which Obama stepped as president would not have been as difficult, there still would have been incredible expectations on his time in office due largely to the fact that he is the first African American president. The scrutiny that he will face is certainly daunting to contemplate.

In our Anthro of Race and Ethnicity class we have been looking at the fluidity and ambiguity of racial boundaries. We have seen that what began in colonial times as essentialized biological distinctions soon evolved to include categories of race that really did not apply to color of skin or other biological referents. Instead distinctions were made on basis of economic standing, occupation, dress, cleanliness and proper education and upbringing. This was as a result of the fact that the colonial enterprise produced a new racial category through miscegenation – primarily M├ętis/Mestizo. We have studied how this category has produced fluidity in the definition of racial categories due to how this 'mixed race' attempted to attain either indigenous or 'white' status within society. So the racial boundaries are no longer distinct or essentialized but are open to various cultural factors and these factors can be negotiated to enhance one's standing in the social order.

Mr. Obama is a prime example of this as a person of mixed origin. Much has been made of what his ascendancy to the White House (hmmm interesting term) means for the racial struggle that has marked U.S. history. The inauguration has largely been lauded as positive step against the injustices of racism. (see New York Times; the Examiner ) Most commentaries and editorials have also been quick to point out that racism is far from vanquished. For the most part I agree…

Allow me to center on Obama's inaugural address. Whether you liked it or not there did seem to be some substantive shifts marked by the rhetoric he used. Suggesting the need to curb reliance on foreign oil, working towards peace and stability across the globe – even with former foes, addressing climate change, and addressing the economic woes of his country all seemed to mark a shift toward some promising change.

One thing that seemed a little odd was this line in his speech,

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents…"

This comment is stuck in the middle of a focus on terrorism in his speech. Why will America not apologize for its way of life? When Obama refers to "our way of life" he no doubt means those qualities like peaceful and generous and benevolent. When terrorists think of the American "way of life" they no doubt see the greed and arrogance of a consumeristic nation that has exploited foreign people. What Obama is presumably unwaveringly going to defend are qualities that America has yet to demonstrate to it neighbours. Could some apology be warranted? I think so. Could it be that in the days when we celebrate a significant victory over racism we might actually be blind to the far more illusive and insidious ways that our extravagant wealth might be an expression of a type of nationalistic racism? Was it not after all the protection of the European 'way of life' that informed so many of the pegorative attitudes toward indigenous peoples.? This particular aspect of Obama's address does not seem to have gotten much attention (except that John Stewart was able to make comparisons to Bush's speeches that seemed all too familiar). Taken on the whole the speech is able to convey that the new American spirit will be one for which Americans can be proud and will not need to apologize. So we wait and see how the new guy will do. No pressure.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bald tires and bad memories

Problem: What happens when your recollection of the past lies in sharp contrast with that of another individual regarding the same experience? Whose recollection of the events of that experience is more reliable in the absence of either empirical data or third party verification? How do we factor in past experiences or the bias of personal pride? What factors (both physiological and psychological) determine how perception of experience imprints on memory?

Example: A gouge on the inside of the passenger side front tire of the ASTRO has been discovered revealing its metal guts. OK! So how did it get there? This is the question that I posed to my wife: "Do you remember hitting anything with the van recently?" "Nope!" she says, "but you hit the curb all the time turning into the cul-de-sac." (I had not yet revealed to her that there was a gouge on the tire.) "Really!" I said in disbelief, "how many times have I done so in the last while?" "3 or 4," she informed me.

So here are all the factors that I am considering. A.) I have no recollection of hitting the curb even once in the last 6 months. B.) Char is not given to lying (in fact it may well be beyond her cognitive ability to do so) C.) I am well aware of my lousy reputation as a poor driver in spite of my shining driving record in the last 20 years. D.) I have not driven van regularly – in fact Char has (this can be verified by the countless people who have commented on our van being parked at the local liquor store which is across from her work). E.) I am sharply aware of my own pride in protecting against another accusation of my poor driving record. F.) There may in fact be almost no way of verifying Char's report or mine by some external method.

Anybody heard of good deal on tires recently?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Harried Remarks

Here's an intriguing commentary by Evan Wright on the release of video incriminating Prince Harry of the British Royal Family of racist remarks. (begin listening at 24:35 on the audio feed listed at the bottom of the page as "Listen to Part Three:") Wright's basic contention is that perhaps the Prince's comments should not be considered as the offensive racial slurs that they appear to be from the video.

Wright suggests that a closer perusal of the entire video reveals that the video was intended to be a mockery of a number of things including the pointless order given by his (Harry's) commanders, the queen – his grandmother, and even himself. Wright contends that the military 'culture' affords soldiers the ability to use otherwise derogatory terms even as terms of endearment or as ways of accommodating bravado and camaraderie. What is interesting is how Prince Harry's rank has both subjected him to a more intense scrutiny over a subject that seems to be common practice in the military (if Wright and others are to be believed). Obviously the juiciness of this story is quite irresistible for the media in general. The other interesting aspect of this story is how racism is being countered as normative (and largely acceptable) in a military context instead of seeing this behaviour as problematic especially if it is widespread in the military. One argument/story is definitely being privileged over another…


See Trevor was right not only are we snobs but we see dead people. Why I just saw God in the humour of my youngest boy last night – I better start cutting back…

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pictures are flat

Pictures are these tricky things that are actually a flat object and yet we can make normal judgments about the position of objects in the picture as though it were a 3 dimensional objects. What is fascinating to me is that a television screen image can be used – in the case of video-scopic surgery – to make correct judgements about where certain objects are in the three dimensional world that the tools are actually operating in.

Size constancy and depth perception

As the article Visual Illusions by Richard Gregory points out the problems of size constancy obviously provide a huge challenge when the observer is in motion. If the an object like this Charlie Chaplin mask can create this type of illusion while the observer is standing still how much more will these types of illusions (and really they are visual mistakes) occur when the movement can only shorten the ability of the individual to give adequate attention to the object to make a proper judgement about depth. As the article points out this could have disastrous affects on air travel (landing), driving cars (negotiating parking space), or what about fighter pilots – yikes. But what I wonder is if there are physiological characteristics (either in the eye or the visual cortex) that can compensate for these illusions/mistakes?

PS: There must be dysfunctions of the brain or eye that impair normal depth perception and if so why do we not develop standardized tests that could prevent people with depth impariment from - oh lets say operating a motor vehicle...

Friday, January 9, 2009


oh my!

Burris appointment to the senate

(Daily Show with John Stewart Clip missing: the clip higlighted the seeming audacity of the claim by Bobby Rush that controversy over Roland Burris' appointment to the senate was equal in racist implications as earlier segregation events) Here is a replacement clip that shows some of Rush's comments but does not give Stewart's perspective.

This story provides some curious relief to the current race issues of the U.S. political realm. Burris appointed by the now impeached Governor Rob Blogojevich was not allowed to be seated with the other Senators. Appointing an African-American to the Senate in the face of his questionable conduct seems a crafty play on Blogojevich’s part since, as John Stewart (The Daily Show) identifies in his piece, the governor’s choice undoubtedly will be rejected. Yet as is also pointed out some members of the black community are claiming that Burris’ rejection is a racially motivated decision on the part of the sitting Senators (going so far as to claim that the incident could be compared to the infamous “dogs-being-sicked-on-children-in-Burmingham-Alabama”). Several things stand out here:
1. The way the ‘race card’ has become enigmatic phenomenon of the political discourse in the last few years. Obama seemed to steer clear of explicit references to race yet was able to invoke the dynamics of racism throughout his campaign. His ‘high road’ approach seemed to deflect a certain intangible criticism of his campaign and garnered deep respect. On the other hand explicit references to race like the one Bobby Rush used seem cheap and overly utilitarian in political scheming.
2. John Stewart’s responding question, “Are you a crazy person?” brings its own tension to the fore. Stewart is able to pronounce a sharp criticism of Rush’s comment and do so at the risk of seeming racist. While Stewart’s program and this piece is hardly ‘serious’ news. He does seem to provide an important commentary about how race is leveraged in political games.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Shepard Tone

In class today we learned about this tone that seems to perpetually decend. I wonder about how our ears (actually our brains) can deceive us. For instance I wonder how this example might implicate other tones and sounds that get represented in similar ways. For instance is there some illusory aspect to how words of songs are misheard or even the words of a conversation can be confused.

An Excuse to Blog

And a chance for you to follow along with some of what I am learning. In particular, I am asked to develop journals for two of my courses this semester.

In Psychology I have to keep an Idea Journal where I will record my thoughts and questions about perception and cognition. In Anthropology I have to develop a Media Portfolio where I collect articles and news that relates to race and ethnicity. The idea is to track media representations of race and ethnicity in the news. I have decided to keep both of these journals online on my blog.

If you are interested in tracking a specific journal you can follow these links:

For the Psychology Ideas Journal click here
For the Anthropology Media Portfolio click here

Also check out the links on the Sidebar

Monday, January 5, 2009

Building a Memory…

Memories are fashioned. Their built in much the same way we build with Lego or bake a cake. Once built a memory is rarely ever static – it changes as we retell it or bring it back to consciousness. So a memory is constantly being rebuilt. This is not a problem really except with how we normally conceive of memories. We rely on memories to hold together our identities – to keep all the important facts straight about who we are (or more precisely were). We also depend on memories to help us make sense of what happens in the present – it gives a context to fit our experiences. Most of all trust our memories to tell the truth – since most of us are reluctant to admit that we would consciously lie to ourselves we faithfully use our memories as evidence about what is real and what most certainly is not.

Memories are slippery. Surely you've witnessed the story told by a friend more than once. Each telling is a little different than the first telling. Char often 'gets' to hear me tell the same story over and over again. Although it is hardly a conscious thing – each telling of the story is adapted slightly. The recollection is altered to accommodate speed of telling, eliminate uninteresting details, include details pertinent to the context of each telling of the story, and so on. It's hardly the same story every time. But surely just because something is retold especially in ever so slight variations, does not mean that what actually happened changes. Certain not. But what actually happened – in all its specific glory – is rarely very relevant. We are only actually interested in those parts of the memory that are useful in some way. Recalling who pulled the trigger in a murder scene is useful in determining where guilt should lie. But there are actually thousands of details about that same scene that we care nothing about and could not even recount. So our attention is drawn then to those details that seem to be most useful. But if its true that memories are slippery then how are we to know that even those details that we or others find most relevant are reliable. We don't know. Consider magicians for a moment. Their craft is built on helping us to focus on details that prevent us from seeing how the 'trick' is being preformed. This is not because we are lazy but because our brain is designed in such a way are to focus on those things which it can reason as most important. We simply cannot process the multitude of extraneous information available to our sense at any given moment. But this is hardly the most slippery part of memory. If memory was not slippery cross-examination would be pointless at a trial. Our memories can change in the telling so that in the telling we are not merely recounting some fact as if it were an absolute number but we are actually believing what we are remembering. What we believe in then is not what actually happened since it is no longer available to us completely an since we have actually changed it – even if ever so slightly.

We are not typically bothered by this slippery nature of memory. We can tolerate minor changes in the story as long as the main points remain the same. We also are hardly ever interested in listening to or telling the whole complete story. And of course we hold certain rememberances in higher esteem than others. If it is written down it is usually more trusted as the authentic expression of what took place. A statement to police or a biography are relied on as more important sources. But written documents have a crucial flaw. They not only write into permanence those things that are consider to have happened but also just as concretely write out those things which are deemed not to have happened (whether due to insignificance or otherwise). Some of the most controversial sections of the Bible are precisely those that do not say or can (no longer) say important information about where when and how certain events happened (Take the great flood for instance). The permanence of the record becomes highly problematic when building a definitive natural history for example. So a text's strength immediately becomes its weakness.

What it all boils down to is this: memories are not nearly as useful in determining the actual content of the past as they are in telling us about the people who hold the memories and tell them. And this is very useful information indeed. Far more useful than what we commonly refer to as 'the facts'. Facts are hardly irrelevant. They are just not nearly as useful for constructing faith, belief and trust as they are commonly seen to be. Knowing what is left unsaid and unremembered is easily as useful for that. Convictions are better served by carefully extracting out from behind the 'facts' the ideas that have motivated the fashioning of these 'facts'. But this means that we approach memories with an intrinsically counter-intuitive perspective. I suggest that doubt – that fine art of intelligent (and not simply dismissive) questioning – ought to walk side by side with belief. The two should haunt each other always.

Friday, January 2, 2009


"The question nudges us toward realizing that remembering is more than something that we do... Remembrance re-produces our past even as it narrates it and therefore retroactively produces our present selves. We do not remember and make the convenient mistake of thinking we have forgotten. But the unremembered are always waiting to come home again, and there is a good reason to crave and fear their homecoming."
-from Remembrances of Love Past


What will we forget about the year that was? Which memories will be so well-worn that they fall into disrepair or so common that they cease to trigger the lush inhabited glow of the mind? Surely it is only the banal that we forget. The ten days in October that I actually brushed my teeth. The way I check the oil every time I fill the tank with gas. The time day I cut the grass when it really didn't need it. What I had for supper on September 14th. These must be the things that we forget. Unimportant and frivolous things. We forget the things that DON'T keep us up all night. After all to hold those things in our minds seems pointless and completely encumbering since we really want to make room for the important memories. Those are the one's we want to remember.

I want to remember the time the lady stopped to get a picture taken with the X Mennonite Youth Pastor. I want to remember the good marks I received at the end of the semester or the recommendation that I received after my orientation to Teaching course. I want to remember the way peaches taste ripened on the tree in Kelowna. I want to remember the pride at seeing my son get his learner's licence and watch my boy demonstrate some real work ethic. I want to remember times with friends and family – good conversations, funny stories, and good food. I want to remember the way people talk about my Char when does her job. I want to remember waiting out a thundershower at Milk River so that we could say another day at the camp site.

I have a little thing that I do from time to time. Every so often I will stop at a particularly poignant part of an experience and tell myself that I want to remember just how this moment feels. I give myself a goal of when I want to recall this particular event and feeling. I usually and mostly unintentionally picked moments without any extraordinary quality but one's that nonetheless are full of the essence of life. I will invariably, for instance, take the first warm spring day walking with my dog and ask myself to remember this moment when the first snow falls. And invariably I do not recall the moment – the prompt fails to trigger any recollection. There are these pieces of my life that I have worked to remember that get lost in the shuffle of life. Others will not quit poking their heads inconveniently over and over again so that even some of the more enjoyable memories become tiresome – and yet unforgettable.

And there are things I would like to forget. The way guilt rises every time I think about time no spent with my family. The way friendships of have changed with the life course I have chosen. The way anger gets the best of me when things seem out of control. The way my shape prevented me from participating in a special gift for my family. I want to forget the memories of a more distant past that still haunt me and make me wonder about my value and worth. I want to forget how I have failed. How I've wallowed in the gluttony common to these days. I want to forget my arrogance. But these things I can't seem to forget neatly enough to have them slip away.

These things that haunt me – these ghosts (friendly and otherwise) – they live with me. Nothing is as it once was it seems yet it all seems at once present and alive. Never mind if any of it is true anymore, the memories are nonetheless real and bear the real consequences that shape me whether I want them to or not. I should say I have precious little control over what I recall. But the few holds I have on this faculty will not be loosened easily. And I know that there would be much to tell about a life well lived in the things that I'll forget from now to then. Much to tell of pain and sorrow and regret and shame as well. In the end it could be that what we forget about the year that was might be kinder memory than they one will recall again.