Style Finder FAIL

Posted on
Jan 28, 2016

I guess I should've known better than to click "Find my Style," but I'd been tempted in by the promise of virtually trying on sunglasses, and there were tens of thousands of styles to choose from. Most sunglasses look shitty on me, on account of my "rectangular" face shape, the owner of which is to supposed seek out either oval-shaped or squarish frames, depending on who you ask. Either way, I've got a small suitcase full of sunglasses as testimony to this enduring failure. There have been exceptions over the years, of course, which makes me think it's just a simple matter of determining once and for all which shapes are flattering and which make me look like a weird 1980s Power Ranger—and if I can do it all from the comfort of my living room without sacrificing anything more than an uploaded headshot facing forward, then the Style Finder seemed like a logical place to start!

But four questions in, I was faced with the three choices above and realized that if these were my style options, this website wasn't going to help me find shit.

I try not to do this to Mr. Pink very often, but in this particular case I thought maybe a second opinion would be helpful...

"Babe, if you had to characterize my style as Relaxed, Sophisticated or Trendy, which would you pick?"

Looking up from his laptop, "Is there a 'none of the above'?"

Yes... There's an "X" in the upper-right corner. This Style Finder is dead to me.

Tags: Fashion, Fail

The Mirror Test

Posted on
Jan 23, 2016

Rene Descartes (1596–1650) famously opined, "Animals are like robots: they cannot reason or feel pain."

350 years later, human consciousness has become to neuroscientists what the "cosmological constant" is to astrophysicists. It embarrasses the reductionists to have to acknowledge its existence at all—so much that some avoid doing even that. They regard what we call the "theory of self" or the "theory of mind" as an antiquated superstition. If they have to refer to it at all, they say that "consciousness emerges from biology once a certain, very high threshold of complexity is reached."

But this is deeply inadequate, both for its failure to identify the mechanism that distinguishes living organisms from complex, inanimate ones, or the exact location or number of cells, neurons or chromosomes that form the line we can all agree on between those who are conscious and those that are not; and for theoretically leaving the door open to advanced computers, algorithms and all manner of creepy-crawling things that we humans would never tolerate under the same umbrella as us.

The fact is that the subjective, autonomous experience of being alive and inhabiting a thinking, feeling mind/body that can sense, intuit, dream and remember, plan, calculate, predict and philosophize is the one, singular thing that anyone can say for absolute certain is quantifiably, verifiably real... But it's also the one thing science just can't seem to wrap its head around? It leaves a yawning psychological vacuum. And as we know, nature—human nature, at any rate—abhors a vacuum.



When our kitten California was four months old, I came into the bedroom to find her engaged in a hilariously intense, Siamese fighting fish-like exhibition with her newly-discovered doppelganger in the mirrored doors of our closet. She was wild-eyed, darting around like a mongoose engaged in a battle of intimidation against a formidable cobra. I hurried out of the room to grab the camera and, with the utmost caution and stealth, positioned myself inconspicuously in the corner of the room and started recording.

As I watched from a few feet away, trying to keep as still and soundless as possible, the playful aggression and posturing (fluffing up of fur on the back, tail whipping back and forth wildly, etc.) gradually gave way to sly, sideways, full-body flybys against the mirror, followed by rolling over on her back, paws up to meet the paws in the mirror, then a series of sneak-up-and-pounce moves from different angles and directions until she finally, rather abruptly, left the room—the mystery having apparently been solved.

Someone on YouTube had the same thought that I did watching her go through the process of self-discovery before my eyes, only they had a better name for it: Skynet moment: Cat becomes self-aware. Their video, perhaps better than mine, captures the complex spectrum of reactions on the face of the cat as it tries to figure out what exactly is going on in the mirror—the initial alertness, building up to confrontation (as it would if it were actually another cat), confusion, aggression, playfulness, thoughtfulness—the still, probing stare into its reflected image, an image that reacts to the cat in ways completely unlike any that previous experience has prepared her for.

That was the first and last time I ever saw Cali acknowledge the existence of the mirror, even though she passed by it every day and night. Before the day I shot that video, I had never witnessed a cat betraying even the slightest hint of recognition at its own reflection. And I believed that I knew why.

The only other time I saw so much as a glimmer of acknowledgement was in college shortly after I brought a barely six-week old calico kitten home to my apartment on campus. It's safe to assume that her brief childhood on my aunt's farm outside of Baltimore, living with her two brothers in a dark corner of the barn, had not afforded her the opportunity to glimpse herself in any reflective surfaces. So one morning I was seated in front of my flimsy, framed mirror—you know, the kind that's supposed to be mounted to the back of a door, unless you're renting an apartment from Student Housing and are bound by strict rules prohibiting the installation of shelves, the hanging of pictures and most certainly, the drilling of holes in plywood doors for the mounting of mirrors?

So mine was leaning up against the bedroom wall, which created an eight-inch gap behind it. I sat cross-legged on the floor doing my makeup in front of it while my kitten ran around the bedroom playing and being her adorable, distracting self. Her curiosity eventually led her to the small space behind the mirror where she crouched briefly before reemerging and slinking around to the front, playfully wrapping her tail around the back of the mirror as she curled herself around to the front and glanced casually over to her left and—Yikes! Who the fuck is that??

All four feet left the floor at once. Every hair on her back and tail stood on end as if electrified. I stared at her in shock for an instant before my fledgling maternal instinct took hold (utterly extinguishing any scientific curiosity I may have felt). I picked her up with both hands and clutched the tiny, frightened kitten to my chest, assuring her there was nothing to be afraid of. It was just her beautiful self in the mirror, and she would eventually get used to seeing it—and maybe she would even come to love looking at herself, just like her mother...

But that was the last time I ever saw her take notice of her reflection. Maybe she had an episode just like Cali's—all by herself, away from the prying, judging, anthropomorphizing eyes of her adopted humans—or maybe not. I'll never know. But I always remembered that moment of shock and the years of utter disinterest that followed. Much later, when I learned about the "Mirror Test" conducted by scientists to test for self-awareness or consciousness in animals, I was curious what, if anything, they thought they knew about cats based on such tests.

If you're unfamiliar with the Mirror Test, here's what Wikipedia has to say:

"The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) is a behavioral technique developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. as an attempt to determine whether a non-human animal possesses the ability of self-recognition/ self-awareness... however there has been recent controversy whether the test is a true indicator."

The first tests involved "manipulating the chimpanzees' appearance and observing their reaction to their reflection in the mirror." This was done by sedating the chimps and marking their faces with a spot of red dye. Once it dried, it had no scent or physical texture to tip off the animal to its presence. When the chimps awakened, the mirror was reintroduced and the scientists observed to see if the chimps noticed the red mark in the mirror, and if they then made the cognitive leap to connect the mark on the chimp in the mirror's face with their own face. The theory being that if they inspected themselves in the mirror, grew agitated and tried to remove the mark, this would prove that they were aware that the chimp in the mirror was indeed themselves; this by extension, would prove that chimps had a sense of self in the same way that humans have a sense of self.

(Nevermind that it clearly seems a better test of vanity than of a sense of self, but anyway...)

Over the years, the MSR test was conducted on every animal that scientists could get their hands on, including humans of every age (FYI, 15 months apparently marks the dawning of self-awareness). While all manner of primates, dolphins and some bird species have unsurprisingly passed the test, so have ants, and that is decidedly not what consciousness-researchers are keen to hear—much less want to write up in a peer-reviewed journal. Scientists are only human, after all, and I suspect that one prejudice is all but universal—humans want no part of any definition of consciousness that's broad enough to include motherfucking ants.

But that's not what bothered me about the MSR test. The more I learned, the more annoyed I became about its conclusions and its supposed impact on our interpretation of animal consciousness. I wondered about domestic animals whose lives and physical environments, in contrast with animals in the wild, more often than not, are positively lousy with mirrors. My kitten in college for example, who after that one initial shocking moment of seeing another cat right up in her face, had lived out the rest of her life in constant proximity to mirrors but never again seemed to even notice. Apparently cats have repeatedly "failed" the mirror test.

But if a cat (any domesticated animal, really) can walk by a mirror every day without paying it the slightest attention, it's obviously because they know it's their own reflection. Otherwise, there would be a constant battle of wits every time they came in contact with it. (Hey, it's another guy—how'd he get in here? Is he threatening me? Is he a she? Is she into me? And if so... Hey... meow! How you doin'??)

The fact that they don't do any of this, at least after the initial shock and brief adjustment period, is proof enough for me that cats and dogs are self-aware. (Don't any of these scientists have pets?) I came to regard my college kitten's utter lack of interest in her own reflection as proof that cats might be even more intelligent than we give them credit for. I wondered what she thought watching me and my endless daily rituals in front of the mirror, not only my repetitive, obsessive grooming but the involuntary and rather compulsive inability to pass one without a sideways glance, as if to confirm that yes, it's still me—that's my face, my hair, etc. just like it was five minutes ago. Maybe she saw this and drew the not-entirely-illogical conclusion that human self-recognition was more than a little fragile and tenuous, in need of constant reminders and reinforcement (which would also explain the photos and drawings of ourselves on all the walls!).

So when I caught Cali in front of the mirror, puffing herself up in threatening postures, lunging at herself, then retreating, stalking, then pouncing, skittering sideways like a goddamned hyena, I thought, Jesus, this one's not very bright, is she? My mother (the ballet dancer and choreographer) had a different reaction. After watching the video, both she and my grandmother were quick to disagree with my assessment of her as borderline-retarded (which I swear wouldn't have made me love her any less!). They insisted, "her enchantment with her own image is not an indication of intelligence or lack of same... She's just a dancer!"

Watching the video again this weekend, I noticed something I hadn't picked up on before. There's this part in the middle when she goes to the far end of the room and stands off to the side, out of sight of the mirror, where the short wall that forms the outside of the closet meets the bedroom door. There's an 8-inch return that frames the closet and she sits there staring at the corner for a long time. What became abundantly clear to me this time around is that she's trying to look behind the mirror. You know, where the other cat would be, if there was another cat? She's doing her own little experiment, yeah?

Shortly after that, she flops down in front of the gap where the closet door hinges and presses her paw against the space between the panes, where she can peer inside the closet and, at the same time, see her reflection in both sides of the closet door. She doesn't register any alarm at the prospect of two identical foreign cats in her environment, and soon after that, she leaves the room (possibly to write up her results).

I have no problem with the hypothesis that Cali is a dancer, but maybe—just maybe—she's a scientist too.

The Decorative Arts

Posted on
Jan 21, 2016

Last weekend the Society for the Museum of Original Costume in Vancouver held a special exhibit from their collection, with a fashion show MCed by Costume Historian Ivan Sayers, about whom I wrote last year after attending the Museum of Vancouver's excellent retrospective of fashion through the 1940s and '50s.

This time it was an in-house event, held in the airy, hardwood-floored basement of Hycroft Manor, a stately old (as old as they get on this coast anyway) plantation-style mansion reminiscent of the one where I went to high school in Virginia (but, you know, with all the modern comforts; renovated, facelifted and winterized for Pacific northwest weather).

I dragged my mother along with me this time, although she's never expressed an interest in fashion as such... but when you call it historical costume, well, that sounds a lot more appealing to a Sagittarian—it almost sounds like an adventure! An educational odyssey through bygone eras, telling the alternative history, parallel to the one we're used to hearing, as captured through textiles—that most ancient yet transient of decorative art forms—and the fascinating individuals who wore them...

Since I had so much fun drawing all the outfits last time, I decided to do the same again, only this time I came prepared with an ingenius book of model-form templates meant for fashion design students that I found at Opus Art Supplies. So I could just concentrate on the clothes (and hats and hair)... I couldn't really see most of the shoes since we were a few rows back, but it was probably just as well since each ensemble was onstage for less than five minutes. My mother was even happy to take pictures while I sketched, so I could post both a photo gallery and drawings.

Tags: Drawings, Fashion

In Which We Dream of Starting Over

Posted on
Jan 2, 2016

We recently watched the first season of the mystery series Wayward Pines (spoilers ahead, in case you're watching too). The story begins to unfold in much the same way we've seen before, but by hour three, it's taken a couple of surprising turns and we find ourselves in relatively uncharted territory. Around episode five, I began to notice that Wayward Pines shares a common thread with several other recent TV shows and films. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder how far back this particular myth could be found in the human collective imagination.

The theme is "let's restart civilization"—but this time, we'll do it right. In this decade alone, it's been a common thread on television shows like Wayward Pines, The Walking Dead, Last Man on Earth and The 100, and in films like Interstellar, Wall-E, The Beach and, for that matter, approximately half of the post-apocalyptic movies ever made. It was the same elitist reboot that Ayn Rand imagined in Atlas Shrugged and the same last best hope for humankind explored in classics like When Worlds Collide, The Foundation Series, and probably countless other novels, fairytales, myths and even religious traditions throughout history.

It goes something like this: Humanity is fucked—we're greedy, violent and divided by too many conflicting beliefs and ideologies to ever come to agreement. Even if we could, there's no time. We've got environmental degradation and out of control production of pollutants contaminating everything—and there are too many people—which means we'll never be able to reign in our rampant consumption and destruction of natural resources. We're like an invasive species on fast-forward and we're too far gone to slow down even if we wanted to.

Which we don't... not really. We know we're on a runaway train to extinction but we're too comfortable inside to risk doing anything that might derail it. Not to mention the corporate interests and political leaders, who have made protecting the status quo and perpetual economic growth the default business model for the entire species, with little regard to the kind of future into which we are hurtling headlong. If only we could take everything we've learned through centuries of trial-and-error and slash-and-burn, and begin again without all the poisonous by-products and collateral damage we racked up in the process of attaining our current state of enlightenment.

But this isn't new to our century or the last, or even to post-industrial society. It seems like the desire to circle the wagons, seal off the borders and pull up the drawbridge has been with us since before we even had wagons or drawbridges—maybe even before we had borders. You see it in the flood myths of all our ancient ancestors, each of which had its own causes and cautions, but they're all aligned in the execution. For every flood story, there are always survivors who live to tell the tale, and every "Ark" contains a carefully-selected subset of the original population. The same story is rebooted for the final endgame of Christianity in the story of The Rapture, wherein all of god's favorites will be beamed up to sit out eternity in heaven while the rest of humanity is left to suffer his wrath on earth, without hope of salvation.

It doesn't take an entire planet becoming aware of its own toxicity for people to imagine that everything would be so much better if we—our little group of enlightened, like-minded, chosen people—the best minds and craftiest survivors—could just start over from scratch. It's the fantasy of a Secular Rapture. Well... maybe not entirely from scratch. What we pack in the proverbial lifeboats sometimes says more about us than who's on the passenger list. (Just ask Noah.) It could be anything from a well-stocked underground bunker to a well-stocked multi-generational spaceship to a brand-new green planet to a freshly-scrubbed and newly depopulated Earth—maybe not as we knew it, but brimming with "fixer-upper" potential. (What's a few dozen major metropolitan centers between friends, or some low-lying islands and waterfront property at what we used to call sea level?) We'll do it much better this time.

[China's mountains of e-waste, photo credit: Greenpeace.]

Throughout history, when the barbarian hoards are at the gates, or the invading army poised on your borders, or the gradual decline of your civilization after a century at the top of the global food chain seems imminent, our imaginations return to this fantasy of the Ark or the Rapture or the shake-and-bake colony. Hell, the North American continent was colonized and populated relatively recently by people who were chasing that very dream; a "new world" where they could escape the crowding, corruption and class warfare of the old. A place where they could shed their old lives and be born again, free of family history and a destiny that was pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth, where they could carve out an existence based on their own personal desires and limited only by their abilities and ambitions. The only tools they needed were their wits and will power. With the prospect of a shiny new self, came the promise of an unspoiled audience and an ability to forge a fresh set of alliances—better, stronger, more egalitarian and meritocratic—the dream of every kid who ever moved to a new school and thought, Everything is going to be different now... I'll get it right this time.

Because how could we not, knowing what we know now? We've learned from the mistakes of those who came before us, both real and fictional. With our hard-won agnostic rationalism, our globally-thinking, locally-acting, multicultural and post-racial worldview and our eyes focused on the "long now," we have the accumulated expertise of a thousand generations distilled through our senses at the speed of our fingertips.

Now all we need is an Ark and a destination and we can manifest our own destiny—leave this Beta planet behind in a cloud of rocket exhaust (swearing as we do, just like every smoker who ever lived, that this toxic exhalation will be the last). After all, it wasn't our choice to strip-mine Earth 1.0 of all its flora, fauna and shiny minerals, leaving deserts and irradiated seawater in our wake, but what's done is done. We won't be removing any mountaintops where we're going, nor setting fire to tap water fortified with fracking chemicals. We'll walk softly among the indigenous inhabitants of our next planet, having learned by then to subsist on Soylent Green and upcycled bio-waste.

We'll keep the colony small and intimate—seven is the magic number for a flight crew (don't take it from me—that's a science fiction fact), and we'll cap out membership at 150 (the Gladwellian prime number) to ensure the insularity of our tribe. (Yes, we may have to "unfriend" a few people.) We'll have cured ourselves of the old superstitions, purged our need for greed along with that nasty Freudian death-wish stuff the advertisers had such a field day with. We'll have neutralized most of our baser instincts (or neutered them by flooding the environment with endocrine-disrupting chemicals). We'll be sustainable and self-contained; channeling our competitive instincts into gaming and high-stakes economic speculation while sublimating our carnivorous desires with complicated technological addictions, psychosexual role-playing and fan fiction about vampires, cannibals and superhumans.

[Photo credit: Hannibal.]

What are we forgetting? Oh that's right... Hell is other people. The one thing we can never escape is ourselves. We are both host and virus, cancer and cure; the seed bank that will save humanity and the stowaway blight that will always corrupt it from within and start the whole vicious cycle over again. It's funny how the fantasy persists, whether in the form of high-budget Hollywood thrillers or ancient stone tablets buried in caves for millennia; but whatever the medium, the moral of the story is always the same. We have to work together, love each other, help the weak who rely on our strengths and tolerate the stupid who will always try our patience because they just don't fucking get it. (I think all the great traditions include something along those lines, right after "be fruitful and multiply," and before "don't eat pork or shellfish.")

There's a scene in Interstellar where two movie stars named Matthew have made separate arduous journeys to a distant planet, but just when they should be working together to try and solve the dire predicament that made them leave the earth in the first place, they're rolling around on the icy surface desperately trying to kill each other with their bare hands. The camera zooms out to amplify the absurdity. We're probably still a good century or two away from sending real astronauts through a wormhole to another earthlike planet, but when we do, I'll bet you anything this scene will still feel every bit as shamefully plausible to audiences as it does to us today. It's a good thing we don't take our Hollywood thrillers as gospel, because we're great at missing the point.

But you can't blame Hollywood—this is one aspect of human nature that even Christianity got right on the money. In the very first chapter of the bible, even before "be fruitful and multiply," when there are only four human beings in all of existence, the third one straight up murders the fourth one. Over nothing—and lies about it—to god! But maybe that's just because even the ancient prophets knew one thing about human nature and it's the same thing that the creators of Wayward Pines and Interstellar know; you can theoretically make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but not if you expect us to swallow it.

[William Blake's Cain fleeing from the wrath of god after the body of Abel is discovered.]