February 14th, 2010

cats, shakespeare

[PHOTO] Shakespeare on the futon

Surely pictures of a cute cat aren't inappropriate for Valentine's Day?

I apologize for the fuzziness of the first two shots, but I'm still learning how to me limber enough of a photographer to capture the most photogenic elements of a cat's life. Suggestions?
forums, me, non blog

[FORUM] What do you think of cute and cuteness?

A baby meerkat
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
I made the two-part Shakespeare photo post because I'm really very very fond of Shakespeare, suspect you'd be fond of him too, and wanted to share some images of his more recent poses with you. I suppose that I particularly--really?--wanted to share them with you because they're cute. I don't go actively seeing LOLcat images, although I can appreciate the ones that I happen upon while reading blogs and Facebook status updates, but when I see something like Shakespeare lying relaxed and sprawled out on top of my futon, or cute kittens, or a fluffy plush stuffed animal, or an animated robot looking out with yearning eyes ... There are so many things that look vaguely human-like that humans relate to at a very fundamental level.

(Oh, look: Wired linked to a picture of a baby meerkat! I copied it: Look right. Isn't it so cute?)

Daniel Roth made the point of the power of this bond in his January 2009 Wired article "Do Humanlike Machines Deserve Human Rights?", which dealt with how and why people felt horrible about videos of anthropomorphic toys being abused (here, videos of Tickle-me-Elmo being set on fire) and what should be done about it. Shall cuteness give the right robots rights?
The brain is hardwired to assign humanlike qualities to anything that somewhat resembles us. A 2003 study found that 12-month-olds would check to see what a football-shaped item was "looking at," even though the object lacked eyes. All the researcher had to do was move the item as if it were an animal and the infants would follow its "gaze." Adults? Same reaction.

The perennial concern about the rise of robots has been how to keep them from, well, killing us. Isaac Asimov came down from the mountaintop with his Three Laws of Robotics (to summarize: Robots shouldn't disobey or hurt humans or themselves). But what are the rules for the humans in this relationship? As technology develops animal-like sophistication, finding the thin metallic line between what's safe to treat as an object and what's not will be tricky. "It's going to be a tougher and tougher argument to say that technology doesn't deserve the same protection as animals," says Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who directs a program called the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. "One could say life is special—whatever that means. And so, either we get tougher on technology abuse or it undermines laws about abuse of animals."

It's already being considered overseas. In 2007, a South Korean politician declared that his country would be the first to draw up legal guidelines on how to treat robots; the UK has also looked into the area (though nothing substantial has come of it anywhere). "As our products become more aware, there are things you probably shouldn't do to them," says John Sosoka, CTO of Ugobe, which makes the eerily lifelike robot dinosaur Pleo (also tortured on Web video). "The point isn't whether it's an issue for the creature. It's what does it do to us."

How many of you haven't seen the famous recent XKCD comic featuring the Mars rover Spirit that managed to bring readers to tears with its depiction of the lonely abandoned rover? It's this kind of emotion that drives the Internet's desire for cuteness; it's this kind of emotion, as Mary Roach observes, also at Wired, that helps drive the Japanese economy. Everyone, you see, likes cuteness. Everyone.

In the December 2009 Vanity Fair, Jim Windolf makes the same point as Roth about the biological origins of cuteness.

In the 1940s, ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed—correctly, as it turns out—that we instinctively want to nurture any creature that has a cute appearance.

“Lorenz suggested that infantile characteristics—big head, big eyes, the very round face—stimulate caretaking behavior,” says Marina Cords, a professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University. “I study blue monkeys in Kenya every year and I have the same reaction. I find the infants are very cute. I was taught by my adviser never to tell anybody that was a motivation for anything we do, which is true. But it’s hard not to have that gut reaction.”

A scientific study that came out this year is the first to offer firm evidence that human beings undergo a chemical reaction deep in their brains when they look at babies. It was conducted by biologist Melanie Glocker of the University of Muenster, while she was a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and it has resulted in two groundbreaking papers published in the journals Ethology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, Glocker’s series of experiments demonstrated that the act of looking at baby pictures stirs up an ancient part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

“It’s in the midbrain,” Glocker says, with a slight Teutonic accent, “which is an evolutionarily older part of the brain involved in reward processing. This region has also been shown to be activated by a variety of rewarding stimuli, including sexual stimuli, food stimuli, and drug stimuli.”

Everything, from cars to hipster magazines to gossip columns to cars to Internet applications (Google! Twitter!), Windolf says, is laden with cuteness. And he doesn't like it, since, he suggests, a societal desire for pervasive cuteness in adulthood is a sign of protracted adolescence, which is itself a sign of protracted societal misery produced by feelings of helplessness. "America is a nation in need of a hug, a Snickers, and the nucleus-accumbens squirt provoked by baby-animal photos, laughing-baby clips, and bathetic movies," he concludes.

“There’s no doubt that cuteness has been a part of the Japanese aesthetic since the postwar years,” says Roland Kelts, the author of the 2006 book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. “One theory, which has been proposed by a lot of Japanese artists and academics, is that, after the humiliation and emasculation of Japan in the postwar years, Japan developed this quasi-queer position of ‘little brother’ or ‘little boy.’ If you become ‘little brother’ or ‘little boy,’ the only way you can get big brother’s or fat man’s attention is by being so cute or puppy-like that he has to take care of you.”

Just as Japan produced Mighty Atom and countless toys and gadgets out of what was, arguably, a desire to show its dependency, America is now coming up with cute products and images to express its own sense of need in the wake of the hard times and lousy decisions of the go-it-alone Bush administration.

“It is really important to understand the notion of dependency inherent in cuteness and how that emerged in Japan after the war,” says Kelts, whose mother grew up in occupied Japan and whose father is American-born.

This desire to “show the face of dependency,” as Kelts puts it, also turns up online, whenever people add cute-animal photos to their blogs or post baby pictures on their Facebook pages. “The old idea that you want your privacy is bleeding away into this new idea that you are desperate to be known,” he says. “And if you are desperate to be known, you need a strategy for being known, and a very good strategy is the old evolutionary one of being so cute that you need to be cared for. That was, in a sense, Japan’s position for the last 60 years: ‘We will make your products really, really well, and we’re going to be the best little boy you can imagine.’”

[. . .]

Maybe the same anxiety that has given rise to the Matrix movies, to the latest Bruce Willis action vehicle, Surrogates, and even to highbrow works like Kazuo Ishiguro’s lovely novel Never Let Me Go is in play whenever we take solace in the kittens and puppies of sites like Cute Overload or Cute Things Falling Asleep, or turn our iPod wheels to the unthreatening and unmechanized sounds of Sara Bareilles. The cuteness craze may represent a nostalgia for a lost world. Or maybe we’re trying, in some pathetic way, to animate our machines, to imbue them with sounds and images that strike at the deepest part of what it means to be human: our desire to take care of helpless creatures. We’re like those office workers of the 1960s and 1970s who tried to beat back the alienation they felt as a result of being the first people to inhabit sterile-seeming cubicles eight hours a day by putting up that poster of the cute little kitten hanging from the tree.

So what do you think? Is cuteness a sign of dependency or some other such thing, or is it just cuteness? Is cuteness a good thing or a bad thing? Are questions of ethics completely irrelevant to the discussion of pictures of cute kittenz?

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On East Germany's luge performance in Vancouver 2010

Over at Facebook, aisb23 reminded me of something odd that Jerry and I caught briefly on the Canadian broadcast of the men's singles luge at the ongoing Vancouver Olympics.

Silver medalist David Moeller from Germany, when he came to a stop, and they showed the crowd, there was an old East German flag being waved. For Loch, also German, and the gold medal winner the flags were all the regular German/West German flag. This was on CTV, the Canadian network covering the Olympics. No link yet.

I have no idea what it means, but there it was.

What did it mean? While I do own pieces of the Berlin Wall, I was only 10 when Germany reunified and so barely noticed the fact that the two Germanies dominated luge.

Armin Zöggeler of Italy may be attempting to win his third consecutive luge gold medal and his fifth consecutive Winter Olympics medal; Canada may have made its mark in skeleton since the sport was welcomed back into the Olympic family in 2002; and the U.S. Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, backed by NASCAR's Geoff Bodinev, is threatening German hegemony. But the numbers don't lie.

Germany has won 118 Winter Olympics gold medals, and 50 of them have come in luge and bobsleigh. They have won 11 medals in the sliding sports in each of the past two Olympics, including four gold in Turin and four in Salt Lake City. In luge, their women had a 99-race World Cup win streak ended in the final race of last season; this year, the German women were prevented from sweeping the podium in every World Cup race by three third-place finishes by competitors from other countries. Toss in the fact that Zoeggeler is a sweet, gentlemanly guy and that the men's overall World Cup champion and medal threat Steven Holcomb of the U.S. is almost equally popular among bobsledders, and it all comes back to the Germans.

"German sliders are developed the way hockey players are developed in Canada - which isn't surprising because for us, these sports are our version of hockey," says Wolfgang Staudingerv, the native of the Berchtesgaden region of Bavaria who is the Canadian luge coach and was a bronze medalist in doubles at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. "It's a mill system. You look at my sport and we've had a club system in place for 50-60 years. Where I'm from? Every child has gone down a track and every club or track or town wants its sliders to do well. It's a pride thing. The top three keep moving on and moving on and so forth and before you know it, only the best are left."

The well-chronicled internecine rivalries in bobsleigh and skeleton are exacerbated during the year leading up to the Olympics because of the battle for limited spots and resources. But Robert Storey, the Ottawa-based president of skeleton and bobsleigh's governing body (FIBT), says these rivalries dissipate during the Games. As Pierre Lueders, the veteran Canadian driver, said at Lake Placid when he grew frustrated at questions about his reputation as a difficult teammate: "Look, I'd rather have another Canadian on the podium ... than a German."

It's worth noting, by the way, that this is a theme of German-speaking Europe generally: Switzerland and Austria are also powers, while the prominent Italian lugers like Armin Zöggeler all seem to be South Tyroleans. For that matter, isn't "Lueders" a very German name?

Regardless, luge was a major theme in East/West sports rivalries: "The "Germany versus the world" tone to the sport is a carryover from the days of rivalries between Communist and non-Communist countries, especially East Germany, West Germany and Switzerland. Staudinger, who raced for West Germany, remembers the East Germans forcing him and his teammates to stay in Dresden for races at the Stasi sports headquarters in Altenberg - a 160-mile round trip. Staudinger and his teammates would make the trip back and forth Dresden for practice, curtains pulled down over the windows and Stasi "handlers" riding with them. When Germany was reunified, the East German program quietly swallowed the West German in temperament, technology and success." Germany, including both of its component states, dominated luge, but pre-war Germany's luge training facilities ended up in East Germany, in the Thuringian community of Oberhof. East Germany's famed devotion to sports seems to have paid off, and to have continued to pay off, since gold medalist Felix Loch and silver medalist David Möller both seem to be East German by birth. Loch is even the son of Norbert Loch, the East German luge coach and himself a luge competitor in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. It looks like, at least in luge, it's the East that swallowed up the West.

The East German flag was waving, yes, but so was the Bavarian flag and the flags of any number of other regions, German and likely otherwise, in the crowd huddled around the end of that luge track, and all those flags combined were easily outnumbered by the number of simple German flags being waved around. Still, it's interesting how a regionalism--perhaps this particular regionalism--insinuates itself everywhere, even into areas and times where one might have thought it wouldn't have had a chance. Whatever else the East German flag may represent, it still represents something decidedly positive for at least a few people.