Friday, October 15, 2010

Links for the Weekend

 --On October 4, SF3, WisCon's parent organization, passed two motions on the Elizabeth Moon situation.

--Inspired by 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Swanwick revists Poughskeepie (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). He writes:
Now, either you want this book (I did and now I have it) or you don't, and you already know which camp you dwell within, and no amount of descriptive analysis will budge you one way or the other.

So I'm not going to review the book. Why bother?

However, I was inspired by Lisa Tuttle's heartfelt contribution, "'From Elfland to Poughkeepsie' and Back Again, or, I Think We're in Poughkeepsie Now, Toto," on how important a single seminal Le Guin essay was to her, to go back and revisit said essay.
--Tansy Rayner Roberts reviews The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.4.

A snippet:
The highlight of the book for me was “We See What You Did There,” a group chat among various POC about their various experiences at the convention, and discussing their relationship with WisCon as a continuing event. This, combined with several standalone “My WisCon” con reports by different participants, definitely gives the impression that the book has achieved wide coverage as far as who and what WisCon is all about.
--Rex at Savage Minds writes about The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropoligcal Controversy by Paul Shankman, which examines Derek Freeman's attack on Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (after Mead's death, of course). (Link thanks to the Mumpsimus.) It did my heart good to read
Impartial, but not noncommittal. Shankman describes the personal stakes and intimate social networks on both sides of the debate, and is frank in his assessment of how people’s personal commitments and backgrounds influenced their arguments. In addition, a major part of the book deals with the question of who is right about Samoa and this involves making judgments about the scholarly adequacy of Mead and Freeman’s work. As judicious as Shankman is, then, you still get a sense of where he stands.

And where he stands is overwhelmingly against Freeman. Freeman’s bizarre personal life — including his mental breakdown — is documented here in a scholarly monograph by a major press for (as far as I know) the first time. The stories that had been circulating about his atrocious behavior, such as contacting universities and demanding that they revoke the Ph.D.s of his opponents, finally get their full airing. Freeman’s arguments about Mead are shown not to hold very much water, and his own claims about Samoa don’t seem to stand close scholarly scrutiny either. At times one feels the book should be called The Trashing of Derek Freeman. But Shankman’s criticisms never seem vindictive and his discussion of Freeman’s psyche never degenerate into ad hominems — despite how easy it would be to do so. In reality, Freeman’s own worse enemy is himself — or at least himself and a scholar willing to rigorously document his actions.

Shankman is not uncritical of Mead and points out the ways in which Coming of Age reaches conclusions about American life that Mead quite liked but which were not really supported by the Samoan data. Still, it is clear from his book that Mead was basically a decent fieldworker and a careful scholar while Freeman was, frankly, a nutcake.
--And finally, I can't resist mentioning the recent research on great bowerbirds, which are apparently as common in Australia as black-capped chickadees are in my region of North America. When a report on this new piece of research was published in Current Biology on Sept 9, several magazines and newspapers leaped on it, including Science and Discover. Birds, of course, are wondrously various in their sexed division of labor (which variety should, really, be a lesson to to humans). In the case of great bowerbirds, the male spends a good chunk of the year building an elaborate nest for attracting females. Discover Magazine has a post about it on their blog that sums up some of the interesting bits. For instance,

Bowerbirds are relatives of crows and jays that live in Australian and New Guinea. To attract mates, males from each of the 20 or so species build an intricate structure called a bower, which he decorates with specially chosen objects. Some species favour blue trinkets; others collect a mishmash of flowers, fruits, insect shells and more. Surrounded by these knick-knacks, the artistic male performs an elaborate display; the female judges him on his skill as a performer, builder and decorator.

The great bowerbird’s taste for interior design seems quite Spartan compared to his relatives. He creates an avenue of sticks leading up to a courtyard, decorated with gray and white objects, such as shells, bones and pebbles. The male performs in the courtyard while the female watches from the lined avenue. Her point of view is fixed and narrow, and according to Endler*, the male knows how to exploit that.

He found that the males place the largest objects towards the rear of the courtyard and the smallest objects in the front near the avenue. This creates forced perspective. From the female’s point of view, the bigger objects that are further away look to be the same size the smaller objects that are close by. If bowerbird vision is anything like humans, the courtyard as a whole looks smaller to a watching female, the opposite effect to the one that Disney visitors experience.
Science, the biologists "mapped the positions of thousands of objects in front of 33 male bowerbirds' avenues. [...] When the researchers rearranged the designs, the males put them back in the original order. This behavior suggests that the birds are making deliberate choices, possibly implying some kind of cognitive talent."

National Geographic, by the way, has a wonderful gallery of photos of the nest males have built to woo females, here.
One of the authors of the research paper. The abstract of the paper can be found here, and here's a quote from it:
Males make courts with gray and white objects that increase in size with distance from the avenue entrance. This gradient creates forced visual perspective for the audience; court object visual angles subtended on the female viewer's eye are more uniform than if the objects were placed at random. Forced perspective can yield false perception of size and distance [12,15]. After experimental reversal of their size-distance gradient, males recovered their gradients within 3 days, and there was little difference from the original after 2 wks. Variation among males in their forced-perspective quality as seen by their female audience indicates that visual perspective is available for use in mate choice, perhaps as an indicator of cognitive ability. Regardless of function, the creation and maintenance of forced visual perspective is clearly important to great bowerbirds and suggests the possibility of a previously unknown dimension of bird cognition.

1 comment:

Vandana Singh said...

The book on Ursula Le Guin is next on my must-buy list. One day I am going to write a blog post (or something) on how she's inspired at least one non-white foreign writer by making SF friendly to such card-carrying aliens as myself --- not only through her exploration of culture and race in her books, but at a personal level too. I hope somebody's noted her impact on SF in other countries in one of the essays in this volume. Thanks, Aqueduct, for publishing this!