Cartographic “suicide caucus” map

Posted in Art, Maps at 10:13 am by ducky

Ryan Lizza posted an article and map in the New York Times which showed the locations of the US Congressional Districts whose Representatives backed the US federal government’s shutdown in an attempt to defund Obamacare.  Here is a version of the map which I made, with yellow for the “suicide caucus”:


The article and map were good.  I liked them.  But there’s a real danger when looking at a map that you will — consciously or unconsciously — mentally equate the relative number of pixels on a map into the relative number of people.  

Unfortunately, the geographical distribution of people is wildly, wildly uneven: from 0.04 people per square mile in the Yukon-Koyukuk Borough to more than 70,000 people per square mile in Manhattan.  Yes, there are 1.75 MILLION more people per square mile in Manhattan than rural Alaska.

The map above makes it look like a higher percentage of congresspeople supported the shutdown than actually did.  If you look at the shutdown districts on a cartogram — a map where the area of a congressional is distorted to be proportional to the population of that district — instead, it becomes even more clear just how few representatives were involved.


I have made a web page where you can explore congressional districts yourself.

In addition to seeing the maps above, you can also see thematic maps (both cartogram and regular) of

  • percent without insurance
  • percent white
  • median family income
  • median gross rent
  • median home value
  • percent living in poverty
  • percent of children living in poverty
  • percent of elderly living in poverty
  • median age
  • congressional election results from 2012

Additionally, if you click on a congressional district, you can see who represents that district, plus all of the above values for that district.  If you click on the map away from a congressional district, you can see a table comparing the shutdown districts with the non-shutdown districts.

You can also look at maps for the presidential 2012 election results and seasonally-adjusted unemployment, but because those are county-based figures, you can’t do a strict comparison between shutdown/non-shutdown districts, so they aren’t in the comparison table or the per-district summaries.

Implementation notes

I used ScapeToad to generate the cartograms.  It was a lot of trial and error to figure out settings which gave good results.  (For those of you who want to make cartograms themselves: I defined cartogram parameters manually, and used 6000 points for the first grid, 1024 for the second, and 3 iterations.)

I used QGIS and GRASS to clean it up afterward (to remove slivers and little tiny holes left between the districts sometimes) and to merge congressional districts to make cartogram shapes.

NB: I use the state boundaries which I created by merging the cartogramified congressional districts, even for the maps which are based on counties (e.g. unemployment and the presidential results).  It is pretty impressive how well the merged congressional district state boundaries match the county cartogram state borders.  It wasn’t at all obvious to me that would happen.  You could imagine that ScapeToad might have been more sensitive to the shapes of the counties, but somehow it all worked.  Kudos to ScapeToad!

At some zoom levels, not all the district boundaries get drawn.  That’s because I don’t want the map to be all boundary when way zoomed out, so I check the size before drawing boundaries.  If the jurisdiction is too small, I don’t draw the boundary.

As a starting point, I used the Congressional District shapefiles from the US Census Bureau. For the population used for generating the cartogram, I used the Census Bureau American Community Survey 2011 values.  For the other map attributes, I specify the source right under the “Color areas by”.

I made the map tiles myself, using custom PHP code.  You can read more about it in Optimizing Map Tile Generation.  I came up with my own algorithm for showing city labels.



Posted in Art at 10:02 pm by ducky

As mentioned, my husband and I went to Turkey last summer.  In Turkey, we saw a lot of beautiful rugs with my husband coveted, but they were more expensive than we were ready to cope with.

Like he does every year, my husband had a birthday in the fall.  I started thinking about what I could get him for his birthday shortly after we got back.  Clearly, he would love a rug, but we also clearly weren’t ready to spend that kind of money (and he would want to be in on the selection process anyway).  So I thought about how I could make something in the same style as a rug.  I realized that I could print something as a poster, mount it on foam core, glue tassels to the edges, and mount it to the wall.  It would then perhaps fulfill his desire for a rug aesthetic, but without the expense.

My husband also likes fonts and languages.  I once scored points by making him a shirt with glyphs from many different languages on it for his birthday.  Maybe I could make him a “rug” with glyphs from many different writing systems as the graphic elements instead of the flowers and leaves that adorn traditional Turkish and Persian rugs.

Yes, I could!  (Click to see a bigger version.)

Rugzetta design

I had a print shop print it out large and mount it on foamcore; I glued tassels to the sides and hung it on the wall:

Rugzetta on the wall

I also made some placemats, and I put a legend on the back:

Rugzetta legend


Artists, how do you work?

Posted in Art at 12:42 am by ducky

I am really curious to hear how people “do” art.

The image of artists that I absorbed as a kid was that their physical being acted as a vehicle for their subconscious, which told them what to do.  They drew/painted/played/composed/carved what they did because that’s what their subconscious compelled them to do.

I don’t really consider myself An Artist, but I have made a few art pieces, and I never have the sense that I am called to do something.  My art tends to be, for the most part, driven by constraints, what my “customer” wants, and logic.  When my muse does mutter something into my ear, it’s pretty inarticulate, and focuses on telling me what’s wrong instead of how to make it better.

So how do you work?  Does seeing something give you an idea for what to make, or do you start with a need (e.g. a customer request)?  Do you use some sort of organizing principle to help guide you, or do you just do what feels right?  Does your muse tell you what to do, or only when you are doing it wrong?  Respond in the comments, on Facebook, by email, whatever — I am just curious.

I am working on a fake rug for a birthday present for my husband.  (I am going to print it on paper, mount the paper on foamcore, and glue tassels to the short ends.)  We went to Turkey this summer, and he very much liked the rugs, so I figured he’d like a rug.  I couldn’t afford a real rug, though, so I decided to make a fake one.

I then looked at a LOT of images of oriental rugs, and generalized a common pattern: a medallion in the middle, a border around the outside, possibly with borders on the borders.  Inside, lots of small flower-like designs that were connected with vines or stems.  That constrained the form.

My husband likes languages and fonts, so I decided to use glyphs instead of flowers as the base decoration.  My husband has five colours in his colour scheme, so I knew what colours I had to use.  I couldn’t figure out how to work lines into the rug, but an Indo-Canadian friend of mine suggested hanging Indian characters (like Devanagari) off of the line.

I originally thought that I could make the borders out of the three languages in the Rosetta stone, but that turned out to be impractical.  (I couldn’t find text that I could copy and paste of those languages!)  However, the idea of the (old) Rosetta stone gave me the idea of using time as an organizing principle: to have the glyphs closer to the edge be older than the ones in the center.  This meant that cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics needed to be near the edge.  (One of them is the oldest written language, but they aren’t quite sure which.)

I felt I needed to have borders on the borders, but the problem was that those borders needed to be really thin.  I was thinking of just putting dots or dashes as the borders, when I realized I could put both and make it Morse code.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphics are both logographic languages.  Other types of languages are abjads, syllabic, and alphabetic.  There are also punctuation symbols, which have come more recently, which meant they should be in the center (and again, be ordered by age). I decided to group symbols on the rug by those classes.

I researched punctuation, and came up with a set of symbols (including the Japanese smiley-face emoticon used in SMSes).  Why ampersand and not comma?  Why European punctuation and not Arabic?  Why not French double quotes?  Either I couldn’t find a good date for the symbol (meaning I didn’t know where to put it), or it was wildly asymmetrical, or its aspect ratio was wrong, or it was kind of ugly.

I separated abjads into the far corners, since abjads are old and kind of different.  Phoenician was particularly important, so it got to be bigger.  Arabic and Hebrew have dominated the abjads, so got second billing.  We saw Arabic in gold letters in black circles at the Aya Sofia this summer, so it made sense to use gold on black (even though black is NOT in my husband’s colour scheme).

I thought about what lines I could draw, but my husband was involved in learning a part for an opera, so treble and bass clef symbols kind of threw themselves in front of me.  As the treble clef has a higher aspect ratio than the bass clef, I needed to put it on the long axis and the bass clef on the short axis.  The treble clef wasn’t really the right size, so I used two, mirror images of each other.  The bass clef mirrored looked like a heart, so in the space left over I put four hearts.

One of the clefs needed to be Indic glyphs, and I thought I would need to use the larger of the two clefs in order to have room for all the many Indic writing systems.  (There turned out to be fewer Indic writing systems than I thought there would be.)  Given that I was grouping treble-clef glyphs by geographical location, bass clefs and the hearts should also be geographical regions.

Asia is closer to India than Europe is, so Asia got the heart and Europe got the base clef.  All the other glyphs had to swim in the sea between the continents: Africa fit nicely next to the middle-eastern abjads, island nations like the Maldives fit in nicely between India and Asia, and the New World glyphs (plus some runes which maybe did not descend from Latin) swim around the European bass clef.

At this point, I did more-or-less just plop glyphs down however the spirit moved me, but I will confess that I don’t find that fine structure turned out particularly well.  I did try to make more historically important languages bigger, but basically I just tried to spread them out sort of evenly.  It’s okay, but I don’t think it they are the best part.

The egyptian hieroglyphics looked kind of plain, so I spent a LOT of time trying to make the border look better.  I first made a collection of logograms instead of only Egyptian logograms, then experimented A LOT with different colours and numbers of characters. My muse kept telling me it was wrong.  Finally, I changed the colours because I didn’t like the yellow in the centre, and that had the side effect of making the logogram border look much better.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.


For my painting And The Word Was Sheep, I drew a light blue circle, a dark blue circle, and a green trapezoid, and showed it to my friend George when I told him I’d make him a painting.  I told him I didn’t even know what colour the background should be, and he said “Black!  With Stars!”  That meant that the circles were planets, hence spheres, not the disks I had been imagining.

I asked him if he’d like squiggles like I did in Page Mill Ziggurat, and he said “No, glyphs!  In the shape of an Omega.”

He then came up with this complete backstory which had to do with Man starting out in the garden of Eden, then descending into evil (over the dark blue planet), then coming back into goodness (light blue planet) and eventually reaching the stars.  This meant that I needed enough glyphs to be able to make an omega, and that the glyphs needed to be in chronological order.

I did make artistic decisions about which glyph in a writing system would look nicest, I did choose which writing systems to leave out, and I did decide that the shapes looked naked and needed clouds (for the circles) or branches (for the trapezoid), but those were really the only artistic decisions I made.  Everything else was either George’s choice or constrained.  Even the “berries” in the branches were George’s idea.


LOLcats representing the human spirit

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:52 am by ducky

A while back, I wrote about LOLcats being a stand-in for ethnic groups, allowing us the humour of shared stereotypes but without having to saddle an ethnic group with those stereotypes.

Jay Dixit has a more expansive, romantic take on it: LOLcats are stand-ins for humans in all their glory and pathos.  By being stand-ins, they are less emotionally dangerous:

By articulating profound feelings through cats and marine mammals speaking garbled English, we’re able to shroud genuine emotions in pseudo-irony — which means those animals can evoke deeper emotions without fear of mockery or cheapness.

I’ll put it more simply: humour is pain at a distance. Using cats (or dogs or walruses) lets us put even more distance between us and the pain. We can thus tolerate situations in LOLcats that would be too painful if it were about humans.

Hmm, I wonder if this is why animated cartoons so frequently starred animals (e.g. Mickey Mouse, Roadrunner, Foghorn Leghorn)…


Interesting Vancouver

Posted in Art, Canadian life, review at 9:01 pm by ducky

I got a ticket to Interesting Vancouver from Boris Mann, who uh reminded me that I owed him a recap in exchange.  That’s a perfectly perfectly reasonable request, but that message didn’t sink in ahead of time, so I didn’t take notes or try very hard to remember.  I’ll do a dump on my impressions, but you should note that I seemed to have been grumpy that evening, perhaps because I didn’t have enough dinner.

  • James Sherret from AdHack:  I was about 10 minutes late, so missed his talk completely.
  • Darren Barefoot, laptopbedouin.com: I came in in the middle.  Darren was basically waxing rhapsodic about the value/joy of telecommuting from other countries for multiple months at a time.  His message seemed to be “go, it’ll be fun, you’ll learn, it won’t cost as much as you think, what do you have to lose?”
    • When I was younger, I wouldn’t have found anything at all wrong with that message. I would had little patience for old farts telling me (or anyone) that I should grow up and start being responsible blah blah blah. However, now that I am older and have seen how health issues can trash a life, I would suggest more caution, particularly for people who are citizens of countries without socialized medicine. Part of “being responsible” is saving away the money that you will need for later. When you lose your job. When you can’t work because of your illness. When your partner can’t work. When your mother has a heart attack. When your kid needs rehab. You might be fine now, but someday you won’t be. Running off to live in a third-world country probably increases your risk of illness, complications, accidents, and/or violence at least slightly. It also cuts you off from your family — the same family that you might need to turn to someday.
  • Roy Yen, soomo.com: I think Roy was the one who was arguing that our “vertical architecture” (i.e. skyscrapers) was contributing to loneliness and isolation, and that we really needed a public gathering space in Vancouver.  He said that Vancouver used to have a big public gathering space, but there was a riot in the 70s and The Powers That Be decided that having a big public gathering space was a Bad Idea, so redeveloped it away.  He pointed out that the only public gathering space left is the back side of the Art Gallery, and that the Art Gallery is slated to move to False Creek.
    • When he blamed the high-density development for loneliness and isolation, I was kind of stunned.  “Has he ever lived in suburbia???” I remember asking myself.  I immediately thought of a neighbourhood in Orange County where a friend lived, where I spent a few days once.  It was all snout houses, and my friend said that in a year of living there, she had never spoken to a neighbour.  I think she maybe hadn’t even seen her immediate neighbours — they drove into their garage, and thence immediately into their house.  I am now living in a skyscraper for the first time, and I find the density wonderful: I see people in the elevators, I see people as I walk to the bus stop, I see people as I walk to the grocery store, etc. etc. etc.  It feels far more communal than driving to everywhere in a car by myself.
    • I did think it was interesting to hear about the bygone public space and to think about the back of the Vancouver Art Gallery being the one public gathering space.   However, most of the places that I’ve lived didn’t have public gathering spaces, and somehow we got by.
  • James Chutter radarddb.com:
    • James’ presentation didn’t have a real obvious thesis statement — I don’t know that I learned anything from his talk, but I remember I enjoyed it.  He told the story of his evolution as a storyteller, and in doing so talked about the evolution of the Web.
  • Cheryl Stephens, plainlanguage.com: Cheryl is a lawyer and literacy advocate who talked about how widespread the problem of literacy is.
    • Cheryl lost my attention very, very quickly.  Some combination of her voice level, the microphone level, how far she stood from the mike, and me being in the back of the room (I was late, remember?) meant that I had to exert some effort to understand her words, and I didn’t like her words well enough to pay attention.  In particular, early on, she asserted, “There can be no education without literacy.”  While I  might have been extra grumpy that evening (note my grumpy comments elsewhere), I found that statement offensive.  Um, blind people can’t be educated?  (NB: Only 3% of the visually impaired students at UBC read Braille.  I presume the rest use screen readers.)
    • Later, she talked about how widespread illiteracy was, and said that only about 10% of the population could read at a college level.  I didn’t know about Canada, but right around half of the US population has attended some college.  Um, does that mean that 80% of people in college can’t read at a college level?
    • One thing that I did find interesting was her report that the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that explaining something wasn’t enough, that the plaintiffs also had to understand it.  (She gave the example of someone being offered counsel, and the perp saying he already had a drug counselor — not realizing that “counsel” meant “lawyer”.)
    • I was a little confused as how explaining something verbally related to literacy.
    • At the end, she rushed in about thirty seconds of how to make your prose more understandable.  I personally would have preferred less talk aimed at convincing me literacy was a problem and more on how to address it.
  • Shannon LaBelle, Vancouver Museums: Shannon gave a very quick talk that was basically, “Vancouver has lots of interesting museums, especially the Museum of Anthropology when it reopens, go visit them!”
  • Irwin Oostindie, creativetechnology.org: Irwin talked about his community, the Downtown East Side, and in bringing pride to his community through culture, especially in community-generated media.
    • I wanted to like Irwin’s lofty goals.  He was a very compelling speaker.  But I have done a lot of work in community media, and know that it is extremely difficult to make compelling media.  It sure seemed like he was getting his hopes up awfully high.  Well, best of luck to him.  Maybe.
    • He seemed to want to make DTES a vibrant, interesting, entertaining place.  I worry that if it becomes entertaining, it will quickly gentrify.  I think a lot of people in DTES don’t need entertainment, they need jobs.  They need housing.
  • Jeffrey Ellis, cloudscapecomics.com: Jeffrey gave a very quick talk advertising a group of comic artists who were about to release (just released?) another comic book.
    • Sure, fine.  Whatever.
  • Tom Williams, GiveMeaning: Tom told the story of how he used to be making big bucks in high finance, and thought he was happy until someone he had known before asked him a penetrating question.  I don’t remember the question, but it was something along the lines of “Are you really happy?” or “Does your life have meaning?” and that made him realize he wasn’t happy.  Tom quit his job and went looking for his purpose and couldn’t find it.  He came back to Vancouver, found that guy, and said something along the lines of “You ruined my life with your question, how do I fix it?”  The guy said, “Follow your passion.”  Tom said, “How do I find my passion????”  The guys said, “Follow your tears.”  From that, Tom started a micro-charity site.  (Think microlending, but microgiving instead.)  People can create projects (e.g. “sponsor me for the Breast Cancer Walk”) that others can then donate small amounts to.
    • I don’t mind giving people a little bit of money sometimes, but I do resent being on their mailing list forever and ever after.  When he explained his site, it made me think of all the trees that have died in the service of trying to extract more money from me.  🙁
    • His friend’s advice, “Follow your tears” has hung around with me since.  I told my beloved husband that it probably meant that I had to go back to the US to try to fix the system.  Unfortunately, I find activism really boring.  🙁
  • Naomi Devine, uvic.commonenergy.org: I don’t have a strong memory of this talk.  I think she was arguing for getting involved in local politics, especially green politics.  I suspect that the talk didn’t register because it either trying to persuade me of something I already believe, or teaching me how to do something I already know.
  • James Glave, glave.com: I have very weak memories of this talk also.  I think again, he was trying to persuade me on something I’m already persuaded on.
  • Colin Keddie, Buckeye Bullet: Colin gave kind of a hit-and-run talk about the Buckeye Bullet, a very very fast experimental car developed at Ohio State University and which runs on fuel cells.
    • I would have liked to have heard more about how the car worked, the challenges that they faced, etc.  However, he only had three minutes, and that’s not a lot of time.
    • (Slightly off-topic: I got to see a talk on winning the DARPA challenge when I was at Google.  It’s a great talk, I highly recommend it.)
  • Joe Solomon, engagejoe.com: I don’t have any memories of this talk.  Maybe I was getting tired then?  Maybe I’m getting tired now?
  • Dave Ng, biotech.ubc.ca: Dave’s talk was on umm science illiteracy.
    • Dave gave a very engaging talk.  He put up three questions, and had us talk to our neighbours to help us decide if they were true or false.  All of them seemed to be designed to be so ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly be true.  I happened to have read Science News for enough years, that I was very confident that the first two were true (which they were).  The third was something about how 46% of Americans believe they are experts in the evolutionary history of a particular type of bird — again it looked like it couldn’t possibly be true.  It was a bit of a fakeout: it turned out that 46% of Americans thought that the Genesis story was literally true.
    • The audience participation was fun.
  • David Young, 2ndglobe.com: David talked about Great Place/times and wondered why Vancouver couldn’t do that.  He pointed out that Athens in Socrates’ time, Florence in Michelangelo’s time, Vienna in Beethoven’s time, the Revolutionary War-era US, and several other place/times had far fewer residents than Vancouver, so why can’t we do the same?
    • I have thought about this, and maybe I read something about this elsewhere, but I believe there are a few factors that account for most of why the great place/times were great:
      • Great wealth (which means lots of leisure time).  Frequently this wealth came by exploiting some other people.  The US Founding Fathers and Athenians had slaves, for example.
      • Lack of entertainment options.  We are less likely to do great things if The Simpsons is on.
      • Lack of historical competition.   Michelangelo showed up at a time when the Church was starting to be a bit freer in what it would tolerate in art.  (Michelangelo’s David was the second nude male sculpture in like 500 years…)
      • Technological advances.  Shakespeare wasn’t competing with hundreds of years of other playwrights, he was competing with around 100 years of post-printing-press playwrights.  The other playwrights and authors’ work didn’t get preserved.   The French impressionists were able to go outside and paint because they were able to purchase tubes of paint that they could take with them and which didn’t dry too fast.  (They also had competition from the camera for reproducing scenes absolutely faithfully, so needed to do something cameras couldn’t do.)

I also had an interesting time talking with Ray-last-name-unknown, who I met at some event a few months ago and who I’d spoken to at length at Third Tuesday just a few nights before.  We walked back to downtown together and didn’t have any dead spots in the conversation.


Elephant parchment?

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:05 pm by ducky

BTW, one of the things that I love about living at Green College is that there is always someone around who knows the answer.  Over the weekend, I got fixated on a big empty wall at our host’s place, and decided that it needed a huge forgery of a medieval map.  But it needed to be BIG to fit the wall.

Medieval maps tend to be about the size of a sheepskin because, well, vellum was made from sheepskins.  They just didn’t have six foot sheep.

I started wondering what kind of story you could make up about how it was so big.  Elephant parchment?   And this got me to wondering how big a piece of leather you could get from an African elephant… so this morning I asked Jake at breakfast.  Jake tracks elephants in Kenya, of course.  (Don’t you routinely have breakfast with elephant trackers?)

Based on his estimates, I could get a rectangular piece around six feet by twelve feet.

Jake also told me that they make paper out of elephant dung.  Elephants, not being ruminants, pass fiber through undigested and in great form for making paper.  Even better for my medieval map forgery!

Update: While it isn’t hugely common, leather is made even today of sealskin and walrus skin, so presumably you could make parchment out of it as well.  Walruses are about 3m long; the biggest elephant seal on record was almost 7m long.

I found some evidence that Canadians successfully made leather out of the skin of white (beluga) whales.  Belugas measure up to 5m long.  If the skin of belugas is similar to that of blue whales, (32m long), then it seems like the maximum size of a piece of parchment is probably around 30m long.  That’s one big piece of parchment!


Sita Sings The Blues

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 10:08 pm by ducky

A friend of mine from high school, cartoonist Nina Paley, has finished an animated feature film called Sita Sings The Blues. It’s a retelling of a classic Indian myth called the Ramayana, but with a few Western twists.

Sita For those of you who have never met me, I am not exactly voluptuous. Most of my life, “string bean” was accurate. Now I’m kind of a string bean with a pot belly. Sita, on the other hand, is one voluptuous babe, see image at right.

Sita has been accepted by a Berlin film festival, which is good news. However, the Berlinale only accepts films that are on celluloid, and it costs a pile of money to make such a physical artifact. So Nina is soliciting donations/loans in order to make a print.

(Why does the Berlinale require celluloid when DVDs are higher quality? My guess is either that theatres don’t have the equipment to display DVDs or that they use the financial barrier to weed out the entrants who aren’t really serious.)

Nina is in my tribe, so I’m lending her some money. As a perk to people who loan her money, she’s giving them each a credit in the film — you know, the names that scroll by at the end. She said she would let me have whatever credit I wanted. (I presume there are some limits in taste, decency, and common sense. For example, it would be really insensitive of me if I asked for the credit of “Mohammed”, and stupid of her if she complied.)

“Snake wrangler” was one credit idea she came up with. Jim and I had fun thinking up possible credits: “Best Boy”, “Head Gripper”, “Pixel Casting Director”, “Fire Control Technician”, “Assistant to Sita’s Assistant”, and so on.

The credit that we finally came up with? “Sita Body Double”.


why do we like rounded corners?

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 1:03 pm by ducky

I ran into a posting that theorized about why we like rounded corners. Basically, it said that we are drawn to organic, natural-looking forms.

I think it’s much simpler than that: we are drawn to things that look expensive, and rounded corners look expensive. Rounded corners are expensive in this day and age. They are harder to design and harder to manufacture.

I remember being struck by the ceilings at the Uffizi — the designs on the ceilings of the corridors were all very regular and precise. To my eyes, they looked kind of boring. Well, back when the Uffizi was built, it was very difficult (i.e. expensive) to make things that were very regular and precise. Machines are really good at that, but people less so.

In the Renaissance, great effort was made to make paintings look extremely realistic. Then, in the late 19th century, impressionism — which was not particularly realistic — was born. I don’t think it is a coincidence that daguerrotypes were invented in the mid-19th century. Extreme realism was no longer particularly difficult/expensive.

(The impressionists also profited greatly from the being able to buy pre-made tubes of paint, instead of being shackled to a studio with a bunch of apprentices running around literally creating the paints. But that’s a different story.)

Bottom line: we are attracted to rounded corners because they look expensive.


LOLcats are the new ethnic joke

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 9:22 pm by ducky

You are reading my blog, so you probably do enough web surfing to have seen the meme/joke/fad called LOLcats. (Unless you’re my mom. Hi, Mom! In the LOLcat genre, people put captions with a particular patois onto pictures of cats. Note that the language used for the captions is “bad” — incorrect by the standard rules of English — but relatively consistent.)

Why are they funny? Why are they popular? I think LOLcats are the new ethnic joke.

First, the cats are stupid, in much the way that the butts of old ethnic jokes were stupid. Having stupid protagonists makes it easier to set the audience up to form an expectation of “reasonable” behaviour, and then deliver a completely different behaviour. That’s funny.


Q: Why did the blonde scale the chain-link fence?
A: To see what was on the other side.

The joke is only funny because “to see what was on the other side” is not reasonable behaviour.

In a similar manner, the LOLcats can be stupid. Consider this one. There are lots of reasonable reasons why the cat’s leg is shaved, yet the cat comes up with a preposterous one.

Second, a lot of the appeal in both jokes comes from shared context. Recognizing shared context feels intimate, and that makes it easier for us to laugh. Consider:

Two black guys are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, when they realize they both have to take a leak. There’s no place else to go, so they just take a whiz off the side of the bridge. While they are taking their leaks, one says to the other, “Dang! That water’s cold!” The other one says, “Yeah, and deep, too!”

This joke depends upon the audience knowing that there is a stereotype of black men having really long penises. Blonde jokes depend upon the stereotype of blondes being stupid; many also depend upon a stereotype of blondes being promiscuous and/or pretty; some also depend on a stereotype of brunettes being intelligent yet unattractive.

A lot of the LOLcats jokes are also only funny if you have shared content. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring form of the speech: “I’m in ur X Y-ing ur Z“, “Do not want“, or “Oh hai“. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring content of invisible objects, buckets, and cheeseburgers.

Why are buckets funny? Only because they are shared context. It doesn’t matter what the running jokes are, only that they are understood by everybody. (Why was JJ Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” funny in the 1970s? Why was “NOT!” at the end of sentences funny in the late 1980s? Why was “Don’t have a cow!” funny in the 1990s? Because they were shared context that bound us together.)

Ethnic jokes could be really funny, but it is also clear just how damaging they can be. (I’m ashamed to say that when I first met a Polish boy in my youth, I was surprised that he wasn’t stupid.) I am glad that I don’t hear/read nearly as many ethnic jokes as I did thirty years ago.

LOLcats are a perfect substitute for ethnic jokes. The cats won’t get their feelings hurt if your jokes make them look stupid. No cat will mind if a shared understanding develops among us humans that all cats like cheeseburgers or like to play with invisible toys. We can make as much fun of cats as we want, and the jokes will be funny.

And that’s a good thing.


Excel dorkiness

Posted in Art, Hacking, Random thoughts at 11:44 pm by ducky

I stumbled across this old post by Anil Dash where he mentioned that almost all of his geeky friends have at some point made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of something really obsessive:

Perhaps the ultimate example of this sort of dorkiness is the fact that almost every one of my friends has, at one point or another, made at least one Excel spreadsheet to document some arcane aspect of their lives. The number of consecutive sunny days, the types and prices of the cups of coffee they drink, or just straightforward charts about their boss’s mood. There’s no end to the ways one can misuse desktop applications in one’s personal life.

I read that and thought, “Huh. I certainly haven’t done anything like that.”

Um. But then I remembered that I had generated a list of the world’s writing systems, with the likeliest start/stop usage dates, the lat/long of where it was first used, how many people currently use it, who created it (if known), and samples of characters in that system (if I could find them, and I usually could). Oh.

And then my husband pointed out that I also have enumerated various California prisons, their lat/long, the type of facility (state pen, federal pen, county jail, etc.), and how many inmates it has. Oh.

But I can honestly say that I have never used Excel to keep track of these obsessions.

I used gnumeric and oocalc.

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