Realism vs. idealism in depictions of women

Venus von Willendorf
Photo: Matthias Kabel
People have long held a fascination with the human—and in particular, female—form. Some of the earliest cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago include depictions of women. Throughout human history, artistic depictions of the female form have reflected the ideals and longings of the cultures that created them. Both instinct and culture are important to shaping these preferences, and concepts of beauty definitely change over time.

Depictions of women often depart from faithful representation of the female form. Venus figurines dating back thousands of years exaggerate some features like hips, breasts, or genitals. By choosing to emphasize these parts of female anatomy, perhaps the artists hoped to express their awe at women’s power to create and nurture life.

Artists are limited by the medium in which they work, the technology available, and their own knowledge and skill. As the state of the art has evolved, so has the faithfulness with which artists have portrayed the world. What has not changed though is that artists exaggerate.  The media and the tools may be different today than when the Venus von Willendorf was carved some 22,000 years ago; but the basic principle is the same: start from images of actual women, and create an idealized image of femininity.

Michelle Merkin
Modern glamour photography takes this process to its logical conclusion. Starting with already fit models, photographers and graphic artists tweak, enhance, add and remove, until the desired image of perfection has been achieved. It should come as no surprise that the resulting images are striking, and effective at capturing the attention of readers (and the dollars of advertisers). Perhaps in part because the images are exaggerated, they are arresting.

The practice of enhancing photos of women has become so widespread though, that it has led to a fair amount of criticism. Feminist pundits worry that unrealistic images of women contribute to an atmosphere in which women are held to an unattainable standard of beauty. The argument goes that the prevalence of images of beautiful women makes women feel bad about their appearance, and makes men expect above-average attractiveness in women. It has been shown that the images to which people are exposed do indeed affect their attitudes and behaviors, so perhaps this is not an entirely unfair critique.

Some have suggested one possible remedy: that a warning label be required on all images that have been doctored. It’s hard to imagine this happening though. Most images created today are enhanced in one way or another. Moreover, there is no obvious place to draw the line between unadulterated and enhanced imagery.

Lizzie Miller
Photo: Walter Chin/Glamour
Other feminist thinkers have argued for more diversity in the portrayal of women. Glamour magazine recently published a photo of model Lizzie Miller, who, although attractive, is somewhat fatter than the typical photo model. The photo elicited considerable feedback from readers, most of it positive. A common theme emerged in the reaction to the photo: there should be more photos in the media of average women.

Unfortunately though, this is not a solution. What is average? In the United States and a growing number of countries in Europe, a significant portion of the population is overweight. If depictions of women were based on the average, this example would be an unhealthy one to follow! Most people would be healthier and live longer if they ate less and exercised more. Body acceptance is a great, but not when it facilitates an unhealthy lifestyle.

It’s a good idea to increase the diversity of body types depicted in media—but centered around a healthy body, not an average one.


Thoughts on Siri

After using the iPhone 4S for a couple of weeks, I have made a few observations about Apple’s voice-based assistant Siri.

Siri is very good at determining which words you have spoken. However, she is less adept at understanding the meaning of these words. This becomes clear in two ways: first of all, the range of topics and tasks is severely limited. Also, Siri is quite limited in her ability parse even moderately complex syntax. For example,  Siri doesn’t understand this simple statement:
“Remind me the day before my brother’s birthday.”
The biggest stumbling block appeared to be understanding the meaning of the phrase the day before. Siri appears not to know that this phrase, combined with the birthday already in my brother’s address book entry, encodes the specific date needed to set up the reminder.

The other big limitation is that Siri has a very shallow conversation flows. She sometimes keeps some context in mind and asks a follow-up question to clarify an ambiguous detail; however, it’s currently not possible to do something like this:
User: Siri, what is David’s birthday?
Siri: I don’t know when David Smith’s birthday is.
User: It’s April 2, 1975
Siri: Would you like me to remember that David Smith’s birthday is April 2, 1975?
First of all, Siri doesn’t know how to add a birthday to an existing contact. Secondly, by the time you tell her the date, she has already forgotten what you were talking about. She doesn’t maintain the conversational context, so she has already discarded the information that would tell her the antecedent of it in the second user statement above.

Next, consider the following example:
User: Siri, remember my appointment tomorrow evening?
Siri: Yes. You have dinner with Karen Jones at 18:30 tomorrow.
User: Please change the time to 8 P.M.
Siri: Alright. I have changed dinner with Karen Jones to 8 P.M. tomorrow.
User: Please add a reminder too. Remind me one hour before.
Siri: OK. I have added your reminder.
This is another conversation that Siri cannot currently have, because there is no straightforward way to set Siri’s context so that she knows that you want to modify an existing appointment. Put simply, there is no way to tell Siri, “Hey, I want to work with item x.”

Siri’s inability to remember or set the conversational context makes the service feel somewhat rigid and restrictive. Adding this ability will be essential to making conversations with Siri more natural and flexible. After using Siri for a while, one begins to feel like one’s conversations are scripted. It’s like the difference between taking a car and taking the train. The car can drive almost anywhere; the train has to stay on the tracks. As soon as you ask something of Siri that is outside of her known conversation flows, she gracefully admits defeat. Then it begins to feel less like talking HAL, and more like talking to an airline’s telephone reservation system. (The many easter eggs people have uncovered are indeed humorous, intended no doubt to distract whimsically from the fact that Siri is not HAL.)

Like Amazon’s Silk browser, Apple’s Siri is a hybrid application that combines programs run locally on the mobile device with operations distributed to a cloud of servers. By splitting up the work between on-device and in-cloud operations, Apple gains several advantages. First of all, the computationally expensive work is offloaded to powerful servers better suited to these tasks. Every operation that can be performed on a server in Apple’s data centers is an operation that doesn’t have to be performed on the iPhone’s A5 CPU. Because computationally-intensive operations consume more power, it makes sense to offload them to the cloud, where battery life is not a concern. This allows Apple to find the right balance between good voice recognition performance and decent battery life. This design requires that Siri have network access, and using the wireless transceivers also consumes power. This means that there’s a trade-off between using battery power to perform calculations locally, and using power to distribute these calculations to the cloud. I expect Apple will adjust and fine-tune this balance in the future, as batteries and mobile CPUs improve.

Another benefit of Siri’s hybrid design is that because the recognition portion of Siri is done in the cloud, many improvements can be made transparently, behind the scenes. Users will not have to install an update on their iPhones to benefit from updates to to the voice recognition engine.

The most important benefit of Siri’s hybrid design though is that Apple is collecting huge numbers of (one hopes, anonymized) Siri conversations. Every question an iPhone user asks Siri is a datapoint Apple will use to refine the system. Voice recognition quality can be expected to improve over time as Apple collects and analyzes millions of voice samples. Even more importantly though, Apple is amassing a wealth of information about what users are asking Siri. When Siri gets the same type of request from thousands of users, this is a clear indication that this is something users want Siri to be able to do. Popular requests that Siri cannot yet handle will be given priority when it comes time to add new features. We can expect an expansion of the topics about which Siri is conversant, the depth of her conversations, and the actions of which she is capable.

Already, Siri is fun and quite useful in some limited situations. It’s just a first step though. Siri 1.0 is but a tantalizing taste of what is to come.


Treat the symptoms when that’s the best you can do

After getting no help from physicians, I recently decided to try an herbal cough syrup to treat my chronic bronchitis. After just a week, the symptoms that had been pestering me for a year began slowly to subside. Although the problem has not completely cleared up, already I feel much better . My singing has also improved—bronchitis is definitely not good for one’s voice.

Looking back on the many visits I have paid to doctors in the past year, I am struck by a pattern: almost all of the activity during my doctor’s visits centered around performing tests to determine the cause of the problem, and very little attention was paid to treating the symptoms. I had chest X-rays, blood tests, a CT-scan, allergy tests, lung capacity tests, an asthma test, and even tests of potential allergens collected from my home. None of these tests revealed the cause.

No medicines were prescribed, because the tests revealed no problems. “Your lungs look perfectly healthy,” several doctors told me. Ok, fine. Then why do I have to cough every day? No one could give me an answer.

Yet after just a week of taking a Swiss herbal remedy every day, my symptoms had largely vanished. Why didn’t any of the many doctors and nurses I spoke with ever recommend ways to treat the symptoms? Not one of the doctors and nurses I saw ever recommended anything other than further tests.

I’m afraid that this could be an example of the sort of thinking that turns many people against traditional medicine:
If a condition cannot be explained, it’s not a real problem.
If a treatment is not well understood, it’s not a real treatment.
Of course it may be just a coincidence that I’ve begun to improve only now. Perhaps my body needed a year to repair the damage caused by last year’s bout of pneumonia. Maybe the cough syrup was as much placebo as real cure. Maybe changes in lifestyle, activity, or weather affected my health in a positive way. It’s hard to know. I hasten to point out that I too prefer to understand the reasons behind things. On the one had it seems logical that better understanding of a problem will lead to better solutions most of the time; but on the other hand, this too might be a form of self-delusion: it feels good to have an explanation that fits within one’s accepted way of thinking.

For me, a scientific outlook is such an integral part of who I am that I too was very much engaged in the search for an explanation to my problem. Did I unknowingly contribute to the decision to overlook possibilities for treating the symptoms? Was I so set on understanding the problem that I ignored potential solutions? It’s an interesting question.

Still, I’m frustrated that the medical professionals whose help I sought gave such short shrift to treating the symptoms. I feel a deepened sympathy now for those who have much more serious problems than I, and who are neglected in part because their conditions are not well understood.


Facebook discontinues blog and RSS feed importing

For years, Facebook has given blog authors the ability to import their blog posts automatically and have them added as notes to their Facebook profiles. Facebook is now eliminating this feature, meaning that users will have to add each blog post manually if they want it to appear in Facebook.

What seems clear is that Facebook is trying to convince people to skip the step of posting to personal blogs in the first place, making Facebook the primary location of what would otherwise be blog posts. If people post these items directly on Facebook, they become the property of Facebook. The company can use the information as it sees fit, and keep it cloistered away, unavailable to the public web.

Facebook’s decision sucks, and means I will post even less to Facebook..

If you want to own what you write, don’t post it on Facebook. Post it on your own blog or web page. If you want to share it on Facebook, post a link. Services like dlvr.it automate the process, replacing the feature Facebook is eliminating.


Doomsday survivalists and the anthropic principle

This morning I read an article on The Verge about survivalist condos—homes built in disused missile silos and military bunkers—intended to allow their wealthy and determined owners to survive a cataclysm.

Most doomsday theories are just plain silly, particularly those based on prophesy. Neither the ancient Mayans nor the authors of the Old Testament had true insight into the future of the world. They were doing the best they could with the information they had, of course; but they were mere storytellers.

However, there are conceivable threats to humanity’s survival. Extinction-level events have occurred in our planet’s history, and will probably occur again. This leads to a macabre corollary to the anthropic principle (and a form of selection bias): those who plan for catastrophe, will be the only ones to survive in a universe where such events are common. Disasters of large magnitude are relatively uncommon. However, assuming such events have a non-zero probability, doomsday theorists will eventually be proven correct: it’s just a matter of time.

I assume though that most of the people who invest in such bunker homes believe that the cataclysm for which they are preparing is likely to occur within their lifetimes. So the real question is whether it makes sense to invest time, money, and effort in what is essentially a form of insurance against an event whose probability is very difficult to estimate. If this investment requires diversion of resources and isolation from the rest of the world, then there are additional opportunity costs. It’s an interesting dilemma!