Concerning the female ankle and… the rise of a new species of man

[an essay on ankles, part 3 of 3]

The chief breakthrough of evolutionary psychology in the field of aesthetics is the concept of inherited taste preference. This is the idea that a preference is to some extent inborn: which you know from first hand experience: there are some preferences that you just can’t do anything about. I happen not to like guys – and no amount of persuasion has been able to change that in the past. I also don’t like konyaku and although through adventurous experimentation I have been able to overcome initial resistance to many other unfamiliar foods, no amount of experimentation has been able to change the fact that the very sight of konyaku makes me retch. The truth is that when you really don’t like something, sometimes you just cannot change your mind about it no matter how hard you try.

Ev-psychs explain that the way such a fixed taste arises is this: first, a totally random mutation (basically, copying mistake) in the DNA of a new fetus allows a new structure to arise in the brain of the child and thereby creates a new, previously unheard of taste preference; and then, selection (i.e. the vicissitudes of subsequent life) makes sure that if the mutation is beneficial (e.g. preference for some kind of safe food), it gets passed on to the offspring (because its owner lives long and prospers eating that food); but if the mutation is harmful (e.g. preference for red, white-spotted mushrooms), it does not (i.e. the person with the preference dies without issue).

The two corollaries of this theory are 1) that mutation has not stopped happening: our reproductive system has not changed in millennia and it still makes mistakes as it always has; and therefore people with odd preferences continue to be born everyday (you might know some of them personally: think of all those Bon Jovi fans); and 2) that the complexity of the human environment and its frequent change allow for a number of different life-strategies to function side by side (and therefore a number of different preferences); hence some like it hot and others cold. (And each can thrive: one in the tropics, the other in the Arctic).

And this is fine: we live in a world in which different folks like different things and that only makes the world more interesting (and my favorite sections of the museum uncrowded).

The situation gets complicated when the preference in question has to do with what ev-psychs call “mate selection” (“love”). The ankle is the case in point: a lot of people with an anke-hang up (like yours truly) actually have a good ankle themselves. They don’t like a good ankle because they have it; rather, they like a good ankle because their ancestors have liked a good ankle and have passed on the preference to them; and they have a good ankle because their ancestors, liking a good ankle, have been able to “acquire it” through breeding. In other words: the ancestors passed on the preference (taste) along with the feature (ankle). (Spare a thought for those of us who inherit a preference but not the corresponding feature and have to look in the mirror every day when they shave).

This phenomenon – that preference for a feature leads to its acquisition – is the source of a lot of “speciation”. A species is defined as category of animals (or plants) who are able to breed with each other (i.e. produce viable offspring) and “speciation” is the process by which a new species appears.  Horses and donkeys can breed but the resulting cross, the mule, is sexually inert, so horses and donkeys are different species.

But some animal species turn out not to be species at all: all North American songbirds are perfectly capable of breeding with each other and producing perfectly viable offspring. Such birds (say a gold-finch/nut-hatch cross) have been produced by mad/evil scientists. But they do not happen in nature. Why? Because the preference for a gold breast is passed on along with the feature: a gold-finch female looks at a house-finch male and simply does not see him. Or perhaps, like you and me, she does see him and thinks that his chest is a pretty good shade of red. But she just will not “do” him. So gold-finches and house-finches are still a single “species” in fact, but not in practice. Which means that mutations might appear and spread in the gold-finch which will never “transfer” to house-finches and vice-versa; give it a few hundred thousand – or perhaps a million – years and enough such mutations can arise and spread to actually create two different species: two types of song-birds which can no longer mate with each other to produce viable offspring.

What happens here is that at first you have a preference; then the preference and the feature begin to correspond; then they become a kind of barrier to breeding outside of the feature; and eventually, they become a basis for the rise of a new species.

Think about it next time someone whose ankle you don’t like all that much is trying to sleep with you.

More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

Part 2 of 3

[With Sir C’s forebearance]

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners. Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook: does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)? That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item? (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests: yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group? Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics? And if not — are there any features they share? And significantly: not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or: “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at? Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from a course or two in marketing research. For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor each group prefers;

b) that members of those groups are found all over the world — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily: for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth: Poland and the UK (strong stuff, eh?); not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, one usually large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment); the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like: people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way: many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences (“Ankles!” “Boobs!”); and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own (“I used to like candy but now like booze”); and swimming within this sea: “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, baffled by it all, and never understood by anyone else who cannot imagine what it is like to know more than they do.

The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

Part 1 of 3

[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read’em variety]

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them. And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying support-column. Can this be possible? To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing. (Unbelievable, but true).  (See above).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone: he remembers others commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; deftly-brushed Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist. Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make? Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping? (Desirable for one’s offspring). Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health? (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects: those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves!


[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that the category of photo which could be described as “a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo” appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].


[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP):  among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call “amateur BBW” (big-beautiful-woman); “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it – I can’t be bothered to remember which; and wrongly:  the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the  fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].

In which he explains why Sei Shonagon is occasionally driven to drink

(Today at last I began reading The Pillow Book in the original — above).

The story explaining how The Pillow Book begun is this: the chancellor has gifted two bound sets of exquisite paper to the imperial couple: one to the emperor and one to the empress. Predictably, the emperor has promptly announced that he will use his to write a shiki — a historical chronicle in Chinese, which is precisely what could be expected of such a person at such a time. “What should we use ours for?”, asked the empress of her favorite lady in waiting, whose learning and pen-skills made her the go-to person in matters of literature.

“Why, let us make a pillow of it,” replied Sei Shonagon, probably laughing, and scholars have disagreed ever since about what she may have meant. A play on words, goes a typical theory, shiki being both a) a chronicle and b) a part of the saddle, makura being both a) a pillow and b) a horses head-dress; and the whole utterance thus meaning “let us do one better”; and illustrates the surprising point that scholars — Sei Shonagists, no less! — are no better at understanding Mrs Sei than the rest of the human race.

Why do scholars not understand Sei Shonagon? The claim that times change, and we change with them, and therefore no one can understand history and/ or the men of the past — seems an excuse with which to cover up some kind of severe cognitive shortcoming, a mental handicap, a congenital lack of a Sei Shonagon Decoder: surely, if I can understand Sei Shonagon, anyone should?

Let me parse this one for the scholars:  the emperor is a kind, beautiful man, whom Mrs Sei loves dearly (as we know from other passages), but, although his decision to write shiki is certainly commendable, no one will, or ever should, read what he will write, certainly not all of it.  Therefore, in order to match him, the court ladies might as well use their notebook for a pillow.

(Or a door stopper).

In short, dear scholars, Mrs Sei is poking fun at his majesty.  (As Beatrice is of Benedick when she promises to eat everything he kills).

What makes this utterance — and all of Sei Shonagon’s utterances — so delicious, is what makes it unimpeachable:  its double — even triple — entendre, none of it, in this case, sexual:  the remark is funny also because as women, and therefore, in the minds of men (i.e. on the emperor’s side of the palace) stupid — and lazy — the empress’s ladies in waiting would be expected to do precisely something like use the notebook for a pillow.  At any rate, given what they might produce if they attempted to write something, in Sei Shonagon’s opinion, they really ought to use it for a pillow.

This utterance — shall we make it into a pillow? — is typical of Sei Shonagon diction.  It is surprising how few of her readers understand it, and puzzling why this should be the case, but explains why her bitter competitor, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the easy to understand Tale of Genji (with plenty of romance and psychology) has ever outsold Sei Shonagon about 1200:1.

And also why, on occasion, as David Stoner reports (in a drawing, below), Mrs Sei is driven to drink.

Matmee — Thai Silk Ikat, Part 1

Last week I visited Khon Kaen province to look for matmee.

Matmee, or Ikat as it is known in Indonesia, is a textile-patterning technique in which unwoven thread is tie-died in a series of steps (3-6 steps resulting in 3-6 +1 colors – the yellow of the raw (undied) silk being the additional color) in such a way that a single, continuous thread (sometimes several hundred meters long) will consist of  colored sections of different lengths:  blue, black, red, yellow, pink, green, etc.  Here’s a bunch of threads which have just been died green – the wrapper with which it is tied before dying is still attached to the thread (color only adheres to the untied sections):

And here is tie-died thread ready to be woven:

The various tie-died areas of the thread will then coincide with each other when the thread is woven into cloth and result in a pattern.  Here is a typical pattern (in this photo, the tie-died thread runs vertically):

And this photo (click to enlarge) allows you to follow a single weft thread through a section of the fabric:  the arrow points to the same thread at various points of its length, each section in a different color.  Note that both the thread above the thread we are looking at and the thread below — indeed, all the horizontal threads in this piece of cloth, are in fact one and the same, continuous thread:

Indonesian ikats are “easy” in that they use fewer colors (just two or three) and are (usually) warp-died – meaning that the pattern is in the stationary, lengthwise thread.  It can be carefully set up before weaving and can be clearly seen the moment the loom is set up; the act of weaving consists merely of giving the cloth body.  But Thai matmee are more difficult in that they consist of more colors and are weft-died:  i.e. the weft – the thread that winds left to right and then right to left and then back again as the cloth is woven – is the tie-died thread, and the pattern emerges gradually, one thread at a time, as the weaver weaves and the thread folds back upon itself.

(Patola – a double-ikat technique, Indian in origin, in which both warp and weft are tie-died prior to weaving – and absolutely everything must coincide in order for the pattern to emerge – is now practiced by just one workshop in the world today – the Patolawallas of Pathan, Gujarat).

The normal hand-loom weaving process involves sending the shuttle through the loom (between the warp threads), beating twice, then  repositioning the loom and sending the shuttle through again in the opposite direction.  Here’s a weaver at her loom:

By contrast, the Thai matmee weaver sends the shuttle through the loom, beats once, then adjusts the thread so that colors coincide, then beats again, before laying the next thread. Here’s the weaver adjusting the thread in order to elucidate the pattern:

This technique requires good eye, much practice, and – plenty of time.

The quality of the execution of a pattern depends on the precision of tie-dying (the thread must be tie-died in just the right places or the pattern will not coalesce) and the precision of weaving (the threads must be laid as precisely as possible so that the resulting pattern is as small-featured and crisp as possible).  Not surprisingly, designs involving perfect circles or diagonal lines – the most difficult to produce/ fake and the easiest to evaluate – and therefore allowing most obvious display of skill, are universally preferred.

A good explanation (with photos) of the matmee production process can be found here.

How difficult it becomes with age to find a good book to read

How difficult it becomes with age to find a good book to read:  one has become more demanding, both because one has seen a lot and is no longer as easily impressed; but also because one’s time is shorter — the days go by faster, there are fewer of them left — so that one has grown less forgiving of those who would waste it.

This year I have read only five or six new books to the end, most of those not because they were especially good but because they were informative, the rest lie about the house, splayed open upside down, like dead sea-gulls shot down from the sky.  It is perhaps on this account that I read less in general:  drawing up this year’s accounts I find no more than 30 titles this year, so far, against the usual three hundred a year as recently as 2005.  Books, I suppose, go the way of women:  one knows how it will go; and, worse, knows too that he doesn’t really care all that much for it.