Autodidact: self-taught


Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

by V. L. Craven

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

Katherine Dettwyler is an anthropologist who’s been working and conducting research in Mali for decades, focusing on childhood nutrition. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa is a collection of her observations. In it Dettwyler introduces us to the social conventions of the region–including an extended greeting that must be got through for every person you meet that makes the obligatory, ‘Good morning, how are you, hope your weekend went well’ look like a snub.

Dettwyler has been there long enough she’s treated less like a tourist and more like an honoured guest–at times being brought special (if stomach-churning to Western palates) foods and feted at dances–at other times she’s treated like just another person walking around. There’s clearly a mutual respect between the woman and her subjects. At times, they’re more than just subjects.

Other stories are heartrending. Mali is a country with less-than-adequate medical facilities and education on the best practises for proper healthcare. This leads to higher rates of childhood disease and death. Malaria, for example, can even be drug-resistant. Something Dettwyler finds out first-hand, unfortunately.

Overall, the attitude of the people Dettwyler met was one of accepting life as it was–whether it was the child who had what we’d call Down’s Syndrome, or the woman who had such severe mental disabilities she was going to allow her child to die from malnutrition. In the Down’s Syndrome child–no one ostracised the child in anyway–she simply went about her life as happy and carefree as possible–something that wouldn’t happen in the West. In the latter case–social services would take the child from the mother immediately. But in Magnambougou there was an acceptance that some children die from malnutrition and this child would be one of them.

The most challenging chapter was probably the one about female circumcision. It follows on from the acceptance in that, when asked about it, people said it was simply the way it has always been. They usually did it when the girls were six months old so they didn’t remember it and all the girls had it done. The boys were all circumcised, as well, so it only seemed right that the girls were, too. When Dettwyler (an American) said she wasn’t circumcised, the woman she was speaking with was shocked. After all, if everyone you know. And everyone in your entire culture has forever done something, how absolutely bizarre is it to find someone who doesn’t? And then to be asked, well, why don’t you?

It’s a slim volume, but is a fascinating look into a culture quite different from the one Westerners are accustomed to. Though it’s somewhat academic, I’d still recommend it for fans of Mary Roach or people interested in anthropology in general.


What the Internet Did This Week

by V. L. Craven

From The Guardian:  Writers’ Favourite Classic Book Illustrations with Pictures . The captions make it, for me. Beatrix Potter was… interesting. [Bonus 1: I’ve just started playing Peter Rabbit’s Garden on my iPod and it’s lovely–really captures the feel of the books, but without the horrors. Bonus 2: The illustration below was Bryan Talbot’s choice for the article. Complete set of Dore illustrations of with the Longfellow translation of The Divine Comedy in this 30MB zip file .]

Does anyone else hear ominous music… ?

This article from Slate  explains why we think disasters make people regress to their primal selves, when it’s simply not so. Bonus info: There’s something called ‘disaster science’ and I’m loving the new term ‘elite panic’, which is when white people get a-scared the non-white people are going to start looting and robbing the second the electrics are off for more than ten minutes. The big takeaway from this article is that people are kinda great when it benefits the entire tribe (meaning all the people).

Brown people are going to take my stuff!

Gawker has an article about an advice column  about how men can best deal with women-times . The title of the article is ‘MEN: Is Your Lady on ‘a Period’: Learn How to Deal in the Most Ridiculous Period-Advice Column Ever’ and I thought I was in for one of those delightfully amusing advice columns from the 1820s. But no. How I wish that had been the case.

I’d be remiss if I left an article on genitals of the other sex: Fleshbot has an…enlightening article about 3-D printing your willy . So, so very NSFW . My husband read this part to me, (italicized bit was his commentary):

They even hand mix their own colors, and not only do they do four flesh tones (cashew, caramel, hazelnut, and chocolate) [WHY ARE THEY ALL FOODS?!] but they can also capture undertones, such as the reddish-purple luster of a swollen dong. They’re true artisans.

The article is hilarious and reminds me a great deal of Grant Stoddard’s excellent I Did it For Science column on Nerve.

Here is an image of a 3D printer, as I’d like at least the *images* in this post to be safe for work.

And apparently, since sex seems to be the unofficial topic of this week’s links, have an article from The Atlantic entitled Where Masturbation and Homosexuality Do Not Exist , which is about the Aka and Ngandu tribes in central Africa. When a population has a high infant mortality rate but relies on having several children, sex, though enjoyable, is used as a reproduction tool (sorry). The article also discusses the way Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democratic societies (WEIRD)–which is even better than ‘elite panic’–approach the idea of sex when studying non-WEIRD groups. I find the sociology of anthropology very interesting, so this article was a great read.

These people are both WEIRD and would love it in central Africa, where I’d bet there’s no abortion, either.



by V. L. Craven

Watching the English

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox
-01- Every human activity, without exception, including natural biological functions such as eating and sex, is hedged about with complex sets of rules and regulations, dictating precisely when, where, with whom and [??] what manner the activity may be performed. Animals just do these things; humans make an almighty song and dance about it. This is known as civilisation.
-02- But we judge social class in much more subtle and complex ways; precisely how you arrange, furnish and decorate your terraced houses; not just the make of the car you drive, but whether you wash it yourself on Sundays, take it to a car wash or rely on the English climate to sluice off the worst of the dirt for you. Similar fine distinctions are applied to exactly what, where, when, how and with whom you eat and drink; the words you use and how you pronounce them; where and how you shop; the clothes you wear; the pets you keep; how you spend your free time; the chat up lines you use and so on.
-03- Ethnic minorities constitute only 6% of the population [of England] .
-04- Irony and Understatement Rules. We have a tendency to say, ‘Well, I expect we’ll manage somehow,’ when we mean, ‘Yes, certainly, no trouble’ and ‘That would be quite helpful,’ wen we mean, ‘For Christ’s sake, that should have been done yesterday!’; and ‘We seem to have a bit of a problem,’ when there has been a complete and utter disaster. (Another typically English response to, say, a catastrophic meeting where a million pound deal has fallen through, would be, ‘That all went rather well, don’t you think?’
It takes foreign colleagues and clients a while to realise that when the English say, ‘Oh really? How interesting!’ they might well mean, ‘I don’t believe a word of it, you lying toad.’ Or they might not. They might just mean, ‘I’m bored and not really listening, but trying to be polite.’ Or they might be generally surprised and truly interested. You’ll never know. There is no way of telling: even the English themselves, who have a pretty good ‘sixth sense’ for detecting irony, cannot always be entirely sure. And this is the problem with the irony-habit: we do sometimes say what we mean, but our constant use of irony is a bit like crying wolf when there really is a wolf; when we do mean what we say, our audience is not surprisingly, somewhat skeptical, or , if foreign completely bewildered. The English are accustomed to the perpetual state of uncertainty.
-05- The Rules of Bogside Reading. We read compulsively, any time, anywhere. In many English homes, you will find what I call ‘bogside reading’: piles of books and magazines placed next to the loo or even neatly arranged in a special rack or bookcase for reading while sitting on the loo. I have occasionally come across the odd book or magazine in loos in other countries, but bogside reading does not seem to be a firmly established custom or tradition elsewhere in the way that it is in England. There are many English people—particularly males—who find it very hard to defecate at all unless they have something to read. If there is no proper bogside reading, they will read the instructions on the soap dispenser or the list of ingredients on the spray-can of air-freshener.
The unwritten rules of bogside reading state that the books and magazines in question should be of a relatively unserious nature—humour, books of quotations, collections of letters or diaries, odd or obscure reference books, old magazines; anything that can be dipped into casually.
Class indicators: Working-class. Mostly humorous, light entertainment or sports related—books of jokes, cartoons maybe the occasional puzzle-book or quiz-book and perhaps a few glossy gossip or sports magazines. You will also sometimes find magazines. You will also sometimes find magazines about bobbies and interests, such as motorcycles, music or skate-boarding.
Lower & middle-middle: not so keen on bogside reading: they may well take a book or newspaper into the loo with them, but do not like to advertise this habit by having a permanent bogside collection, which they think might look vulgar. Females of these classes may be reluctant to admit to reading on the loo.
Upper-middles are generally much less prudish about such things and often have mini-libraries in their loos. Some upper-middle bogside collections are a bit pretentious, with books are magazines that appear to have been selected to impress, rather than to entertain but many are genuinely eclectic, and so amusing that guests often get engrossed in them and have to be shouted at to come to the dinner table.
Upper-class bogside reading is usually closer to working-class tastes, consisting mainly of sport and humour although the sporting magazines are more likely to be of the hunting/shooting/fishing sort than, say, football. Some upper-class bogside libraries including fascinating old children’s books, and ancient, crumbling copies of House and Hound or Country Life, in which you might come across the 1950s engagement-portrait of the lady of the house.
*A little spasm of scrupulous honesty just propelled me to our own look to check the current bogside reading matter. I found a paperback edition of Jane Austen’s getting and a mangled copy of the Times Literary Supplement. Oh dear. Could possibly be seen as pretentious. I suppose it’s no use saying that both are gloriously bitchy and extremely funny. PerhapsI should be less quick to cast aspersions on other people’s bogside libraries. Maybe some people really do enjoy reading Haber [???] and Derrida on the loo. I take it all back.
-06- Newspaper Rules. Over 80% of English people read a national daily paper. Only about 16% read the so-called ‘quality’ national daily papers.
These are also known as ‘broadsheets’, because of their large format. I could never understand why these papers were such an awkward, unwieldy size, until I started watching English commuters reading them on trains, and realised that read ability and maneuverability were not the point and the point is clearly to have a newspaper large enough to hide behind. The English broadsheet is a formidable example of what psychologists call a ‘barrier signal’–in this case more like a ‘fortress signal’. Not only can one conceal oneself completely behind its oversize, outstretched pages—effectively prohibiting any form of interaction with other humans, and successfully maintaining the comfortable illusion that they do not exist—but one is enclosed, cocooned in a solid wall of words. How very English.
Broadsheets are also to some extent, as signals of political affiliation. Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph are somewhat to the right of centre—although the Telegraph, also know as the Torygraph, is regarded as more right-wing than The Times. The Independent and the Guardian balance things out neatly by being somewhat to the left of centre—again with one, the Guardian being seen as slightly more left-wing than the others. The term ‘Guardian-reader’ is often used as shorthand for a woolly, lefty, politically correct, knit-your-own-tofu sort of person. This is England, though, so none of these political positions is in any way extreme; indeed, the differences may be hard to discern unless you are English and familiar with all of the subtle nuances. The English do not like extremism, in politics or any other sphere: apart from anything else, political extremists and fanatics, whether on the right of left, invariably break the all-important English humour rules, particularly the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. Among their many other sins, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco were not noted for their use of the understatement. No such totalitarian leaders would ever stand a change in England—even leaving aside their ethical shortcomings, they would be rejected immediately for taking themselves too seriously.
-07- The English love to complain, and the English educated classes do have a tendency to complain noisily about matters of which they have little or no knowledge.

Rules of Englishness

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