Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XV, The Difference a Jacket Makes

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings XIV, Grylloi and Visual Linguistics | The Semantics of Line Drawings XVI, Cummerbund, not Cumberland ]

Man is the animal who is not satisfied with merely living his life, but who is capable of — and insists upon — watching himself doing it. He not only is, acts, feels, and knows; but unlike any other animal. he is insatiably curious to observe his body, his actions, his feelings, and his thoughts.

When he does this, however, he is seldom wholly satisfied with what he finds. Nature, he discovers, has been both niggardly and clumsy in the appearance it bestowed upon him, and likewise in the talents, virtues, and powers with which it equipped him. Therefore, no sooner does he get a good look at himself than he takes steps to effect, as best he can, changes for the better.

"The Art of Personal Beauty" by Curt J. Ducasse, in The Philosophy of the Visual Arts, ed. Philip Alperson (1991)

In Vernor Vinge's short story "Apartness", the Northern Hemisphere has been rendered uninhabitable by a terrible war, nuclear, chemical and biological. Two hundred years later, a scientific exploration fleet from South America sails to Antarctica and finds an isolated tribe who call their land New Transvaal. Much less adapted to the cold, both biologically and technologically, than our Inuit, they turn out to be the descendants of the last white men on Earth: South Africans who escaped from their country after a genocide against all white Africans. When the scientists land, the leader of the tribe greets them. They are surprised by his clothing. Most of the tribe are wearing crude sealskin parkas, but his is particularly impractical, and in fact resembles a double-breasted jacket more than anything designed to keep its wearer warm.

But although jackets are not a terribly practical form of clothing, leaving so much space for heat to escape, people still wear them. Why? Vinge's tribal president wore his as a symbol, but we don't all hold such positions of power. In my last post, I wrote about Mark Changizi's call for a discipline that studies the visual "utterances" people make — writing, visual signs, fashion, architecture, and the other visual aspects of culture — and relates them to the visual system and its evolution. While drawing a cartoon, I was looking up the kinds of suit bankers wear, and I came across Antonio Centeno's Real Men Real Style and his article "The Difference a Jacket Makes". He starts by writing:

Imagine a product that will adds inches to your perceived height, shaves 20 lbs of your midsection, and makes you appear more muscular. And the magic item can do all this instantly!

Centeno says that jackets improve their wearer's appearance in three ways: by bulking out the shoulders; by slimming the waist; and by drawing attention to the face and making the wearer seem taller.

The first of these benefits, the bulking effect, is obvious. The second, the apparent slimming, happens because jackets taper a bit above the waist, and widen above the taper, an effect accentuated by their outward-spreading lapels. And they flare out over the stomach and hips, hiding weight you may be carrying under the flare. So the middle of the jacket is narrowed, which "makes you look like our image of a healthy man: tucked at the waist, widening above it". As Centeno continues: "Think of it as a tummy tuck without the horrible, invasive surgery."

And the third benefit is also because jackets widen towards the top. This makes us naturally look from the waist up rather than the face down, making us think we're looking up at something even when we're taller than the wearer. This keeps people looking at your face rather than your middle. Centeno suggests asking people to guess your height with and without a jacket: the "with" guesses will always be greater.

Benefits of wearing a jacket, from Antonio Centeno's article.

These effects work with the clothing of other cultures too. For example, the cross-shaped design on Moroccan shirts and dresses. Here are two examples that have got copied to many sites on the Web. They show how the "V" formed by the top of the design draws attention to the face:

Moroccan shirt. Owner of photo not known.
Moroccan dress or kaftan. Photo marked as by Studio Lorenzo Salemi.

So, going back to visual linguistics, one question about these visual "utterances" is: why are they so popular, and what has this to do with the way they enhance the wearer's perceived fitness?

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XIV, Grylloi and Visual Linguistics

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings XIII, Why is Reading so Easy? | The Semantics of Line Drawings XV, The Difference a Jacket Makes ]

In my last post, I referred to Mark Changizi's book The Vision Revolution and his online article "The Topography Of Language". In the latter, he says:

Amongst both non-linguistic and linguistic signs, some visual signs are representations of the world­ e.g., cave paintings and pictograms, respectively and it is, of course, not surprising that these visual signs look like nature. It would be surprising, however, to find that non-pictorial visual signs look, despite first appearances, like nature. Although writing began with pictograms, there have been so many mutations to writing over the millenia that if writing still looks like nature, it must be because this property has been selectively maintained.

Why has this property been maintained? Because the visual system could use its object-recognition software for reading writing that was shaped like nature. Writing that wasn't thus shaped would be harder to read, so fall out of use. This kind of answer, Changizi says, beongs to a new discipline, "visual linguistics":

Because culture is capable of designing for the eye, the visual signs of our culture are a fingerprint of what our visual systems like. Akin to the linguistic study of the auditory productions humans make, the “visual linguistic” study of the visual productions people make is a currently under-utilized tool for vision research.

In other words, visual linguistics studies our visual "utterances". The subject has hardly begun, which is why in this table from the chapter on reading in The Vision Revolution, the appropriate cell in the table below is marked with a question mark (and with a shaky font which I can't reproduce here):

Laboratory experimentsHuman "utterances"
CognitionCognitive psychology,
cognitive neuroscience
VisionVisual psychophysics?
Visual Linguistics

So here's another question for visual linguistics. Why are grylloi so popular? They're easy to draw, but maybe that's not the only reason. I suspect that to our visual system, they look much more like people than they "ought" to. The semantic distance between human and gryllos, one might say, is much less than the geometric distance.

"Scotch Egg" by me

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XIII, Why is Reading so Easy?

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings XII, Grylloi | The Semantics of Line Drawings XIV, Grylloi and Visual Linguistics ]

I'll return to grylloi, but I want to ask a question. Why is reading so easy? In a few seconds last night while updating this blog, I was able to read wikiHow's recipe for linking Blogger to Twitter. And therefore, as Mark Changizi puts it in his book The Vision Revolution, install new software in me. Amazon, he says, listed at least 720,000 "how-to" books when he was writing in 2009. Each is a piece of software just waiting to be implemented by a human brain. Recipes for gefilte fish; techniques for training your labrador to fetch; how to clean the dirt off the bottom of a swimming pool. All encoded as a sequence of little marks that impress themselves on our brain, automatically and without effort.

But what is it about letters and words that fits our visual system so well? Changizi's answer is that the geometrical properties of written words are similar to those of objects. Our brains have had to evolve to be very very good at recognising objects; if the brain can use the same part of the visual system for recognising words, it's bound to help it read them.

By "geometrical properties", Changizi means how often different kinds of junction occur in words. This, obviously, is a consequence of the kinds of junction in the symbols that make up the words. These symbols might be letters such as A or ҕ, syllabic characters such as those in ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ (the Plains Cree word for Plains Cree), logograms such as the Chinese 中文, and so on. A comprehensive list of writing systems can be found at Omniglot's "Index of languages by writing system". Look at these, and you'll see that, for example, Y junctions are common but ✱ junctions are rare. Somehow, all these symbols feel as though they come from the same family of shapes.

Why? Our visual system is organised in a hierarchy. At the top is recognition of complete objects. At the bottom is recognition of primitive features such as single edges or strokes. And in between are levels that recognise simple combinations of these primitives, such as the L, T, and Y junctions I've marked in my cartoon below:

"A4Billion" by me

In fact, most of the junctions in my drawing are L, T, and Y junctions. There are good geometrical reasons for this, to do with how objects meet and overlap, and how the places where they do look when projected down to two dimensions. This is explained in The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes by Mark Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo. (Search for "Other strong ecological relationships can be derived with the help of some defensible empirical assumptions concerning the relative probability of L, T, and X junctions").

So images of objects have a certain frequency distribution of junction types. It seems that written words might have a similar distribution. And indeed, Changizi and colleagues say they've shown that they do. For the frequency graphs, see Changizi's short write-up "The Topography Of Language". And that's why we're such excellent readers. Writing looks like natural scenes, which our visual systems are superbly evolved to recognise.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XII, Grylloi

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings XI, Anthropomorphism | The Semantics of Line Drawings XIII, Why is Reading so Easy?]

I once read the following in John Adkins Richardson's The Complete Book of Cartooning:

The aggressor with the knife is nothing but a bodiless head with legs and arms sprouting directly from the chin and cheeks. Such figures are of very ancient origin and even have a name. They are grylli (gryllos for singular) and while there are more complicated and monstrous varieties passing under the same rubric, this version is the most typical. During the 1960s underground cartoonist Rich Griffin invented a particularly disquieting version of the gryllos, a disembodied eyeball on legs ..."

I don't have the book to hand, and I've pasted together the quote above from Google Books searches which won't let me look at the illustration Richardson was talking about. I remember it to be of a head on legs with, as he says, arms sprouting from its chin or cheeks. However, the name sounded Greek, so I was fairly sure that the plural should be "grylloi" and not "grylli". A search in Brill’s New Pauly confirmed this:

According to Pliny (HN 35,114), the name for caricature depictions in painting since Antiphilus [4] of Alexandria represented a certain Gryllus in that way. Originally these were dancers with grotesque physical proportions and contortions. As gryllographeîn and grylloeídēs later generally referred to ridiculously proportioned bodies, small-format free-standing sculpture representations can also be described as grylloi. Today the genre is no longer attributed to Alexandrian art only. To cover all animal caricatures and monstrous figures as well as the parodies of gods depicted in the wall painting of Pompeii with the term grylloi is dubious as well. On the other hand, the historical identification of ancient grylloi is increasingly replaced by cultural sociological interpretations of all kinds of representations of misshapen and absurd people ( Caricatures; realism as a means of expression).

Although "gryllos" may have denoted other kinds of distortion, I think that in cartooning, the head-with-arms-and-legs is so common that we do need a word for it. Which might as well be "gryllos". Grylloi are easy to draw, so there are huge numbers of examples. Basically, anything ball-shaped that the artist needs to make into a living being.

My first thought on looking for examples was haggis. And sure enough, an image search yielded lots. Those on all fours probably shouldn't count as grylloi, but as animals. However, this kilted figure, with its arms at a higher level than its mouth, definitely is a gryllos:

From a post by "M-J" on the Nissan Juke Owners Group

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XI, Anthropomorphism

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings X, Recruitive versus Non-Recruitive Prosopification | The Semantics of Line Drawings XII, Grylloi]

My posting about "The Two Giants of the Time" demonstrates, of course, anthropomorphism. That is, adding arms and legs and other bits to an object in order to make it act as though it's human. Here's an anthropomorphic washstand:

Postage stamp, Moidodyr. From a strip of 5 postage stamps, "Tales". Russia. 1993. From Wikimedia Commons.

This is from a Russian story called Мойдодыр by Korney Chukovsky. It's about a naughty boy who gets so dirty that his clothes and other belongings flee from him. Moidodyr the washstand, "leader of washstands and commander of sponges" chases after the boy, backed up by soap and brushes; the chase continues all over Saint Petersburg as the boy is pursued by a furious sponge; and eventually, a sponge-eating crocodile intervenes and the boy goes home and gets cleaned up. There are many Moidodyrs: click on this image search to see more.

In advertising, an excellent compilation of anthropomorphic characters is Meet Mr. Product by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain. To meet them, click here.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings X, Recruitive versus Non-Recruitive Prosopofication

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings IX, Prosopification | The Semantics of Line Drawings XI, Anthropomorphism]

Bill Peet, Disney's greatest story man for 27 years, is a master of what I call recruitive prosopofication. When adding faces to objects, he often uses lines already there. Here's a lovely example:

Of it, Peet says: "A drawing of an unhappy caboose rattling along under a cloud of train smoke was stuck on my studio wall for fifteen years before she became 'Katy' in the story 'The Caboose that got Loose'". Do a Google image search for the caboose who got loose, and you'll see many other drawings of the caboose in various attitudes. The line of its "mouth" is either shadow under the back door, or the top of the little platform. Peet often shades mouths very dark, as in some of these monsters. With the caboose, he's doing the same on the lines that have been recruited to represent a mouth. There are lots of nice examples in his book Bill Peet: An Autobigraphy.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings IX, Prosopofication

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings VIII, "The Two Giants of Our Time" | The Semantics of Line Drawings X, Recruitive versus Non-Recruitive Prosopofication]

Returning to transformations, we often see what I call "prosopofication", from the Modern Greek word for "face", το πρόσωπό. This transformation adds a face to an object that normally would not have one. It is extremely common in advertising and children's stories.

Here's a charming example. It's from a Russian book called Колобок, which tells the story of a little round bun which runs away from the house where it was baked, escapes a hare, a wolf and a bear, but is eaten by a fox. This is a fairy-tale, well-known in Russia and Ukraine (who seem to have been disputing each other's rights to it), and apparently in other East Slavic countries: