An Iconography of Contagion

flyfeetdiseasenlm“Public health took a visual turn about 100 years ago. In an era of devastating epidemic and endemic infectious disease, health professionals began to organize coordinated campaigns that sought to mobilize public and government action through eye-catching posters, pamphlets, and motion pictures. Impressed by the images of mass media that increasingly saturated the world around them, health campaigners were inspired to present new figures of contagion, and recycle old ones.”

The National Academy of Sciences has a new exhibition that shows the evolving cultural representation of infectious disease in the US. A lot of these posters are part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration of the Depression-era) Poster Collection at the Library of Congress (view Newsweek gallery here – I think the “Beware the Cancer Quack” one is just hilarious).

“Pneumonia strikes like a man eating shark… led by its pilot fish the Common Cold!”

The fact that these images seem funny today is a testament to how public health awareness has really spread. I love looking at historical artifacts because it reminds me of how oftentimes change is the only thing that is constant. In my opinion, anyone with a strong grasp of history develops a skepticism towards current religious doctrine (particularly Catholicism since its institutional voice and interpretation of the Bible has changed so much through the centuries). At the same time, they also develop a skepticism towards science, which I find extremely positive. Sometimes I think people have such a faith in the power of science that they forget just how wrong or biased scientists have been in the past (refer to A Short History of Nearly Everything) and how a blind and absolute belief in anyone is dangerous. History provides perspective on our own views and the factors that went into creating them.

Historical government posters often seem to scream propaganda (“Uncle Sam wants YOU!”). For better or worse, this kind of art is always an exercise in psychological manipulation.There’s this WPA malaria poster (sorry couldn’t find image online) created during World War II that depicts a mosquito with a Japanese face, in an attempt to mobilize civilians against two common enemies. Yet the poster also seems to label an entire race as disease-ridden pests.

In the midst of other health warnings, I also found this poster troubling in its treatment of women. If you look through the WPA Poster Collection, several posters emerge that seem to accuse loose women and prostitutes of being spreaders of venereal disease while portraying the innocent soldier as the victim, the implication being that a certain gender is responsible and worthy of condemnation.

And yet, even my indignation over such racism and misogyny can be perhaps set aside given the context of history. I disagree with those who often condemn Dickens for anti-Semeticism or the Greeks for misogyny. They are creatures of their own times and it doesn’t make sense to impose our modern standards upon them.

color film copy slide LC-USZC2-5161color film copy slide

Last but not least, here’s some non-public health WPA posters that I thought were too funny not to share. Clearly, “Loose lips sink ships.”

On a random note: it’s a little disheartening to see that I’ve had 300+ hits but only had a few comments. It hurts my poor self-esteem terribly much. So.. please comment, dear reader. 🙂


Sophia Reveals Her Sciencey Side

Fact or Fiction? (Answers revealed at end.)

1. Waking Sleepwalkers May Kill Them.

2. Living People Outnumber the Dead.

3. Vodka Keeps Cut Flowers Fresh.


The war between science and the liberal arts, physics and philosophy, mathematics and religion, seems like a centuries-old feud between two apparently irreconciliable opposites. I constantly hear humanities majors complain about the rigidity and cold methodology of science while science/engineering majors rant about the futility and subjectivity involved in essay-writing.

My own beloved university, UCLA, has its battle lines physically drawn across campus via Bruin Walk. North Campus or South Campus? That is the question. Sometimes it feels like we’re all picking sides and after we finish GE requirements, there’s no reason to enter the other side of campus at all. Perhaps this geographic division fosters the psychological mentality that we must pick one or the other. We are either suited to write or calculate, to theorize or experiment.

But I think this type of isolation and the rejection of the “other” is unnecessary and even harmful. In the end, no matter what we learn, we are essentially all in pursuit of that Holy Grail that is knowledge, albeit in different ways.

Anyways, I mention this because sometimes I get the feeling that people think I am uninterested in science or simply do not have the brain power to understand, but I can assure you that this is a vast misunderstanding. There are things that I find boring, unbelievable, or difficult to comprehend, but these limitations are not representative of my scientific curiosity or interest. My biggest regret in life will probably be not getting a chance to learn/know everything. I want to know things, as long as someone will bother to tell me.

It may sound strange, but I think my relationship to science is very much like that of many people’s relationship to literature. The casual reader shies away from Pope, Coleridge, and the ever-so-daunting Milton, but enjoys the occasional Harry Potter series or Stephen King novel. In my case, I find that I love learning random, strange, probably unuseful sciencey facts (about gomphothere turd, human decay, and what not), but find it hard to swallow that unique concoction of labs, calculations, and scantron tests that an actual major would require.

Given the fact that I deal with fiction, poetry, and language all day long every single quarter, recently I find myself turning to science as my leisurely refuge. I’ve developed quite a taste for science non-fiction as my before-bedtime-casual-reading-companion. Whereas I can barely pick up a novel without itching for a pencil to annotate, my relationship with science non-fiction is easy and simple. There are no rings, wedding bells or children in the future for the two of us. He is my fling, my temporary relief when that dear old husband of mine gets on my nerves, as any loved one will from time to time. There is a sort of exoticism associated with meddling in a field that is not your own and this intrigues me. Besides, there is something exciting about surprising people who think you only know stuff about iambic pentameter.

stiff_largeAnyhow, I would love any science non-fiction book recommendations that you guys have! I do tend to lean towards biology/ecology although I can probably read anything that’s witty/funny and doesn’t have too much jargon. My personal favorite so far is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’m currently tearing through Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (excellent, very funny book by the way – although it does make me cringe sometimes), which I shall attempt to finish and review by the end of next week. :]


Answers: 1.) Fiction (Waking a sleepwalker is more likely to save his or her life), 2.) Fiction (The number of people alive today is dwarfed by the number of people who have ever lived whether we begin counting from the first Homo Sapiens 50,000 years ago, the Egyptian agricultural revolution in 9000 BC, or the Roman rule in 1 AD), 3.) Fact (If small amounts are added, vodka works as a flower preservative by interfering with the plant’s ripening process.) 

— Courtesy of Scientific American


Coming soon: movie review for Wanted, common misconceptions about English majors, and more so… stay tuned!

Que Gordo!

Whenever I see Fernando Botero’s work, it just cracks me up so much. The man basically makes a living out of painting (and sculpting) fat people. If you want to get analytical, perhaps you could say that the corpulence of his subjects symbolizes the excesses of luxury and bourgeois living. Or you might say Botero intends to mock the classical conventions of art by using art icons, such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and fattening them up. But today, I shall not pontificate. I simply wanted to share with you the very odd painter whose art greeted me when I randomly decided to open my Pasajes – Literatura for the first time this summer.

Wall-E: a Bundle of Dystopian Cuteness

Note: will include spoilers, but personally, I think most G-rated movies are too predictable to be spoiled that badly.

Seeing Wall-E in a packed theatre last Saturday, I realized that the movie theatre climate has been drastically altered since I was a wee child. Just as the Harry Potter books invaded the New York Times bestsellers list, Pixar films have become a serious contender in the fight for opening weekend box office sales.

The difficulty of producing a meaningful children’s film (or novel) lies in balancing a message that shies away from both sentimentality and pedantry with an equally important need to entertain. Too often G-rated movies either sink into meaningless antics and gags or feature overly sappy scenes about the importance of family, love, and self-identity. Luckily for moviegoers, Wall-E makes neither of these fatal mistakes, never for too long anyways.

The thing that I found most intriguing about the film was its ability to tell a story with such sparse dialogue. The first half of the film, especially, reminded me of Charlie Chaplin and the wonders of silent film. Wall-E and his love interest Eve repeat their names countless times throughout the film and yet, each time it is said, it carries a different intonation and nuance. Wall-E really makes you think about the importance of body language and what aspects of expression are most integral to being human (for any character, whether robot or animal, only gains our sympathy through its human qualities). Visual effects have always been Pixar’s strong suit and they definitely show this in the detail they put into humanizing their robots.

Wall-E, a shy, lovestruck robot, would probably have been a nerd if he was a human being and his characterization seems to coincide with the current trend that lauds the beta male who is often paired with a stronger, more dominant female character. Given the success of Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, and a string of other movies promoting the less-than-handsome, slightly awkward hero who wins the heart of a hot girl, it’s interesting and telling that even children’s films are beginning to follow this formula. Dirt-ridden and weathered, Wall-E is not the ideal counterpart to Eve, who is far more technologically advanced and (scarily) armed, and yet this endearing little guy somehow manages to win over her and everyone else. Setting aside the classic male role for something a little less perfect, the film industry is moving towards a more realistic portrayal of the average Joe.

The unfolding of Wall-E’s love story with Eve was delightfully done and Pixar was smart enough to insert humor wherever the moment risked sappiness. The only scene that kind of made me cringe was when Eve holds hands with Wall-E to make him remember who she is; it seemed almost too precious given the repeated foreshadowing of this monumental event with the replaying of Hello, Dolly! on Wall-E’s tape. While we all care about Wall-E by the end, somehow the revival of a robot from the grips of death is far less poignant than, say, the death of Mufasa or the Beast’s resurrection as a prince, making the scene feel contrived as a not-so-subtle tying up of loose-ends.

The opening shots of the movie eerily depict a futuristic wasteland left behind by mankind when Earth became uninhabitable. Tall skyscrapers made entirely of trash fill the screen as advertisements for Buy N’ Large continue to play in the empty city. The view instantly recalls the pessimistic warnings against mass consumerism and the destruction of the environment that have risen to the forefront of today’s political debates. The eco-friendly, “green” agenda, exemplified in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, is clearly evident in Wall-E, showing the extent that environmentalism, once mocked as the cause of tree-hugging hippies, has pervaded American culture.

Even more so than the issue of environmentalism, the dehumanizing nature of technology and mass consumerism is ever present in the film. A spaceship full of obese people drinking their food from big plastic cups seems to echo the warnings of Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me while the isolation of human beings in individual hoverchairs and the trance-like state that the viewer finds the future generations of mankind in resembles the dystopias of Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, where the problems of society are caused by self-induced ignorance and apathy. A particularly creepy part of the montage of life on the spaceship is that of the nursery where babies were being taught about Buy N’ Large products (“B is for Buy N’ Large, your very best friend”). Even the babies, it seems, are bombarded with propaganda. This indictment of modern life implicitly includes the role that technology plays in advancing such consequences. Ironically, it is a robot that seems most human in the film and ends up saving humanity.

Interestingly enough (and in my opinion, a little disappointingly), Wall-E fails to give a definite response to the problem of Big Government (as symbolized by Auto and the president, who refuse to deviate from the set course) and excessive consumerism. The obesity problem is written off as the accidental result of living so long in space (which, by the way, is scientifically inaccurate – people actually lose muscle mass/strength) rather than the fact that the people in the film never exercise and gorge on fast food. In fact, the image of a sea of chubby people rolling around when the spaceship tilts feels like a joke made at the expense of an opportunity to address a greater problem. In addition, the rebooting of life on Earth is overly simplistic, celebrated with the planting of a single sprout (also scientifically impossible given the lack of genetic variety in one plant to ensure species’ survival). In the struggle between dealing with the big issues and giving kids a happy ending, happy ending clearly wins. With Wall-E and Eve’s triumph over Auto, the previously dehumanized human beings return happily to Earth and fields of plants randomly start to grow as the movie comes to an end.

Perhaps such an ending is appropriate for the innocent expectations of children, but in a sense I feel like they got cheated out of a more meaningful message. The more pressing issues of today’s society take a back seat to robot romance and in the end, you are left unsure of what the movie actually thinks about the big problems that were brought up. Nevertheless, this may indeed be part of the nature of its genre and Wall-E cannot be entirely faulted.

 Wall-E does well despite the constraints and flaws of its genre and definitely deserves to be one of the major blockbusters of the summer. The cute-factor of Wall-E cannot be denied; however, my general opinion towards Pixar goes unchanged: while they always do a great job with animation, witty dialogue, and humor, the plot frequently lacks a little extra depth.

Bald Spots

Recently I started subscribing to Merriam-Webster’s “word of the day” in an attempt to slowly increase my vocabulary for my GREs. I did the same thing during my SATs with but I have to say Merriam-Webster’s format is much nicer. In addition to the definition, they give you an example sentence and an interesting fact about the word’s origin. If you’re looking for some fun words to learn, you should also check out the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the day” although I feel that its format can be too formal for my tastes.

Anyhow, this morning when I got up to check my email, I found this word in my mailbox:

Trichotillomania: an abnormal desire to pull out one’s hair

Ironically enough, this is exactly how I’ve been feeling recently with all the things going on with my family, studying, and the terrible planning out of the next ten years. Oh, the stresses of modern day life. No wonder this word arose in the 20th century in connection to OCD. The way we live and think apparently drives us insane.

On a side note: I have a few posts in progress, including a review of Wall-E, so check back soon! 🙂

The Elements of Style

When you buy textbooks online at the UCLA bookstore, there is always a last-minute offer to add random school supplies to your purchase. Last fall, among the packages of notebooks and foreign language dictionaries, I decided to pick up William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s classic The Elements of Style. Having already experienced the grammatical doldrums of Diana Hacker’s The Bedford Handbook, I expected to find a simple reference text where I could look up the proper usage of semi-colons or figure out how to diagram a sentence. I should have known to expect more from the author of Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.

I’m not quite sure how useful The Elements of Style is as a grammar book (it lacks advice or explanation for some of the harder aspects of composition), but I really do think it is amusing enough to read for fun. White’s grammatical and stylistic pointers are coupled with quirky examples and frequently snarky comments and I think it’s particularly funny because these so-called errors are truly made all the time. I’m currently particularly fond of the chapter “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”

Here is a sampling:

Care less. The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted: “I could care less.” The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become “facilities”?

Finalize. A pompous, ambiguous verb.

A few of my favorites:

Flammable. An oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning “combustible” is inflammable. But some people are thrown off by the in- and think inflammable means “not combustible.” For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are now marked FLAMMABLE. Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable.

Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Thrust. This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos, and speech-writers. Use it sparingly.

Personally, I don’t think most of his “rules” are necessarily true all the time, especially since language is perpetually evolving by nature (ironically, grammaticians are intrinsically conservative about new words and usages). Nevertheless, The Elements of Style allows the modern reader to delve into the mind of a talented and scrupulous writer. The types of advice that he doles out about the importance of being concise and specific word choice provides a sort of insight into White’s writing process and the aspects of language and composition that he thinks are most important.

In high school, when we were asked to analyze a certain author’s usage of diction, oftentimes I heard complaints that the author probably didn’t even mean to employ a certain device or sentence structure and that all this analysis was simply BS. Perhaps this assumption rises out of the Romantic notions of spontaneity and natural genius, the idea that a writer simply sits down and jots down all his thoughts at that moment, but I think anyone who has seriously attempted the difficult task of writing, especially in poetry, knows that word choice matters and that a person can and will spend an hour trying to decide whether to use ran or sprinted or skipped. These subtle nuances matter and maybe that’s the biggest lesson that The Elements of Style attempts to teach the amateur writer.

E.B. White’s grammar reference has taken a lot of criticism  (and rightly so) over the years for being overly opinionated and simplistic and is mostly rejected by serious grammar nazis as a lightweight, but I think if it is read more as a psychological reflection of White’s writing preferences then it’s really quite illuminating.

Good Morning “Baltimore”!

I think every writer, whether of fiction or editorial opinion, suffers from that old philosophical cliche about hearing sounds in a vacant forest. Does your writing matter if no one is there to read it? Do your thoughts? Even if you have the greatest manuscript, if no one will publish you, do you matter?

I thought going to college and majoring in English literature meant that I would be constantly writing, voicing my opinions and perfecting my manner of expression. But that hasn’t really been the case. The truth is, six or seven papers a quarter and writing essays for only one professor or TA to read is simply not enough for me. When I read something emotionally inspiring or technically brilliant, sometimes I just want to shout it from the roof tops and tell everyone I see. I want everyone to know about the Houyhnhnms and zeugmas and Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime.” I want somebody to care because this is what I care about. With all of my friends flying in different directions in terms of fields of study and career paths, I still want to connect to them and have them understand this part of my life.  

Perhaps equally important is the simple fact that I just need a place to wax literary. I know some people see such a passion for literature as impractical, even delusional. Others simply don’t understand how one silly rhyme about “cabbages and kings” can make a girl so insanely giddy. Sometimes, at the end of the day, it helps to be able to rant about those things that tickle your toes to the world (wide web).

While this blog will have a primarily literary focus, I will most probably touch on some of my other social, cultural, and humanities interests, and occasionally dish out some of my pseudo-philosophy. However, I’m definitely hoping to maintain a separation between my personal and academic personas because I think what the two have to say are vastly different.

And so today, I launch my first semi-“professional” blog with a Tracy-Turnblad-esque naivete that this will be something witty, important, and fun.

“some day when I take to the floor,/ the world’s gonna wake up and see/ Baltimore and me!”