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January 4, 2008

Who’s Afraid of the Significant and Sustained Decline in Economic Activity?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:51 PM *

Pretty much everyone in the West knows the story of the Three Little Pigs, yes?

In classic fairy tale tradition, the three brothers set out from home to seek their fortune and start their houses. One, seeing a farmer with a load of straw, decides that it will be fast and easy to build with. The second notes the sticks lying on the ground in the forest and reckons that a stick house will be cheap, since all the materials are free. The third chooses to build his house of strong, solid bricks. Then, of course, there’s the huffing and the puffing, the running and the screaming and the chinny chin chin business. But that’s just consequences; the heart of the tale lies in the choices.

The story has deep roots in Western Europe. It goes back to the days when canis lupus still posed a threat to people and livestock. It was old the 1800’s, when the Brothers Grimm were studying consonant shifts in Germany. By then, wild wolves were no longer a part of living memory, but the fear lingered for generations.

But these days, over half the human population lives in cities. The Big Bad Wolf is a vacant threat to people who have never seen a wolf outside of the zoo. So it’s debatable whether the brother of the bricks should still be cast as the hero. Maybe it’s time for a rewrite.

Next bedtime, why not spin a story of climate change? The shifting Gulf Stream made for an early winter that year, so the snows came when the stick house lacked a roof and the brick house walls above the third course. Hypothermia set in all too soon, slowing busy trotters as frostbite nipped at little curly tails. The wise pig was the one who built quickly.

Or tell the gathered kiddies about how the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market affected the local economy. Two of the pigs, having spent all their money on construction materials, watched their asset value plummet. As the job opportunities for porcine workers dried up, only the brother with significant savings had the resources to keep his house of sticks.

There’s even a value in telling all three, rather than swapping the old version out completely. No one is too young to learn about the tensions and tradeoffs of real life projects, where if you’re lucky you get to pick one of “build it fast, build it cheap, or build it strong.” (The idea that you get to pick two is a myth and a dream, invented by IT project managers to make the non-techies approve their design proposals.)

And if you think these new villains are a little too painfully real in the century of Katrina and the credit crunch, well, that too is traditional. In the original version, the Wolf eats the first two pigs. It’s only our later, gentler retellings that allow them to outrun the predator and take shelter with their brother. But feel free to let all three survive; we need to teach our children co-operation too.

Because if they don’t learn these lessons, if they don’t work together to tackle global warming, if they don’t learn that poverty pinches so they care to fight it, how long will it be before Big Bad himself, all fur and teeth, is at the door again?

Comments on Who's Afraid of the Significant and Sustained Decline in Economic Activity?:
#1 ::: Martin ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:27 PM:

The pigs don't get eaten any more? I hadn't heard of this before. No playgrounds, Puff survives the callous inattention of Jackie Paper and now even the bacon gets to live another day. What's next, the green eggs and ham are thrown out for looking like something is growing on them? Humpty Dumpty is reassembled good as new and lives happily ever after?

#2 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:28 PM:

One point: There's not much good evidence that Canis lupis ever presented a significant direct threat to human beings in historical times. There was the perception of threat, but the actual threat to humans was minimal--basically only if the wolves were rabid or starving, or if a pack of wolves found an isolated child. (Not a common occurrence.)

Very few animals prey on humans. That doesn't mean we don't fear them.

A separate point: Given that concrete manufacture is one of the larger industrial sources of surplus carbon dioxide, a "brick" house is a great prop for the Three Little Global Warming Victims.

#3 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:42 PM:

Kevin @2:

I agree that Canis lupus was not a significant threat to human life, though there are records of wolf attacks (mostly on children). But the killing of livestock was potentially devastating as well, if the animals were the sole source of income for the family. And even a non-fatal attack on the breadwinner could have serious effects on his dependants.

#4 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:44 PM:

Well, speaking as someone who has to deal with actual four-legged pigs, the biggest problem of late is that demand for ethanol fuel has driven feed prices up and auction prices down to the extent that actually feeding the things is a losing proposition. Permanent capital improvements aren't a problem, energy imputs are.

And the wolves we worry about are the ones which share our neighbor's hearths and run in packs while their owners are at work.

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:45 PM:

Martin @1:
Humpty Dumpty is reassembled good as new and lives happily ever after?

Yep. My son learned an extra verse of HD at primary school:

Then came some children
With glitter and glue
And put him together
Shiny and new!

Sorry to dash your illusions.

#6 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 06:53 PM:

Martin (1): All three pigs have been surviving since at least the late 1960's, because that's the only version I knew.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 07:05 PM:

I saw in a thrift store, and foolishly did not buy, a revisionist fairy tale picture books about three young wolf siblings menaced by an ugly boar.

I like that.

Wolves are hard-working family animals. Pigs are often a destructive menace to environments where they are introduced, and their name suggests unbridled appetites.

I demand a fair share of lupine protagonists.

#8 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 07:07 PM:

Meanwhile a Californian friend of mine living in San Francisco is worried about the effects of all these storms hitting the state. They've laready had some power cuts.

#9 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 07:11 PM:

Guthrie@ 8: So said Lizzy on the Iowa Caucus thread. Apparently she was affected by one of them.

#10 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 07:52 PM:

Mary Aileen: Where I, with early seventies as my frame of reference have both versions in my minds eye.

The cartoons of the '40s/'50s have them surviving, so the trending was before your time, and didn't ossify until after mine.

#11 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 08:02 PM:

Why, when I was a kid, the wolf ate all the pigs, the kids, little red riding hood, and walked through ten feet of snow just to do it!

That's why my son gets none of this mamby pamby Disneyfied storytime nonsense!

Just this very evening I tucked him in with stories of the killing fields of Cambodia to instill a proper fear of the dangers of Maoism.

Haditha is next week, then we'll move on to subprime lending.

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 08:21 PM:

When I was a child, I read both versions: pigs eaten, pigs saved.

On wolves: Wasn't there a recent case in Alaska in which wolves attacked a dog and left the humans accompanying it alone?

#13 ::: Evan Goer ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 08:25 PM:


Dad? Is that you?

#14 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 08:39 PM:

Dogpacks of pets sometimes attack humans...

#15 ::: Martin ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 08:54 PM:

I shall cry myself to sleep tonight.

"Presently came along a friendly instrument of the Angkar, and knocked at the door, and said, 'Little pig, little pig, confess your pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes.'"

#16 ::: karen ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 09:23 PM:

Stefan@7: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig (Paperback)
by Eugene Trivizas (Author), Helen Oxenbury was added to my cart before Xmas on the recommendation of a 10-year old friend. But not bought or read yet, so I can't confirm his opinion.

Abi, there is a Little Bill cartoon episode where they use the three little pigs story to explain the importance of government home safety inspectors. To preschoolers.

#17 ::: Piglet ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 09:36 PM:

Shockingly, the version I tell my sprog is even wimpier. (Or so says my sister.)

In my version, the pigs say "How rude!" and "How very rude!" and "How extremely rude!" when the wolf demands entrance. And when he's huffing and puffing on the brick house (which Little Pig built to withstand a hurricane, even though her brother Littler Pig and her sister Littlest Pig told her there were no hurricanes in these parts and she was v. foolish to work so hard and for so long), he falls over in a dead faint because he's so tired and so hungry and he just can't huff or puff anymore. Little Pig has been watching from the kitchen window and runs out to see if he's okay.

"Big Bad Wolf, what's wrong?" "I'm so tired and so hungry and no one will let me in and feed me!" "Well, did you ever think that if maybe you *asked* to come in, instead of demanding to, that maybe someone would invite you in and feed you?" "Oh. Excuse me, may I please come in and have something to eat?" "Why, of course you may!" And they all went inside and sat around the table and ate biscuits and scrambled eggs. (Or whatever we've just eaten ourselves.) *burp*

Yes, there probably is a special hell just for me telling that story.

#18 ::: T.W ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 09:45 PM:

Gee I had a 3 pigs version where the wolf after failing at the front door tried the chimney and they had a pot and fire waiting for him. Wolf stew for dinner.

#19 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 10:56 PM:

You take the old end and I'll take the new end
I'll laugh at the story before you
For me and that mythlore will never fend again
On the silly silly strands of the....

#20 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 11:39 PM:

And speaking of revisionism: "Build it fast, build it cheap, or build it strong" isn't so much from IT as R&D in general, to wit: you can only define two of the following three in advance: time, cost, or results. If you can define all three, it ain't R&D.

Of course, your end user wants it free, perfect, and now.

#21 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 11:52 PM:

The story I knew (born in 1955), had all three pigs building the straw house first and it was blown down and they got away, then all three building the wood house (ditto), and then all three building the brick house and not having to run.

(Not doing very well on the economy, are we.)

#22 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2008, 11:56 PM:

Or you could always tell the engineering version, where the brick house is appropriate to the Midwestern Tornado Alley, the "stick" construction is appropriate to earthquake-prone California, and the straw— hay bale & adobe— version is ideal for the Southwestern climate. Then you can get into tensile strength vs. weight of material and the perils of overbuilding, and looking for that sweet spot of maximum strength and flexibility without adding so much extra weight that you have to design for that as well.

My father was an engineer. Can you tell?

I love fairy tales. I especially love riffs on the original versions.

"It doesn't fit." "Darling, be still.
Cut off a bit of the heel and it will.
And when you're his bride you can sit or ride,
You'll never need to walk!"
I could easily have dozens of versions of the same fairy tale, from Andrew Lang's colored Fairy Tale books to the Datlow & Windling collections of dark fairy tales. It's all good, and where it's not it's at least interesting.

#23 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 01:07 AM:

No one is too young to learn about the tensions and tradeoffs of real life projects...

I refer you to the Queen of Project Managers for the Pre-K set, Dora the Explorer. Dora establishes a goal, defines a process with clearly designated milestones, celebrates achieving the milestones and uses her resourcefulness to overcome adversity. All while pretending to teach Spanish. She's really teaching workplace skills.

Paula @ 14 - Now I have visions of a horde of hungry Pekinese and Chihuahuas rushing towards me. I may not sleep tonight.

#24 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 03:19 AM:

The project leaders are pigs, so they say,
but the lone wolf is clearly the boss.
The quickest construction is made out of hay,
nothing faster have I come across.

But the wolf can reduce the cheap house in a day,
he'll huff and he'll puff and he'll toss
the contractors out of their jobs without pay,
leaving one piggy minus a doss.

Wood's the construction for minimum pay;
anything else takes a loss.
The savings can always be used to defray
the fortune that wolf-proofing costs.

But huffing and puffing can still have a way
of leaving the sticks all a-toss.
The wolf wind against wood still will hold sway,
and the wood will end up all criss-cross.

On the other hand brick's made of clay
so you see, and far less heat moves across,
so brick can keep global warming at bay,
by reducing the energy costs.

That brick for the wolf will signal dismay;
his failure he will try to gloss.
The piggy inside will be safe from the fray,
the wolf? He'll just go on the sauce.

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 04:35 AM:

Bruce @24:

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 04:38 AM:

When I tell the kids Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I always end the same way.

"And when she got older, Goldilocks never went into anyone's house uninvited. But that's another story."

One day, they will understand.

#27 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 05:06 AM:

Now I have Green Jellÿ's heavy-metal claymation stuck in my head.

And then there's the klezmer version of "Peter and the Wolf", narrated by Maurice Sendak: "Pincus and the Pig".

#28 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 07:27 AM:

I remember reading a Mad Comic Book with bedtime stories in which the 3 little pigs were union activists; I can't remember what the first one did, but the second one had a wooden picket sign (which got blown down) and the third built a brick union hall and took them out on strike.

The Big Bad Wolf gives into their demands and pretty soon goes bust. The moral is In Unions There Is Strength.

(There was a version of the Grasshopper and the Ant in which the Grasshopper claims the Ant spends his time at the Red Ant Club - "Did you say Red??!?" - the Ant gets fired despite his hard work and the Grasshopper gets the promotion)

#29 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 07:35 AM:

Our grandkids had a retro version, in which two of the pigs get eaten (with barbeque sauce) before Pig No. 3 tricks the wolf into coming down the chimney--and then boils him alive. Didn't seem to do the kids any harm, but grandpa and grandpa were a bit . . . disturbed . . .

#31 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 08:21 AM:

Jo @30:

I'd never run across that. I like it a lot, both because of the language and because of the invocation of guest-law.

So many of these stories hook into old codes of behavior, things the original listeners knew bone-deep. But we're deaf to them now*.

* Most of us. I remember one friend at university who didn't go to a Classics professor's Christmas party because the woman was a creep. As my friend said, "I don't want the xenia."

#33 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 09:13 AM:

My big problem with Dora is that she also teaches that the way to have a design meeting is TO TALK IN AND EXTREMELY LOUD AND PROJECTING VOICE THE WHOLE WAY THROUGH.

#34 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 09:19 AM:

Do Dora's meeting s involve participants who telecommute and who can't see important information written on white boards?

#35 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 10:05 AM:

Re #12:

I guess that like many humans, they most resent the ones who are almost like them but not quite.

As for the 3 pigs, no mention of the delightful WB cartoon The Three Little Bops?

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 10:49 AM:

Sarah @ 35... See post #32. It was even funnier than I remembered.

#38 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 11:04 AM:

It's a good time to mention that we have a new public literary position: The National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.

His name is John Scieszka. He wrote The Stinky Cheese Man, which my son loves. He also wrote The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf as told to Jon Scieszka

I've read some interviews and I really like the guy. He was a teacher for ten years, and his mission is let parents and educators that reading can be fun for kids, in fact, it should be.

He encourages parents to let their kids read comics, humor, whatever, and so forth. He also loves SF and seems like a fellow traveler for those of us who love to be entertained by what we read.

#39 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 12:32 PM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) #24: Nice!!

#40 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 12:47 PM:

#37, #38: My favourite Stinky Cheese Man story is probably the Really Ugly Duckling, who grew up to be a...really ugly duck.

#41 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 12:58 PM:

Jo @ 30: That is truly awesome. Thank you for sharing it.

#42 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 02:30 PM:

T.W. (18): That's the version I had, too. Although I'm not sure if they actually ate him.

#43 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 04:42 PM:

This is just to say

I have blown down
the house
that you built
out of straw

and which
you were probably
to live in.

Forgive me
I huffed and I puffed
so weak
and flimsy.

#44 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 05:11 PM:

Neil @43:
That's so good I have to break out of our customs and our establishments to find another inspiration.

a pig is building a building
of sticks, a frail wattled
house, a strong fragile house
(beginning at the singular beginning

of his hopes)a skillful uncouth
shelter, a precise clumsy
shelter(building twigandbranch into Stick
Around the restless searching for a home)

a pig is building a refuge, a discrete
cottage for refuge and(as i guess)

when Big Bad Wolf(whom Riding Hood hates)shall

huff and puff the house down
He'll not the home,
    laborious, casual

where the heart and hearth


#45 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 05:17 PM:

Jo Walton @ 30: ***much applause!***

#46 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 05:18 PM:

Ditto Bruce @ 24!

#47 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 05:26 PM:

Also ditto Neil @ 43 and abi @ 44...

I got nuthin', durn it.

#48 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 06:47 PM:

Jo Walton @ 30

That's very good. I love it when writers uphold the old traditions.

#49 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 06:49 PM:

Jo Walton #30: That is, indeed, a brilliant rendering.

#50 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2008, 11:16 PM:

John Scieszka, as Sean wrote in #38, is the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Here's the WashPost article about him.

#51 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2008, 12:36 AM:

Neil Wilcox @ 43

Well played. So now we have a poem by William Carlos Wolf.

#52 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2008, 12:40 AM:

abi @ 44

Holy sh*t, that's fabulous! It's a wonderful pastiche of a poet I've always admired. I'm glad you decided to broaden the range of our parody base.

#53 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2008, 12:53 AM:

Jo, #30: That is fabulous -- the whole idea of seeing the story thru the filter of another culture, with entirely different customs and mores from our own, is something that should be done much more often.

#54 ::: Reba ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2008, 09:13 PM:

(The idea that you get to pick two is a myth and a dream, invented by IT project managers to make the non-techies approve their design proposals.)

Actually, this originated with clothiers and persists today in costuming or other custom attire. Of course, there the point is to draw in the wolves of the world, in all their various types of clothing. Wolves are just a little more interesting than the rest of the sheep...

#55 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2008, 11:52 PM:

From the book I'm currently reading, The Discovery Of France by Charles Robb (thanks to Suzy McKee Charnas for recommending this excellent volume on her blog):

"The Bête du Gévaudan was an unusually fierce and daring wolf, which roamed over a sparsely populated area of about nine hundred square miles, claiming at least twenty lives in two years (1764-65) and giving rise to two pilgrimages." (footnote, p. 131)

"The peninsula formed by the winding Seine between Rouen and Jumièges in Normandy was inundated with wolves in the late summer of 1842: they could be heard from the hills above the industrial city.... In the 1880s, more than a thousand wolves were still being killed [in France] every year." (p. 175)

#56 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2008, 07:22 PM:

karen @16:

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig is indeed wonderfully silly, to the best of my recollection -- I don't own a copy but I read it some years ago.

ISTR that the Big Bad Pig takes more drastic measures when the wolves' brick house doesn't succumb to huffing and puffing.

#57 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2008, 11:21 PM:

Glenn # 20 --

Actually, its really operative when they want *changes* to design or specs --
- Faster than previously agreed (shorter delivery)
- Better than previously agreed (more features / more testing and pre-release bug fixes)
- Cheaper than previously agreed (shorter budget)

Pick any two, 'cause you will not get all three

#58 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2008, 06:38 AM:

So it seems there were three four little witches and wizards who wanted to build a school of wizardry. At a swamp called Bogshorts Rowena Ravenclaw built a school made entirely of straw*. "It's quick, it's cheap it's simple - it's everywhere easily available". Sadly, Helga Hufflepuff was allergic to the straw, and one day sneezed so powerfully that the whole school collapsed.

In a misty valley known as Fogcourts, Salazar Slytherin built a school of wood (with a roof of tin). "It's dry enough, and fairly warm - there's not many rats in the dorms!". But unfortunately during a fire-magic lesson, Helga Hufflepuff's class burnt it to the ground.

At last, by a lake and a forest, Godric Gryffindor built a school of brick stone and slate and magic and more! "There's light and air and cauldrons full of stew; it'll stand up to the worst Helga the kids can do."

So Hogwarts was founded and the three four little wizards lived happily ever after.

* The delay between my last post on this thread and now will show you how long I toyed with the Ravenclaw-straw rhyme before going with a prose version.

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