November 26, 2006

Interracial beauty is due to greater symmetry?

I haven't read it yet, but at Amazon I've browsed Alon Ziv's book Breeding Between the Lines, whose thesis is that interracial individuals are more healthy and attractive, as evidenced by greater symmetry, which in turn is supposed to reflect their lower developmental instability. That is, interracials are presumed to have genomes that are better at dampening the effect of noise in their developmental system, so that the actual phenotype more closely matches the target phenotype.

But at the foundation of any chain of syllogisms must lie solid, or at least promising, empirical justification. Right now I'm working through Developmental Instability: Causes and Consequences, which covers the single phenomenon of Developmental Instability (DI) from a variety of perspectives -- quantitative genetics, evolutionary genetics, measurement of Fluctuating Asymmetry (FA), and so on. I'll be writing up a longer post on this for GNXP, but suffice it to say for now that the deceptively intuitive notion that "Lower FA = Lower Instability" turns out to be much muddier. This research program really took off in the early '90s, and by the time this 2003 volume was published, the initial enthusiasm became quite tempered. In brief, the research is pretty equivocal as regards whether or not DI reflects FA, particularly with respect to "good genes" models of sexual selection whereby choosers are purported to use a potential mate's FA as an honest signal of its DI. The latter includes the subset of studies that find an effect of symmetry on attractiveness in human faces. Later meta-analyses (including one published for the first time in this volume) show that symmetrical faces really are more attractive, but the effect size is not as large as was supposed.

An admittedly rough rule-of-thumb to follow when judging the merit of studies on the FA-DI relationship is that the earlier studies (before, say, 1998) tend to be less reliable, largely because of smaller sample sizes and lack of repeated, independent measurements of the subjects' FA -- the latter is especially important since the magnitude of variation in FA is well within measurement errors (i.e., most individuals are not pronouncedly asymmetrical). Lots more to say at a later point, but for now it's safe to say that, if interracials really are more attractive, it would only be due in small part to their greater symmetry -- assuming the latter hypothesis is true (there is currently no evidence for or against it).

PS -- the most convincing evidence that something extraordinary occurs with interracials is if their mean is above or below the means of both parental populations. However, this isn't necessary: the definition of antagonistic or synergistic epistasis (in other terms, "depression" and "vigor," respectively) only requires that the mixed mean be above or below (respectively) the value expected from additive genetic effects. So, if group A with mean IQ of 100 mated randomly and in equal proportions with group B whose mean is 70, then the mixed group's mean should be 85 if only additive (linear) genetic effects were at play. Suppose it turned out that the mixed group actually averaged 95 -- that would still be "hybrid vigor," since it's +0.67 SD above expectation (where IQ distributions have an SD = 15). Conversely, if they averaged 75, that would still be "hybrid depression," since it's lower than expectation. How this affects fitness is pretty difficult to guess -- many traits affect fitness, and in general the various races have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Northeast Asians score about 1.33 SD above African-Americans on intelligence and the myriad traits that are largely influenced by intelligence (such as SES), but they are probably 1 to 1.33 SD below African-Americans on height, and probably something similar for levels of gregariousness and self-confidence. And dancing ability, fuhgeddaboudit.

Fitness is always defined for a particular environment, so making general statements about how fitness is impacted by interracial status is unlikely to bear much fruit. However, testing hypotheses about in which situations interracial mating would increase, decrease, or have no bearing on fitness seems a safe bet for getting robust results.

November 24, 2006

Kelly Kapowski is Greco-Anatolian?

Anyone who was born between roughly 1975-1985 probably remembers the characters from Saved by the Bell, especially the All-American sweet sixteen Kelly Kapowski, played by Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. These northwestern Slavic and Germanic surnames belie her meridional appearance, however -- in fact, only her father's side is German, while her mother's is Greek, Turkish, and Welsh. America's wholesome girl-next-door is actually a smoldering Mediterranean siren! Her apple pie co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played Zack Morris, is a mongrel himself (Dutch and Indonesian). And did you know that the two overachievers on the show -- Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) and Screech Powers (Dustin Diamond) -- are both Jewish? With African-American Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) and non-white Hispanic A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) rounding out the cast, there's nary a noticeable Northerner to be found in Everytown, USA, save the principal Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins).

Quoth the latter: "Hey hey hey hey, what is going on here?!"

November 22, 2006

Video game "wars"

To interrupt the Catalan blogging, let's have a look at the recent video game console "wars" -- Dennis Mangan's take here, and two thoughts by Udolpho here and here. Since the Wii by Nintendo just came out, the competition has officially begun to see which corporation can narcotize the greatest number of minds of alleged adult homo sapiens. The new Nintendo system for sure will lose on this count because it's marketed to everyone, not just those who with their gaming buddies will test the limits of human endurance under sleep deprivation. Also, the Wii is just $250 including a sports game, while the desirable versions of the Xbox 360 and PS3 are $400 and $600, respectively -- at $600 for just the console, the PS3 had better convincingly simulate making passionate love to Adriana Lima. Otherwise, count me out.

I didn't realize it until I started thinking about buying the Wii (jury is still out), but I haven't played a new video game system for about 10 years -- eons in gaming time -- and the recent consoles haven't persuaded me to change that. Growing up I owned the original Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Gameboy, N64, and I've downloaded the emulator for the Gameboy Advance. Having played many games for all of these but the N64 and GBA, I notice several features about the more recent games that have made playing video games less appealing:

1) The core of the problem is that playing video games has gone from having a reliable source of occasional enjoyment to becoming enthralled to an alternate-universe-generating machine. Again, I'd gladly throw away large chunks of my leisure time to virtual reality if it involved entangling my body with those of a group of Brazilian supermodels, but I and many others are not stricken with the same irresistible itch to join the World of Warcraft. This devotion to the video game is quite a change from the situation in, say, 1989 where you sat down and played Tetris or worked on your Zelda game for an hour, saved it, and went on to something else, not feeling as if switching off the machine were like forcing yourself out of bed after a blissful dream.

2) Somewhat related to the above shift in dedication, there is a parallel shift in what the video games are testing their players on: the popular early games were more tests of ability -- visuo-spatial rotation, timing / coordination, etc. -- while the newer games are more tests of sheer endurance. When you bought a new Nintendo or Super Nintendo game, it was likely for the average player that you were not ever going to beat it (without cheating). The point was to do the best you could, try to improve, and see how far that would take you. If you didn't beat it, one of your more skilled friends would, and that was something to be proud of at eight years old! Now, though, when you pop in a newer game, it's more or less settled that you'll beat it -- the only open question is whether it will take 20 or 60 or 120 hours to complete. Where's the suspense?

In earlier games, you were aware of the high likelihood of dying soon -- one hit and it's back to start! -- and the poorly timed jump that cost you an hour's worth of playing was a constant source of frustration. Now that video games have largely become vehicles for semi-permanent adult escapism -- like coffin-beds for vampires -- this element has been diluted, since no escapist wants to fail or suffer bad luck in virtual reality too. Perhaps the clearest example of this contrast can be seen in one of the two games originally bundled with the Nintendo: in Duck Hunt, if you didn't manage to shoot down the targets, your turncoat hunting dog would point at you and snicker contemptuously (see here for a demonstration). PS3 worshippers would rise in rebellion if one of their fantasies were repeatedly interrupted by a character exclaiming, "Your ineptness amuses me!"

Not that I've played many of the newer games, but from what I've read in gaming forums, even hardcore video game players lament this drop in difficulty. Now when you beat a game, no one congratulates you with "Wow, you must be pretty good at that!" -- instead they mock you with "Wow, you sure had lots of time to kill!" Again, this ease obviates the need for improvement, and thus one key ingredient of flow never appears: operating at an ability level that's difficult enough to push you, neither boringly easy nor maddeningly impossible.

3) From the above two points, we'd expect one genre in particular to evaporate during the new gaming era: puzzle-based games. As a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I count these among my favorites. Though I haven't played all listed in the Wikipedia link, I can say that Tetris, the Adventures of Lolo (or Eggerland) games, and the Lost Vikings games are some of the best ever developed. What they lack in bedazzling graphics they more than make up for in enjoyable challenges of reasoning. Tetris everyone knows; this is a raw visuo-spatial rotation test with reaction-time coming into play when the speed increases. Columns for the Sega Genesis is similar. The Adventures of Lolo and Lost Vikings series are more like a Ravens Matrices problem -- they don't require any knowledge of vocabulary or even adult literacy, nor of mathematics. They test the mental juggling involved in managing multiple sub-goals that all work toward the main goal in a logical way. OK, so the games aren't as dry as taking a practice IQ test -- there's trial & error and some exploration necessary before you figure out what to do sometimes. Another game that's tailored for engineers is Krusty's Super Funhouse, in which you must, using various tools, channel a meandering group of mice through a series of obstacles toward a target location, whereupon they're gruesomely dispatched by a lovable Simpsons character.

Needless to say, close to 0% of the games listed in the Wikipedia link were developed for the newer consoles. The only ones that are recent were developed for Nintendo's handheld GBA and DS, which are marketed toward young children and casual gamers, not escapist adults.

Any of the above three reasons would be sufficient to steer clear of the new video game systems, with the exception of Wii, which signals Nintendo's public washing of its hands of the derelict male that craves his next fix of Grand Theft Auto, and its courting of, well, pretty much everyone else. One the one hand, maybe it's for the greater good that such males remain sedated and shackled to metal boxes, their muscles atrophying, so they can't harm anyone else -- but then I don't really know what the nerd : potential criminal ratio is among Grand Theft Auto players, so it could be that harmless loners who would do well to take up exercise -- or at least go out, get drunk, and dance -- are the game's primary reservoir of hosts.

To reiterate, I still don't know whether I'll wind up buying the Wii, but if, after the initial buzz dies down, it does seem that it has rescued video games from the Dark Ages in which they've been slumbering for the past ten years, then count me in. Until then, I'm content to stick with the classics on my emulators.

November 15, 2006

Ja he tornat

I'm back now... expect some Catalan blogging for awhile. For starters, here's one thing most people surely take notice of but few reflect on when they visit Mediterranean countries -- people make out in public a lot. Not just wimpy PDA like holding hands and giving each other Eskimo kisses: I mean like a guy smacking and grabbing his girlfriend's ass, locking lips for minutes at a time at the entrance to a crowded crosswalk, and (in Rome but not Barcelona, as far as I can tell) using public benches like teenagers here use the floors of their parents' closests during parties. Nothing you'd see in the Puritanical northern European countries and their offshoots.

Again, few people reflect on anything, but those who do opine on such matters when they visit foreign lands usually overly romanticize the place -- thus, Mediterraneans make out in public more than we do simply because they're more passionate, more driven by the carpe diem credo than we sterile, rain-cheque-promising Northerners. But like many other attempts to escape one's ambient boredom by latching on to an exotic culture, this belief is completley misguided. Is there a kernel of truth to it? Sure. But why would being a passionate, day-siezing individual compel one to do so publicly and seemingly indefinitely? As with most other public displays, this is one way of signaling important information to one's conspecifics: in this case, "Back off fuckers, she's mine." Of course, more of this proprietary behavior comes from males (who demand their mates wear signs of being taken -- rings, hair-coverings, etc. -- more often than vice versa), since for a random male, it's not as if there's a horde of females waiting to poach him from his current partner.

That leaves us with two not mutually exclusive possible explanations. First, it may be that Mediterranean males are more willing to poach a taken female, such that the current boyfriend or husband feels a greater threat and so takes more drastic measures to frighten them off (lip-locking rather than putting his arm around her). And second, it could be that Mediterranean females are more willing to run around on their partners, so the boyfriend or husband must take more drastic measures to ensure she doesn't act on this impulse. Presumably, there is little variation in male impulse to cheat if they felt they wouldn't get caught, so we don't see as much female variation in proprietary behavior toward their mates. I'll have to dig it up, but the only journal article on personality and promiscuity that I've read suggested that Extraversion and Neuroticism had no predictive value on infidelity, but that (low) Agreeableness and (low) Conscientiousness did; or in Eysenckian terms, high Psychoticism would have predictive value. (Steve once speculated that Extraversion was behind "the jealousy belt.") Italy and Greece are both high-ish in Psychoticism, but Spain is low, so the correlation clearly isn't perfect. Also, better data on actual rates of infidelity would be better than using personality traits as a proxy.

In any event, the real reasons behind Mediterrean Mega-Makeouts likely have little to do with a greater zeal for life, but instead belie a more tense undercurrent of suspicion and jealousy. A good rule of thumb, then, when visiting another country is to translate the sappily romantic spin the guidebook gives you into a more cynical take, and you'll be pretty close to the truth.

November 8, 2006

Barcelona m'espera!

I'm finally going back to visit Barcelona! It'll only be until next Tuesday, but that's long enough. Ah, tomatoes, octupus, hot girls... speaking of which, I'll be hanging out with one of my nonchalant, red-hot rockstar Catalan friends Saturday night! (This one) I miss girls like that so much. Catch y'all later. Barcelona awaits me!

November 1, 2006

Machiavellianism

There's some discussion at GNXP on Machiavellian behavior, in particular as regards its application to getting sex. To expand my comment, recall what the different facets of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness measure. Here is a brief outline. Someone who scores low in Agreeableness will tend to mistrust others and believe they're motivated by self-serving goals, be equivocal or devious in expression rather than frank, have little concern for the welfare of others, respond more antagonistically than compliantly during interpersonal conflict, brag rather than be modest, and be more toughminded rather than sympathetic towards others. Machiavellians probably don't score in the bottom of the Conscientiousness distribution, since they believe in their own self-efficacy (or else plotting is pointless), strive for achievement, practice self-discipline despite distractions, and think things through before acting or speaking. However, personal organization (or Order) and emphasis on fulfilling moral obligations (or Dutifulness) they would score low on. Someone who scored high on Order would have everything in their living space tightly organized, be a neat freak, always be punctual even in informal settings, etc. But to go from one woman to another without setting down roots requires a certain degree of aimlessness and vagabondishness, of course in addition to little concern for the other's feelings. Machiavellians probably wouldn't score as low on A and C as sociopaths would, but this is only due to sociopaths scoring very low on C. Sociopaths are great seducers, too, though, as this item from Steve's blog demonstrates nicely. They are not necessarily serial killers, but they would bilk trusting old ladies out of their life savings (perhaps by seduction) without flinching.

My stance is that Machiavellian plotting is like war (a point that Robert Greene may or may not have already made; I haven't read any of his books). So, it's fine in self-defense and perhaps even in revenge, but unprovoked manipulation I don't support. In most cases, though, it's like learning a martial art just to go out and kick ass on the people you've always wanted to rough up. Similarly, it's one thing to have the low empathy of a misanthrope who wouldn't, say, donote money to charities for poor kids to attend college; but it would be another to actively steal funds from such charities. Of course, I'm not suggesting that seduction is criminal, but simply that it's in the same direction as these activities (pro-actively using others for personal gain rather than reacting to the provocations of others), though certainly not of the same magnitude. I may not care if gold-diggers have their feelings ripped to shreds, but nor am I going to devise a plot to exploit them as they do others. If it were a matter of revenge, then sure; but again, pro-activeness is a different creature in using others. And to be sure, if the others were a social plague, who knows, but I could see myself taking on a Travis Bickle-ish role and flushing some of the garbage down the sewer. The other group would have to be something pretty awful, though -- violent criminals at the least.

Let me put it simply: there are simply too many groups of sub-criminal, vile individuals for me to plot to use them all for my personal gain. I'd rather take the few moments of consciousness I've got to find a pleasant, exciting girl to settle down with, and to find work where I can be left alone by bosses rather than be forced into political maneuvering to advance my status. Again, though I'm pretty low in empathy, I'm not evil; and from all accounts I've read online relating to pickup artists and the like, once you go down that road, your respect for women vanishes. There are plenty of silly things relating to women that I'll never respect: the taboo that surrounds discussion of male-female differences in intelligence (variance) and personality (averages), chick lit and chick flics, their incessant gossiping, and so on. And there are large swaths of Anglo-country women infected with various strains of radical feminism. But there are attractive, agreeable, fun girls out there among whom I'd like to find a mate, and for that to work I have to have my basic respect for women intact -- not viewing them as puppets for my amusement, at the very least. The abyss staring back into you, and all that. Don't get me wrong -- most guys, including me, would love to have anonymous sex with a variety of hot girls if they presented themselves at our door. But in the real world, groupies are not literally banging down your door, so this requires effort, a part of which means you'll view the targets as puppets. I couldn't respect a puppet, obviously, so I would only feel disgusted by their presence, which I could overcome if it were subservient to a goal of revenge, but if I can manage it, I prefer to just avoid loathsome people.

Incidentally, to show how one might use one of Greene's 48 Laws of Power in self-defense, consider this one that I just read in the recent New Yorker profile of him: "Play a sucker to catch a sucker." Last week, some early 20-something guy pounded at my door, and it looked like he was selling something. I hate these fuckwads as much as I do telemarketers, except you can't simply say "Remove me from your calling list." Moreover, you're in a unique spot to cleanse this rot from your entire neighborhood -- not that I feel especially close ties to my neighbors, but I'd want them to perform this sort of basic housecleaning for all if the screwball were on their doorstep. Before I called the police on him, though, I had to make sure he'd never suspect it. I let him talk my ear off about the magazine subscriptions he was selling, purportedly to raise funds for him to attend college and get his life going in the right direction. The more time that passed without the door being slammed in his face, the more confident he became -- so confident that he won't see it coming. I even invited him in to warm up, whereupon he continued with his obvious lies and obsequious complements about how the living room looked.

I still wasn't convinced that I was going to call the cops on him, but something finally set off the alarm -- he claimed that there were other kids selling subscriptions in the area, so if I did end up buying a subscription, he'd give me a tag to put on my door so that the others wouldn't pester me. Only a moron couldn't plan it out so that two kids didn't knock on the same door, and few people who plan things are morons in the sense of having low IQ. That was such a bizarre thing to say, that I agreed to buy a subscription, with the full intention of canceling it once he left. This way, I got his name and company he was working for, not to mention again the effect this had on his confidence and cockiness. So after I signed the receipts, he tore off the thin strip that held the several carbon-copy receipts together and wrote, by hand, "So-and-so's winning, bug off," which I was to affix to my door with scotch tape to let the other sellers to "bug off." Again, only a fly-by-night company would do something so bizarre, rather than have a professionally made "Do Not Disturb"-type hanger that I would leave on my doorknob (again assuming they couldn't just have the kids take non-overlapping areas).

Sure enough, when I Googled the company -- Great Lakes Circulation, Inc. -- I discovered that their door-to-door employees are all liars who spin various heartstring-tugging stories about college tuition assitance, hospital fundraisers, and so on. In reality, they simply sell magazines at roughly 300% the cover price. At least I had the name of the company if I needed to take any action to keep them from revisiting my neighborhood. Even better, though, all that time this doofus spent trying to sell me snake oil allowed me to develop a perfect mental image of what he looked like and what he was wearing, so that I could report his ass in flawless detail to the police. I jumped up and down when I saw the county police cars pulling out of the street I gave them, where I last saw him walking. I knew the police would've told me to buzz off if they were having a busy day, and the fact that they sent two cars to haul off someone who was soliciting without a permit and misrepresenting themselves, just shows how slow a day it was. So I don't want to hear how I prevented them from stopping a murder or anything. Now not only that fucker but his bosses as well know that men with guns will show them the way out if they come around here again. "Play a sucker to catch a sucker" indeed.