December 20, 2007

Nouveau riche as a term of abuse

You don't hear "bourgeois" used as a swear word very much anymore, yet "nouveau riche" still serves the purpose well. If this were coming from old money people, it would be understandable, but it's mostly coming from the nouveau riche themselves. That's typical of the culture's obsession with making the enviable self-flagellate in public (another example is "White guilt," a disease that only successful Whites suffer from), but in this case there does seem to be a deeper hatred.

What usually makes a person newly rich is that improving environmental conditions produce more smart people, and that the economy begins to offer more opportunities for smart hard-working people to make good use of these traits. You'd think that, since we so treasure the rags-to-riches ideal, we'd be more comfortable with the nouveau riche, as questionable as its tastes may at times be. Instead, we focus so much on how gaudy are the women's purses or the men's cars -- sins which are really more venial than cardinal -- that we overlook the wonderful fact that the smart and hard-working do not have to squander their talents picking potatoes anymore.

December 14, 2007

Recent sound changes in American English

Someone may have already written about these, but I don’t find them interesting enough to do real research on, as must have been true for early observers of rising intonation in declarative sentences. (As in, “So I went to the mall? And saw my best friend? And we had lunch?”)

The first is pronouncing the sound that begins “thin” as the sound that begins the word “then.” In jargon, the initial consonant was unvoiced, and now it is voiced. (Your voice box buzzes when you make the sound of “then” but not “thin”). It is only for one word, as far as I can tell: “thank” and its derivatives. A lot of people say “thanks” or “thank you” with the “then” sound. I may have even heard this pronunciation for “Thanksgiving,” but that’s a rare word, so my memory may be off. We’ll see if it spreads to “thin,” “thigh,” “thief,” etc.

The second is much more pervasive: devoicing a final “z” sound into an “s” sound. Devoicing a final consonant is common cross-linguistically (and again, “z” buzzes and “s” doesn’t). For example, pronouncing “please” to rhyme with “fleece.” As with rising intonation, it’s most frequent among insecure girls, the more effeminate homosexuals, and those who live on the West Coast.

It is especially noticeable when it’s used as a plural marker. By default, the plural in English has a “z” sound, and only goes to “s” when the preceding consonant is unvoiced, as in “cats.” But when someone says “dogs” with an “s” sound at the end, it’s affected, since “g” is voiced and there’s no reason to use an “s.” We’ll see if this affectation becomes regularized, the way Americans under age 40 or 45 pronounce “Milan” to rhyme with “anon” rather than “Japan.”

There, the pretense may have been “we’re trying to sound more authentic in the native language spoken in that city,” in the way that obnoxious tourists now strive to “live like a Parisian” by renting an apartment for a week and go about their daily routine, only in Paris – the way an authentic Parisian would, in contrast to what those loathsome fellow tourists are doing over at the Louvre. *

In the case of “dogs with an s,” the affectation appears to me to be a way of sounding more girly, hence its immediate adoption by flamers. On the other hand, there may be no rationale behind it at all, and it may simply be a fashion statement – “I pronounce words differently from you, and I’m cool,” which prompts the wannabes to shift in that direction too. And the gays may go along with it for the same reason they might copy female clothing trends like wide-legged vs. skinny jeans – they’re what’s “in” right now, period.

* It’s fine if that’s how you want to spend your vacation, but no one else cares.

December 9, 2007

My manly deed for the day

Irina in New York just wrote a post on manliness that I couldn't help but find a bit funny -- not her desires, but the implicit advice that American guys should act more like Russian or Puerto Rican guys. With some American guys, this might work, but the "protecting a woman physically" type of manliness will strike most of us (and others in the developed world) as a bit proletarian. And as you can easily see in the case of faking an interest in sports, aping the manners and tastes of your inferiors is comically see-through, off-putting, and arrogant. *

When females actually are in physical danger from men, then of course this would be the right thing to do, but we have not lived in such a society for awhile now. In fact, within recorded history, the skulls of Britons have become thinner, presumably because of a relaxation of the pressure to protect your brain against clubs and spears. If Gregory Clark is on the right track in A Farewell to Alms, there has been recent change, some of it genetic, affecting the temperament of those who have industrialized. For one thing, contemporary Northwestern Europeans seem much less interested in violent entertainment. Just look at Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty to see what passed for fun in pre-Industrial England.

Women in the industrialized world -- at least the parts of it that are not given euphemistic titles like the "inner city" -- are not really at risk for being assaulted, and so are not in great need to be protected in that way. However, males -- especially aged 15 to 24 -- still threaten women's sense of comfort and security in other ways. A man could verbally belittle a woman, and assuming she didn't deserve it, any guy nearby should see to it that the taunter gets verbally bitch-slapped or perhaps punched in the gut if it's warranted.

Or take the example I saw tonight while studying in the school library. A guy and girl had met up in the lobby to study for a test. I was at a table about ten feet away and immediately noticed a very peculiar display of body language from them. It looked like this, with the guy on the left:

These are large lounge chairs, so I thought, "Why is she seated so far away from him, almost cringing?" The guy was about 5'5, and the arms of the chairs were about six inches wide, making a foot-wide gap between their seat areas, so his leaning over into her space was insultingly obvious. At first I thought she was just alternating positions due to restlessness during a long study session -- but she remained bolt upright. Clearly, she had been suckered into what she thought was a group study session, or maybe he acted normal at first but figured he'd make a move once they were in a more intimate setting.

As there weren't many people in the lobby, I could overhear the guy: he was ranting on about whatever Leftist college students are obsessed with at the moment. I nearly laughed out loud when he got to the topic of health care and underscored his point with a personal anecdote about how he had recently been beaten up and couldn't afford stitches. (That line gets 'em every time!) She politely indulged him for about ten minutes but finally said, "OK, can we get back to .... ?" The whole time, he was parasitizing her, too: she brought her notes, textbooks, and study guide, while he kept interrupting her with "Wait, can you say that again?" while he copied down what she'd said.

Finally a chair freed up right across from her, so I strolled over slowly and sat down, making sure to use slow, composed movements to provide a foil to his jerky starts and stops. I should clarify that she wasn't very pretty -- maybe 5.5 or 6 out of 10 -- so I was not doing this to seduce her in any way. I had on flannel pants, a Prince of Wales patterned shirt with a sweater over it, boots, and an overcoat laying by my side, while he had gone out in public in sneakers, a ratty t-shirt, and sweatpants -- yes, a male older than 11 years was wearing sweatpants. I had my things in order and continued reading my notes and study guides. The point was just to take her mind off the oaf, and to signal to him that he didn't stand a chance with her as long as I was there, so knock off the pathetic attempt to invade her space.

She couldn't have been more relieved: within the first five minutes, I counted five times when she conspicuously tousled her long hair, vs. never doing so in the 30 minutes before I sat down. After that, she did so another five times in 25 minutes. She also settled down into her seat but turned so her body was facing me, and her leg was pointed away from him and toward me. This is a much more effective way to express lack of interest, rather than cringe but continue to face him (sociopaths can smell fear). I even saw her smile a few times and make eye-contact with me -- no more awkwardness or feeling like she was held captive by some degenerate.

He simmered down too. For one thing, he got up to go who knows where at least three times, probably out of nervousness or frustration, vs. never doing so before I sat down. That must have added up to 5 or 10 minutes that I saved her from even being in his presence. He still kept trying to lean into her space, but I think he got discouraged once she was no longer facing him (as when she was cringing).

And he tried once more to go off on a revolutionary Left rant, starting with, "Well, I think there needs to be a fundamental change in the political system, I think we can all agree on that" -- yeah, demented college students should be sent to labor camps. I waited until he was halfway through his next sentence when I burst out laughing and giggling, pretending that it was something I had read. It had the intended effect, while avoiding wasteful confrontation: he got derailed, while my outburst emboldened her not to indulge him anymore but to give him that amused, contemptuous look of "are you kidding me?" We smiled at each other for a moment, and she started tracing her lower lip with the tip of her pen just after that.

It's pretty easy to shut down that type of person: just laugh at them like you don't take them seriously. They realize that they'll never convince anyone of their views, or else they would spend more time organizing workers, walking picket lines, and so on, rather than downloading Michael Parenti speeches from YouTube and shopping for sweatpants. What they crave is an audience who cares, so the best treatment is to chuckle and giggle at them the way a parent does when their toddler thinks they've discovered a "secret passageway" in the nearby woods. "Aw, aren't you cute!"

I had to leave for dinner, so I didn't get to see how their session ended, but he'd already lost his steam, so I didn't worry much. It felt pretty good to take care of some manly business by putting a slimy con-man in his place. (He had a dingy Eastern European look, like a Gypsy used car salesman.) As funny as it may seem, it's in situations like these that women in the developed world are most likely to cry out for someone to save them.

Still, rescuing them calls on the same internal qualities as does protecting them from saber-toothed tigers or an invading war party: attention to female distress signals, a sense of decency, an urge to dominate other males competitively, and maintaining a socially intimidating appearance in case you need to signal to the offender to cut out their nonsense (which in this case could be done just by wearing a sharp suit and tie -- no need to bulk up in the gym to suggest violence). **

* In my many run-ins with "radical chic" wannabes, it's always baseball that they're supposed to be fascinated with, never any other sport. This choice belies their upper-middle background -- even they realize how degrading it would be to take up an interest in NASCAR, a more blue-collar sport. And football and basketball are a bit too nouveau for someone who still wears spectacles in the style of Trotsky. So baseball it is.

** I know that many readers find my interest in clothing tiresome, but it's serious stuff: when I walk around the dining hall, I've made 6'4 musclebound football players who are Black move out of my way in games of "Chicken." (I stand 5'8 and weigh 135 lbs.) Part of it is walking deliberately and slowly, suggesting you won't steer away, but dressing several levels above them is necessary too. It's the same reason why a prole who lives in the gym will always move out of the way of a sharp-looking investment banker, even if they grumble in envy about what an obnoxious prick he is afterward.

December 1, 2007

Fairfield, Iowa

What do Burlington, Washington, Main, and Court have in common? A woman who would've improved the human race by having an abortion.

BTW, what kind of faggotry is this? Bwahahahaha...

[Comments are disabled for this post]

November 26, 2007

Nominate a female role model?

Apropos of the post below, maybe it's worth devoting a whole post / comment section to this topic, since it must get boring to hear guys talk about how wonderful 20 year-olds are -- what are females supposed to do when they reach their mid-late 20s? Off the top of my head, I suggested fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia, just because she looks like she has her stuff together, is elegant, and seems amiable. Danica McKellar, who you know as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, turns out to be a math nerd, and she also looks put together and confident. There is also human geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who you can watch speak about recent human evolution here -- again, poised, elegant, pretty humble, and plays in a rock band. Blogger / commenter Thursday will surely nominate Gwen Stefani.

There must be many others I don't know about, as well as some I'm blanking on this moment, so in the comments, can readers nominate more role models for females who (like most of us) aren't exposed to many examples of women who age gracefully? The basic criteria are simply these:

- Is at least 27 years old, preferably not one of the few who still look 20.

- Has accomplished something in their field, no matter how seemingly trivial (she could be a professor with no publications, for example!). Just to show that she's set her mind to something difficult and achieved it.

- Is not flaky -- no committed believers of astrology or psychoanalysis.

- Treats strangers with a pleasant, agreeable temper.

- Puts sufficient effort into her personal appearance, whether traditional or more contemporary, but something feminine that younger women would want to emulate.

- Tends toward modesty and humility rather than bragging and attention-whoring.

You get the idea. I want to have lots of names I can suggest, since the need to do so arises all the time. The NYT ran a story not long ago showing that high school girls know that most of the celebrities they see are drugged-up skanks, and though that awareness is encouraging, we still need a positive alternative to provide them with. Ditto for college-aged and early 20-something girls. One or two of the readers fall into this demographic -- last time this topic came up, we kicked around general qualities that any civilized guy would prize, but since then have you found concrete examples of women who others should know about?

November 25, 2007

Not even legal Miss World girls

For a post on what makes tall women desirable, I looked up some data on Miss World contestants (see their pictures here). The chart in the Wikipedia article lets you order the columns, so just click that little gray box on "age" and you can see that there are 5 contestants who are just 17 -- and upon further investigation, Miss New Zealand is still 16 and will only turn 17 in December. If the winner is crowned on Dec. 1, that sounds as if she'd still be 16 if she won. My impression is that countries set their own age limits, although no one younger than 16 or older than 25 shows up (the median age is 21, and the distribution looks pretty symmetrical, maybe a bit more bunched around the younger end).

On the one hand, it might seem in poor taste to send a 17 year-old to an international beauty pageant, but younger girls have a lot to recommend them, mostly in their demeanor, which is more warm and giggly. I had been tutoring girls that age before I started school, but I forced myself to not even start thinking along those lines. But now that I'm surrounded (besieged) by 18 year-old coeds most of the day, none of whom I tutor, I can allow myself to study what makes them so appealing to guys of all ages.

Sure, the skin is much tighter, especially on the thigh, but they tend not to have fully developed breasts and posteriors, which many men are interested in, so I don't think they have a higher net level of physical attractiveness compared to females in their mid or late 20s (30+ is a different matter). But their personalities do tend to differ: researchers of the Big Five personality traits have found that, although changes after 30 are weak, from about 20 to 30 there is a decrease in Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Openness, and an increase in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. In brief, during your mid-20s, rough, you become more well-behaved and disciplined, and less outgoing, emotionally unstable and open to new things. *

I think Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are more relevant to potential employers; some would say it pays to have a more Agreeable partner, but I prefer someone who's a bit stubborn and mock-confrontational. Higher Openness means that far more silly ideas will fill their heads -- as they did mine too when I was that age, of course -- but that's easy to overlook, since you know it's just a phase they're going through. The committed vegan activist who's over 30, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly likely to be a sourpuss. At the same time, youthful curiosity is pretty attractive. I also prefer someone who's above-average in Neuroticism, since otherwise they won't empathize when I get set off by little things, and since a certain degree of emotional vulnerability makes you more careful about how you treat her.

Higher Extraversion means they're better flirts, are more chatty, show greater warmth, and experience positive emotions more frequently. This is probably the key personality difference that men pick up on when they become entranced by a 20 year-old. Females seem to smile less as they age, and giggle even much less. Now, giggling is one of those things that you can't mention without invoking the slanderous image put out there by non-gigglers that this activity consists of acting retarded and ditzy. But it's not that at all: they're not laughing at something they think is funny, but rather signaling that they enjoy interacting with you, as when a cat or a guinea pig purrs when you pet it the right way. It is just adorable. **

Younger girls are also less guarded and calculating when they're trying to get your attention, largely because their actions are not as under rational control as they are at older ages. Just to provide a few examples: they toss and tousle their hair more conspicuously (fidgeting with hair is always a sign of interest). They put more of a bounce in their step when they walk by, often lightly caressing the table you're sitting at, or gently tapping the chair that's opposite you. If they're leaving a room, they'll caress, tap, or cup the jamb of the door as they leave. And if there happens to be a male acquaintance of theirs nearby, they'll laugh and bounce around as hard as they can while his speech goes in one ear and out the other. All of these involuntary tics are clearly designed to grab your attention, and again the ingenuousness is so refreshing.

As a reminder, others have speculated that these honest signals of lack-of-control serve to convince the observer that the sender can be trusted. After all, if you can't help the way you feel, you aren't apt to leave once someone slightly better strolls by. Giggling, getting butterflies in the stomach, showing anxiety and possessiveness over your boyfriend -- these hallmarks of feminine charm begin to flower around age 15 (at the risk of sounding like a dirty old man), and noticeably wane by age 25, having peaked somewhere in the middle of this range, on average.

To be sure, females in their mid or late 20s have their own charms, especially when they resist the urge to plant their feet, in vain, as the river of time washes them steadily forward. For example, wearing sweat-suits ("track-suits") that look appropriate only on high-school girls, or behaving like a spoiled brat, which would scarcely be cute even were she a teenybopper. I keep trying to think of positive role models in this regard, but the US doesn't supply this urgent demand very well, does it? Fortunately, I happened upon a picture of lovely Giovanna Battaglia, a 27 year-old fashion editor who works for L'Uomo Vogue, and whose work can be seen at her website. *** In the comments section of a fashion blog, which you expect to be plagued by pointless bickering and posturing, everyone at The Sartorialist -- male and female -- agreed that Ms. Battaglia sets a fine example for young women out there.

* See the following: one, two, three.

** Never trust an animal that doesn't purr, like dogs.

*** More pictures and info here.

November 4, 2007

Brainy models

I'm going to regret not bringing a TV with me out here, not because I watch much, but the new season of Project Runway begins in a few weeks. I took a look at the models and something jumped out at me: of the 15 models, 3 are pretty bright -- one went to NYU and later got a masters degree in psychology, and two others went to Tufts, one for psych and art history, and another for econ. Given the schools' average SAT scores, I'd say these girls are at least 2 SD above the population mean for IQ.What's the probability of this happening?

If we assume that looks and IQ are sorting independently, we can figure this out as follows. There are about 13 million American females aged 18-25, of whom 130,000 are in the top 1% of the attractiveness distribution for their age group. Assume that the 15 models on the show are random draws from this pool of 130,000, at least with respect to IQ (no SAT scores needed to get on the show). Of the hot girls this age, 2600 will also be in the top 2% of the IQ distribution. (That's what you find at the level of Tufts, NYU, etc.)

Using the hypergeometric distribution, we have a sample of 15 hot girls from a population of 130,000 hot girls. Of them, 2600 will also be brainy, and we draw 3 of these in our sample of 15. The contingency table looks like this:


Plugging these numbers in, we find the probability of this event occuring is about 0.002584. To really round out a Fisher's Exact Test, we'd have to calculate the probability of all of the more extreme cases -- e.g., where there are 4 smarties, 5 smarties, up to all 15 smarties -- but it's clear that these will be small compared to probability we've already got. And since they're a pain to calculate, I won't do it. So let's say p is less than 0.003.

That's pretty rare. One explanation is that this is just a fluke -- unfortunately, the biographies for the models of the previous three seasons just mention their hometown, so I can't tell. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this pattern is fairly representative. The reason is that looks and IQ are not independent: smart, successful guys marry good-looking women, who may also be smart.

Here I suggested that there is greater assortative mating among hot-and-smart people "back East" compared to the Mountain Time Zone. This region is at least several generations behind the "rest of" the country, meaning the parts where power is concentrated, so it's only a matter of time before it happens here too. And sure enough, the three brainy models are from upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia, and western Massachusetts (where she went to the elite Deerfield Academy boarding school).

The econ degree is something of a red flag, but the other two studied psychology and art history -- very little chance that they're the get-outta-my-way girls who use their big brains to work on Wall Street or for Manhattan law firms. So what's not to love?

Update: A commenter raises the issue of affirmative action and whether these girls are really in the top 1%. As to the latter, think of a small liberal arts school with 5000 undergrads -- the top 1% is 50, and if they're uniform across classes, that makes about 12 or 13 per class. Wouldn't these girls make that cut? I think so, but I've re-done the calculation assuming they're only in the top 5% -- I don't think that's really debateable. It says you expect to have to sample 20 people at random to find a girl who's that attractive.

As for affirmative action, I don't think it's enough to make a difference. Both Blacks went to Tufts, which has an average SAT score of 1390, and so the average person there is between 2 and 3 SD above the pop mean. I used 2 as a lower-bound, but the average White student there is probably 135 or a bit more. Schools like Tufts get to snatch up the limited pool of high-IQ Blacks; once you get into U-Mich territory, where the average score is somewhere in the low 1300s, that's when the pool has been dried up by Harvard et al, and AA plays a larger role.

Let's assume, however, that the average Black student at Tufts has an IQ of 125, and ditto for the White girl who went to NYU. That's in the top 5% of IQ. To really get our priors straight, though, one of the Black girls is Jamaican, and they (and Caribbeans in general) tend to do much better academically than other African-Americans, so she may be on an equal footing with her White peers. The other girl majored in econ -- that's not something a dope can do, since it involves a lot of math and abstraction, so she too could be on par with her White peers.

But just to buffer against these criticisms, conservatively assume all three girls are just in the top 5% for both looks and IQ. Using the same procedure as before, we find that the probability of exactly this pattern showing up is about 0.03073, and adding in the other even smaller probabilities to fill out Fisher's Exact Test likely won't raise that above 0.05, the conventional cut-off for "unlikely." So the result stands as before.

October 15, 2007

Mutating meme on "the best of..."

Tagged by an internet meme on evolution -- read about it at my tagger Sheril's blog here. I'm tardy in producing my mutants, but that just goes along with my late-bloomer life history. I'm going to delete and replace the first question, not having read any SF/Fantasy or time travel books.

1. The best feel-good symphony in Classical music is:

Beethoven's 7th. I used to blast this out of my car windows in areas where "fuck the system" conformists hang out. In Maryland, at Barnes and Noble -- not that the converse is true of course -- and here in the Mountains, just about anywhere, since skateboard dudes abound. What a perverse world, where Classical music has become against-the-grain!

2. The best scary movie in scientific dystopias is:

Alien. It's one of the few that doesn't involve some phoney-baloney about creeping totalitarianism. All those predictions were wrong: only the Third World saw totalitarianism, and First World never really came close, considering how many opportunities there were. The message of Alien -- that there are places where we'll be eaten up if we venture too far, especially if we try to colonize -- turned out to be right in just about every case where it was put to the test during the 20th century. Score another one for the "let's mind our own business" worldview.

3. The best cult novel in American fiction is:

Catcher in the Rye. Bear in mind, the comparison class here is "cult novels in American fiction," few of which I've read.

4. The best sexy song in pop is:

"I Got a Man" by Positive K. I generally don't like songs that try to be sexy. In this one, though, the guy doesn't end up getting the girl; it's more about the excitement of flirtation. Tension and repartee are sexier than confession and praise. As a big-time flirt (when I'm not focused on work, and assuming I know the girl), I miss rap songs like this. Plus, when was the last time rappers bothered writing rhymes like these? --

I wanna turn you on and excite ya.
Let me know the spot on your body and I'll bite ya.
So when your man don't treat you like he used ta,
I kick in like a turbo-boosta.
You want lovin', you don't have to ask when.
Your man's a headache? I'll be your aspirin.
All confusions, you know I'll solve 'em.
"I got a man." -- You got a what?
How long you had that problem?

I don't tag anyone in particular. Guess I'm letting down The Race that way.

October 8, 2007

Sin, hypocrisy, and the blank slate: social convention is smarter than you are

The use of "hypocrisy" as "failing to live up to the standards that one preaches" has become very popular, probably because of its service in shutting down a debate on how things ought to be. For instance, someone might say to me:

"Well, for all your stern lecturing about doing something more productive than reading blogs or Wikipedia, here you are wasting time writing blog entries about Madonna's career, chock full of YouTube clips. Sorry, I don't take advice from hypocrites."

Ah, but I write maybe two posts a week, and typically on the weekends when I have some time to waste. I know it would be better spent in other ways, but it's human nature to want some goof-off time. The point of that post was simply that reading Wikipedia, etc., is a form of sloth and should be minimized if you want to accomplish something. I'm sure non-nerds have their own ways of goofing off: debating who the best basketball player is, watching American Idol, and so on.

At bottom, "hypocrisy" just means preaching to others to behave one way while casting these rules aside in your own life. You claim to be egalitarian, and hector those who appear inegalitarian, yet you run an operation with a strict hierarchy. That's not merely succumbing to temptation during a weak moment -- it's something you go out of your way to do, consistently day-in and day-out, with no compunction afterwards. And it means you're full of it. There was a very interesting example of this recently when the Dean of Admissions at MIT turned out to be a complete phony, and like a true hypocrite her only remorse was over having been found out, not for lying about her educational background for decades -- all while going through applicants' claims with a fine-toothed comb!

So, the only way a big stink can be made over "not living up to one's standards" (aside from the duplicitious case mentioned above) is if the offender acted as if they were perfectable rather than inherently constrained by human flaws. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that the "fear of imperfectability" has been one of the driving forces behind the entrenchment of the tabula rasa view of human nature. * One casualty of the blank slate's ascendancy, then, is a belief in sin -- not in the sense of "doing wrong," since we clearly still have those ideas, but in the sense of in-born tendencies to stray from a good life. Now the only conceivable sin is not meeting the high standards you set for yourself, since it's taken for granted that you can become whatever you want if you put your mind to it.

It seems that a key development in furthering civilization along after the classical cultures was a progression in moral standards from merely not committing horrible felonies, such as those proscribed by the Ten Commandments, to avoiding the more subtle but more pervasive temptations catalogued in the Seven Deadly Sins -- and to veer in the proper direction by adhering to the Seven Virtues. Or something like that. Now, culture isn't the only way of achieving this progression, since personality traits like Conscientiousness are moderately heritable and thus apt to shift toward higher levels if the selection pressures are there. Indeed, Gregory Clark floats this idea in his new book on the Industrial Revolution, A Farewell to Alms. **

In the modern view, though, as long as you abide by some secular version of the Ten Commandments, then you're doing fine and no one can judge you. Outspoken atheists tend to deride things like the Ten Commandments as suitable only for the low-IQ, who require the fear of fire and brimstone in order to not behave like raping and pillaging barbarians. Almost all of the conventional wisdom accumulated over the past 1000 or so years, much of it codified in something like the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues, is lost on such people. "Consenting adults," "freedom of choice," "laissez-faire," etc.

But there is evidence almost anywhere you look that those for whom organized religion is important tend to be more virtuous and civicly engaged than atheists. Here is a review of the statistics on atheists vs. active-faith Americans in voter registration, volunteering for non-church groups, being active in the community, helping the homeless, and donating to non-church charities. Atheists do well, but the more religious still outscore them on all these measures. The fact that atheists do well on an absolute level shows that they are not outscored on account of lazy, apathetic members, who might differ from principled and philosophical atheists.

Recently Inductivist showed that those who attend church frequently were more likely to donate blood than those who never go to church. And here I reviewed a study that showed that, even among those with gifted IQs, the more religious scored higher on Conscientiousness as adults. Another interesting datum from the study on volunteering, etc., was that 12% of atheists but only 4% of Christians said that living a "comfortable, balanced lifestyle" was important to them. Naively assuming that this trait is normally distributed as personality traits are, this implies a difference between means of 0.58 standard deviations. If it were height, that would make the active-faith group about 1.7 inches "taller" on average. Also, going to church makes you dress in a dignified way at least one day of the week.

So, while acknowledging that these are overlapping distributions, the picture does suggest that there's a kernel of truth to the popular stereotype of atheists as smug, intellectual slugabeds who talk but don't do. And don't hold up a single counterexample, since that proves nothing. Think back, and average out all the atheists you've ever met, and all those who were religious (had faith, went to church, or whatever). Who's more likely to end up permanently working in a bike repair shop, indie record store, or used bookstore, thereby squandering their potential to accomplish something?

I'm not trying to single out atheists in particular, but just to provide one example of the result of the experimentalist attack on convention, as when someone demands, "Well, logically justify the Seven Virtues, and maybe I'll listen." Maybe the adherent to virtue isn't very bright or eloquent, and so can't do so. "Ha, then there's no basis for following them!" Well, except that they appear to work. The social realm is not like the Platonic world of mathematics or the laboratory of science -- blithely discarding manners and convention in the latter areas may be a good thing in some case, and if it's not, we'll quickly understand that and fix the problem. Math and science are stable in that way.

But the arts, humanities, and the social realm more broadly show the opposite pattern -- if they are disturbed, they will diverge away from where they were. Western artistic creation and criticism basically went extinct within three generations during the 20th century. Look how quickly we went from a world where men and women knew roughly how to relate to each other, to today's world where guys are so clueless that they can't figure out whether or not to pay for dates, let alone innumerable other cases in the relationship between the sexes.

So, the eventual burial of the blank slate worldview, the beginning of which I think we're starting to see, will hopefully bring back the idea that human nature tends toward sin, and that we should adopt customs that steer us away from those tendencies. None of this requires religious devotion, but in order to prove that, non-believers have to get over their scorn for following tradition. They usually qualify that phrase as "blindly" following tradition -- but it's no less thoughtless to abandon customs whose logic cannot be elucidated. How do you know they don't serve some beneficial function?

Evolutionarily minded atheists love to say that "evolution is smarter than you are" in response to people who are incredulous about the power of natural selection to adapt organisms to their environment genetically. That's true, but we could have that go in the opposite direction as well: social convention is smarter than you are to adapt people to their environment when human nature cannot be relied upon. That means convention wins in the short-term -- if human nature changes on a genetic level, and it can do so very quickly, only then is "another world possible."

* One implication he points out is that if man appears imperfect, that cannot be due to nature, and therefore must be due to defective social institutions which must be re-engineered to churn out better people. The first examples that come to mind are likely Soviet Russia and Maoist China, as well as similar re-education programs that continue to operate in the West: political correctness, affirmative action, and so on.

Still, most prominent conservatives -- meaning those with real power, those who staff think tanks, etc. -- are in favor of affirmative action, No Child Left Behind, massive illegal immigration, bringing democracy to Iraq, and other policies doomed to failure by not considering human nature. And many libertarians' faith in some Econ101 version of homo economicus is even more risible than Rousseau's belief in Natural Man, since at least the latter wasn't surrounded by counterevidence (he lived his whole life within a civilized society). These days, just about all of the elite are a bunch of clueless clods.

** In Andrew Hinde's demographic history of England, England's Population, he shows that the weight of the evidence suggests that stagnant population growth in Early Modern England (roughly 1500 to 1750) was not due to increased mortality but lower fertility. In particular, it looks like prudence became popular: during these hard times, the age at first marriage went from early 20s to mid-late 20s, celibacy increased from almost 0 to tens of percents, and marriage rates tracked real wages -- you got married when you could afford to form a family, and didn't if you couldn't. Now, they didn't have to have the conscious, explicit objective of being prudent, just as an extravert doesn't have to rationally calculate that they'll be better at sales than computer programming -- they'll figure out what works best.

October 6, 2007

How entitled are very pretty girls?

Roissy posted a chart on prettiness and sense of entitlement which says that as females go from 0 to 10 in looks, their entitledness increases. I disagree with what's going on above 8, so here is my graph:

In words, entitledness increases weakly as you go from 0 to 3 in looks, increases more noticeably as you go to 6, takes off from 6 to 8, and the 9s and 10s feel as entitled as the 6s. That's my rough impression. The only real disagreement, again, is what's going on with 9s and 10s. Most people never meet such beauties, or if they do, it's only a passing encounter. I had the privilege to go to college with a lot of these girls, so I got to see how they carried themselves throughout the day, whether in class, in the dining hall, in the library, or at work. Yes, they actually worked! And many of them were international students whose families likely owned half of the country that they came from, so they had no need to work. Boring jobs too, like checking out books in the library.

They behave very differently from the 7s and 8s, on average.* At the top, they are more likely to be poised, confident, secure, nonchalant, agreeable, charming, elegant, and they smile and laugh sincerely -- whereas those just below them tend to be insecure, haughty, uptight, meanspirited, coarse, gaudy, and they frequently deploy fake smiles and laughter to help achieve their silly "life goals."

There is a distinction that must be made between sense of entitlement and the type of guy she ends up dating or marrying. The graph above claims that 6s and 9s have about the same entitledness, but clearly the 9 is in a much better position to get what she wants in a guy, and so probably will. But because she is so beautiful, she does not need to prove it to anyone -- suitors will follow her naturally enough, and many will be very marriageable, so she has little to worry about, as far as being taken care of is concerned.

So, she has the same attitude about what men should do for her as a barely above-average girl does -- men should go through certain motions, but she doesn't remove two stone tablets from her oversized bag on which are inscribed commandments such as, "Thou shalt buy me Christian Dior sunglasses," "Thou shalt pay half of my rent, plus yours," and so on. If they hadn't married by age 30, the 9s and 10s might feel a bit down but would still find plenty to enjoy in the other areas of life. The 7s and 8s, by contrast, would make sure the world heard how grave an injustice it was that they had not snagged their trophy husband.

The 9s and 10s are the ones who say things like, "I wish more guys would approach me, but I think most of them are too afraid I'll say no, so I don't get many dates." The 7 or 8 would spin her lack of dating as the result of men being deluded, stupid, clueless, or threatened by women like her ("threatened by a go-getter" if a lawyer, "threatened by tall women" if tall, "threatened by a woman with brains" if a grad student, etc.). In general, the difference in demeanor couldn't be greater.

And why not give a good example of what I'm talking about. Here's Mia Rose playing the guitar and singing in Portuguese-Portuguese.** Ahhhh.

* Please don't make me say it out loud that I'm only talking about tendencies -- it's an insult to the reader's intelligence.

** If her casual speech sounds like some Slavic language or Moroccan Arabic, that's because the Portuguese don't pronounce a lot of the vowels in a word, so it ends up being mostly consonants: prtgesh. Thankfully, singing requires her to pronounce them.

September 30, 2007

Model mothers and musician fathers

As a follow-up on the why are songbirds so pretty? post, where I suggested cross-assortative mating between attractive females and musical males, I found out that Linda Perry, the lead singer of 4 Non Blondes, has a mother who was a model and father who was a musician. (And like Mia Rose and Ana Free, she's of Portuguese descent). Since she lead a grunge-rock band, and since she entered young adulthood as a lesbian in San Francisco during the late '80s and early '90s, we can assume she tried to downplay her sex appeal as much as possible.

Indeed, in the video for "What's up?", their breakthrough hit of 1992, she's sporting some very hideous dredlocks and a big goofy hat. But you can still tell how beautiful her face is, and that she has nice legs. (Here is Vega's cover of the same song.) A Google image search confirms this; she looks pretty good for 42.

September 25, 2007

Are Macs girly?

Quick question: what is so girly about Macs? I'm not a partisan, since I'm pretty low-tech. But in the main library here, they is a silly division between two sides -- one with about 100 Macs, and the other with about 100 PCs. The Mac side always seems to have a higher proportion of girls, and the PC side a higher proportion of guys.

Is it the design consciousness of Macs? I never use them because they take too long to load things, but they do have greater visual and tactile appeal.

September 23, 2007

Slovenliness and organized religion

I'm busy cataloguing all the evidence that's confronted me so far that shows how little seriousness there is in the Mountain Time Zone, and as you can guess, looking presentable is a special case. There is one exception, however: some people still follow the convention of wearing their "Sunday best" if organized religion plays more of a role in their lives. It's clear that religion is not altering their basic preferences, since they don't put any effort into their appearance when it isn't Sunday. But having one day of dignity out of the week is more than can be said for the majority of their counterparts back East (these are mostly lower-middle or middle-middle class people). There, church-going is infrequent among Whites.

This confirms the claim I made previously, before moving out here, that the casualization of dress codes has hit the middle and lower classes much harder than the upper classes, whose casual clothing doesn't look pitiable. As with most of the attitudes and practices spread by the well-to-do counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, the blight they have produced has remained largely out of sight for their rabble-rousing originators.

September 20, 2007

Seeing only black and white - just plain dumb?

Whether it's in comment forums or class discussions, one thing that always drives me up the wall is when someone makes a remark that's a "difference of degree" statement, and then some jerk pipes up -- always oozing smugness or sarcasm -- with a "counterexample." But unlike math class,* we are rarely arguing the existence vs. non-existence, or uniqueness vs. non-uniqueness, of anything. Thus, "counterexamples" -- really just naysaying -- don't prove squat. If I claim that men are more likely than women to be 6 feet tall, pointing out even 10,000 women who are at least that height doesn't go against what I said, since I could point out even more men.

I used to think that this was a sly rhetorical trick, or intellectual laziness, or perhaps a gut emotional reaction to a claim you don't like. But then again, maybe most of these people are just stupid and can't count. Maybe they'd score above-average on an IQ test (or maybe they wouldn't), but they aren't smart enough to engage in an honest debate -- not for want of honesty (necessarily...), but for want of logical thinking ability.

I've coached kids for the SAT for about 3 years in total, and among the reading comprehension questions, some of the harder ones test the student's ability to discern subtlety. An easy way to write this type of question is to create three outer-space answers, one answer that has a universally positive or negative quantifier ("all," "every," "none," etc.), and one that has a less extreme phrasing. The test-makers never choose extreme writers, or moderate writers on controversial issues, so the subtle answer is almost always the right one -- "The author grudgingly accepts the way our school system is structured," rather than "The author expresses his disdain for institutional education." Others might focus on "not at all" vs. "is less likely," and so on.

Now, SAT questions only make it into the real test by proving themselves to be somewhat g-loaded: they help you tell the dull from the average from the smart students. So, maybe those who repeatedly commit this error are more cretinous than crafty. Just a thought.

* Even mathematicians are comfortable saying things like, "Don't expect a typical group to be Abelian" or "These types of equations usually have closed-form solutions."

September 17, 2007

Why are songbirds so pretty?

Somewhat apropos of the post below, it's commonly stated that the only reason hot babes make it big in pop music is that the record producers pander to the lowest common denominator, namely raw sex appeal, and the devil if that means churning out shitty music. Like most poses that people strike to sound cool, we should take a good skeptical look at this. In particular, is the situation different in genres that don't pursue the almighty dollar?

I mention Hope Sandoval and Vega so often that you're probably sick of hearing about them, but they are two obvious cases of very pretty female songstresses who aren't very poppy. Since we've already talked about babes in classical music and lovely Gypsy chanteuses, let's take a deeper look into this genre. The folksy, lyrical trend of the '90s, and alternative / grunge music, was in reaction to the "excessive" '80s, so sex appeal should have played a minimal role. Even better, let's look at headliners of a concert organized along feminist, hippie-dippie, goddess worship, stick-it-to-the-Man lines. That, of course, is the all-female Lilith Fair.

So, for the two readers who are still with me, do a Google image search and tell me whether a single one of the performers from the inaugural Lility Fair isn't pretty. Remember to look for pictures when they were at their peak lookswise. Well, The Indigo Girls for sure, and Shawn Colvin may have looked plain. Aside from them, the rest of the 16 performers are pretty. Hell, some are even foxy: Sheryl Crow, mega-hottie Susanna Hoffs (from the Bangles), Leah Andreone, Emmylou Harris, and Fiona Apple.

That's 5 of 16 who would spin heads, 2 who are ugly or plain, and the rest somewhat pretty. Given the purpose of the concert, and given that it was aimed almost exclusively at females (males being dragged along by their grad student girlfriends), the "pandering" argument does not even leave the ground. I could think of many other examples of hot girls who rock out (Liz Phair), as I'm sure the readers can, so let's take that for granted and move on to why this pattern shows up.

We can rule out basic environmental factors, since it's not as if there's much malnutrition in the areas the above women come from, so being pretty and having a nice voice doesn't mainly show that you lucked out in your upbringing. Moreover, pretty and vocally gifted people are this way without much training -- to make it big, they may need coaching and a makeover, but their gifts are not due to coaching. Arguments that pretty girls are encouraged more to sing or play guitar are also unconvincing, since encouragement doesn't have lasting effects unless the person was predisposed to become good at music. How many parents push their kid to play the violin, and in how many cases do they play the violin for a living in adulthood, or even as a sustained hobbie?

That leaves genetic factors. There could be one or more genes that have effects in more than one part of the body, affecting both attractiveness and musical ability. Maybe, and it would be worth looking at what makes females look feminine, since females are better-looking and probably more skilled at singing than males, on average. (As with everything, males likely show more variance, accounting for their overrepresentation among eminent composers and opera singers.)

What seems more likely to me is cross-assortative mating between pretty girls and skilled musicians -- a well-attested phenomenon. You could test the "model and rockstar" hypothesis by seeing if the looks-singing correlation holds within families. That is, if mom is gorgeous and dad has a great voice, the kids will on average be above the population average for these traits by sampling their parents genes. However, if the two traits aren't deeply connected, it could turn out that the more alluring daughter isn't the one with the best voice. I think that's how it would turn out, but if it didn't, we'd be back to the previous paragraphs.

If this practice persisted for long enough, there could develop a micro-caste of attractive musical people, since the sons will be of the pretty boy rockstar type, and gifted babes would likely prefer them to ugly or plain rockstars. That still leaves aside why gorgeous girls might have preferred the musician when this practice began, but that's a separate topic from what accounts for the pretty songbird effect.

September 15, 2007


Someone recently suggested that I occasionally say misogynistic things, but that's not true. I openly comment on how silly girls are in many ways, but I'm just as rough on males who dress like middle-schoolers. And I definitely have low respect for a lot of the females I observe in my daily life, but again the same is true for most males. So if anything, it's mild misanthropy rather than misogyny.

But there's a subtler point worth making: even if I never brought up male stupidity or expressed disdain for some ridiculous male behavior, merely ragging on girls over and over doesn't constitute misogyny. When girls act slutty, for instance, they have little respect for themselves, and it's hard for me to have respect for them either. As slutty behavior increases, I'll have less respect for the females around me. In the limit, an arbitrary girl from my environment will engage in girl-on-girl kissing in broad daylight just to get some attention, and I'll have lost my respect for the females around me.

It's easy to lose perspective and read misogynstic undertones into a complaint about some feature of a group of women, but not of all women, and perhaps maybe not even of a majority of women. I can't stand how infantilized many American women are, for example, and I could go on about it in harsh detail. That wouldn't be woman-hating but simply an exhortation for them to grow up. And I'm always careful to present the French or Spanish or other first-world group as the foil for Americans, just so it's clear that I'm not wishing for a foot-binding society.

Another thing that rubs me the wrong way is how much American girls tend to focus on their external appearance. Don't get me wrong, it's good that they attend to it, but among those capable of graduating college, there is an obsession with fitness -- not the kind of exercise that would keep you healthy, but the kind that may or may not boost your health, but that certainly makes you look really good when naked. All that time at the gym (or wherever) subtracts time you could spend learning to play the guitar, let's say.

Girls complain that we only value them for their looks, but do they spend a substantial amount of time cultivating a talent? And I don't mean academics -- neither males nor females think it's particularly sexy to tell if a matrix is positive definite or not in one's head. And advancing in one's career also does not qualify as a cultivated talent. It shows determination, but what's worth saying "wow!" about that?

Well, you knew this would all lead back to alluring Iberian singer / guitar-players somehow, didn't you? It turns out that one of the most popular people on YouTube is a Portuguese nightingale, Mia Rose, whose internet fame has landed her a record deal. Just think of how much of YouTube's library consists of attractive, toned girls doing nothing more than shaking their butt in front of the camera, or something similar. If guys really valued only looks, then whichever exhibitionist had the hottest body would quickly be catapulted to top status. You see, guys really do care about more than just the outside -- Mia Rose is definitely a babe, but she never dresses or acts or speaks provocatively, so in a race to the bottom, she'd lose big-time.* Another very popular YouTuber is also an attractive Portuguese chanteuse, Ana Free.

Here's Mia Rose covering "Kiss Me" and "I'm Like a Bird", and Ana Free covering "Sway" and "Time of Your Life". Also, here's a duet of theirs, "Seen Your Face". They're adorable, and they don't have to pander since they're not one-dimensional cuties. That's something I can respect.

* In the chicken-or-egg question about why American girls of said demographic are so obsessed about their appearance, we've already seen that it's not supply meeting the stringent demands of American males. We like Mia Rose better than some sculpted stripper. Perhaps part of the reason lies with the radical feminist message that men are pigs, dogs, scum -- pick your pejorative -- and that we only value women for their looks. Any female who falls for this caricature might well spend a lot more time in the gym, muttering to herself "Yeah, I'd rather be doing something else after 30 minutes of this stuff, but you know how those dogs are." This kind of male-deprecating attitude then starts the vicious cycle that we see.

September 6, 2007

The attractiveness distribution out West and back East

Here in the Mountain Time Zone, I'd say the mean is equal to that of Maryland (or other East Coast places), although the variance is smaller here. You won't find Brazilian supermodel lookalikes, but you also don't see much of what are called "trailer trash" either. There must be greater assortative mating for looks on the East Coast.

Perhaps that is because the Bos-Wash area (and others like it) attracts a disproportionate amount of people who are not just smart and successful but also a bit above-average in looks, since that would give them an edge over the smart but plain (hey, that's how the world works). Normally, good-looking women are fine with marrying down as far as looks go, as long as he's successful, and this tends to erode variance in looks, as pretty and ugly genes are mixed into a given family.

But when the good-looking woman is also very smart and ambitious, I don't think she'd be as willing to marry an ugly guy -- she's got it all, so why shouldn't her husband? And similarly for good-looking successful guys -- why shouldn't he marry a woman who's both smart and sexy? This tendency will tend to preserve variance, as pretty genes get shuffled into the same families, thereby forcing more ugly genes to get shuffled into the same families too.

NB: I'm controlling for other variables, like ethnicity and class. It wouldn't be fair to compare the mostly northern European population here to the beauties of swarthy skin and tawny tresses I was used to seeing in Maryland. And it also wouldn't be fair to compare middle vs. upper class people, since the latter are more likely to show a "trophy wife" pattern.

September 2, 2007

Getting in touch with "nature" is boring

There is nothing -- NOTHING -- to do in my adoptive city on weekends, despite this being a town with probably 20,000 students and plenty of 20 and 30-somethings. The alcohol laws are so bizarre that they make it impossible for any respectable form of bar or nightclub to exist. Needless to say, then, going out to dance is out of the question. It's no surprise this city scored pitifully on a recent list of the best places to be young. It's safe, and the weather is great, but god, is it drab. These things obviously do not conflict on a causal level; only in the US does "safe" correlate with "boring." There are plenty of ethnically homogenous, safe European cities with good weather where people have lots to do for fun.

What most people here do to unwind over the weekend is "get in touch with nature" -- to load up their car to go hiking, rockclimbing, skiing, and so on. I've never understood this perverse fascination with the unnatural that masquerades as "getting back to the simple life." These activities are what Black comedians would likely call Crazy White People Sports. I'm sure there are clubs for rockclimbers, mountain hikers, and bungee-jumpers, and I doubt you'd find a single Black member. For that matter, I doubt you'd find many southern Europeans either.

One reason is simply that these are dangerous activities -- therefore, not natural, unless there's some expected survival or reproductive payoff, like getting into a fight to protect your wife or hunting ferocious animals to win prestige and have something to eat. The other reason is that these activities are incredibly solitary, allowing only a minute here or there to socialize or otherwise interact as a team. Contrast these with getting together with a group for dinner, having a drink, going out to dance, and maybe socializing some more afterward. Now that's natural fun. What culture, whether primitive or modern, does not follow some form of this pattern for cutting loose?

About the only congregating I've noticed so far consists of the ubiquitous skateboard dudes practicing their tricks in certain hot spots, although always with no girls around. What a waste. The people are nice enough, and certainly seem willing to have fun -- there's just nothing to do. It almost makes me wish I was "back East," although there the nightlife is OK but lots of the people are jerks and bitches. Barcelona had the best nightlife and also nice people, but American schools are better.

Damn it, why can't we just decide what part of the world is going to have it all, and just move everything there? (If you answer New York, watch me laugh.) It wouldn't matter where, aside from climate considerations, but just as long as it didn't force you to choose between work and fun. If the European schools get their act together, Paris would be a top contender -- they've already done the really hard work of building a solid civilization and trying to perfect the art of leisure. The academic world can be transplanted across the globe within a single generation (just look at the WWII-era emigres to the US), so that's not going to be the hard part. It really should be based more on which cities are culturally and socially superior. Any other nominations?

August 31, 2007

Why I haven't blown up the world yet

It's true: part of the role of woman is to civilize man. Perhaps not directly, as in telling him how to dress -- you should generally not trust girls' advice here -- but indirectly, as in sending the signal that she will not date or marry men who act out violently or behave like barbarians in general. Of course, this assumes that we're not talking about a group where thugs have to fight off eager women with a stick. Among the Yanomamo, for example, the best killers tend to have greater reproductive success. The situation is obviously better in Western continental Europe, where even mild brutishness of the aggressive used car salesman or high school jock type is frowned upon.

We all get the urge to flush the human scum down the toilet, and on those occasions, it's worth having that reminder to keep us from doing so, the woman who would be horrified by a violent rampage. I have two: both Spanish (though one is technically White Mexican-American), introverted, a bit on the weepy side, fragile, songbirds with low voices, and who are rail-thin. The phrase "Madonna-Whore dichotomy" exaggerates the real pattern of male thinking, but these two are on the Madonna side, for lack of a better term.

First is Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, and who's also recorded a solo album with back-up band The Warm Inventions. She's now 41 and is the perfect antithesis of the self-debasing skanks of pop music who I've written about lately. She's very pretty and had a hit single when she was 27, so if she wanted to, she could have gone the way of Mariah Carey. Instead, she has always kept her sexuality rather private, and she has aged very well because of that. I've written a gagillion posts about her so far, so I'll just include one new video link: "Disappear".

The other is Vega, a Spanish pop star who became really famous the first summer I spent in Barcelona. She has the same graceful qualities that Hope Sandoval does. In particular, she is gorgeous and had a megahit when she was 23, and yet she's never slutted up her lyrics or stage performances in the least. I've posted a lot about her before, but why not fill up the main page here with some of her videos?

The first is a look-back at her time on the show Operacion Triunfo, which is like a mix between American Idol and Big Brother, I guess. It's not subtitled, but you get the idea of what's happening. She says she's weepy and sensitive, a mentor tells her to believe in herself, and so on. It's odd that halfway decent stuff could result from such a show, but here she is:

Next, her performing the brooding stalker's anthem "Every Breath You Take" on the show:

And her megahit "Grita!" (Shout!):

Followed by my favorite, "Una vida contigo" (A life with you):

Here is an acoustic, live version of the above.

"Y llueve" (And it's raining):

She also recorded a cover of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life". Great Spanish accent, and what a lovely laugh!

Urge to kill... fading...

August 19, 2007

Fussell's category X and conspicuous ignorance

In the comments on the cleaning up your nerdy appearance post, someone recommended that I read Paul Fussell's Class, which I did. I thought I had read some of the passages before, and as it turns out, I'd already read a review of it. While most of the book takes a fairly accurate and humorous look at the American class system,* there are two chapters that missed the mark, one only somewhat, but the other completely.

In the chapter on language as a class-marker, there are the predictable worries about the decline of language caused by not following some grammatical rule** or not honoring some obscure etymology. But there's also a more technical problem: he doesn't know linguistics. He claims that a prole would pronounce "corned beef" as "corm beef." This is a basic (not base) linguistic process, the same that often turns "handbag" into "hambag." The cluster of consonants "ndb" don't really get along well, so the "d" is elided, making "nb". But since "n" uses the tongue against the teeth, while the following "b" uses both lips together, a more fluid pronunciation changes "n" to "m", which also uses both lips together.

There couldn't be a more pervasive cross-linguistic pattern than this (phonological "assimilation"), and as far as I know, the upper classes are not immune to it. Certainly Fussell provides no hard evidence, a rather typical case when doomsayers discourse on technical aspects of language.

Putting this minor concern aside, the final chapter on "Category X" is not only clueless but celebrates what a Veblenite might call "conspicuous ignorance." The Udolpho review linked to above provides some key quotes that define X (basically, self-styled non-conformists and Bohemians). Fussell sees X as a non-class, a group that's managed to find a way out of the class hierarchy, and so a group to be emulated by those who are smart and curious enough to be able to adopt Bohemian ways.

First off, we already see the primary marker of X's class insecurity and envy: thinking of oneself as Plato's prisoner who's escaped the cave and who is in a sense chosen to lead the benighted from their world of illusions. The bestseller version of this allegory, The Matrix, became an instant hit among ambitionless geeks by selling them the dream of social importance, in much the same way that "Go Yankees" caps sell well among proles by letting them identify with something powerful and important. Thus, pace Fussell's claim that X is the one group among whom the religion of buying and selling has been dethroned, X-ers are easily manipulated by marketing teams. Their blind allegiance to "organic" food also shows this, since aside from the very hardcore, most Bo-Bos shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and other corporate chain stores that target the middle class.

The worldview of X therefore combines envy and resentment of the upper classes that's not unlike what you see among other middle-class groups: "Well, if the game doesn't reward intelligence and curiosity, then to hell with its fouled up priorities. I just won't enter in the first place!"

Indeed, in the brief final chapter, the words "intelligence" and "curiosity" are so frequently name-dropped that we are lead to conclude that they are markers of insecurity -- those who truly rest atop the apex of intelligence and curiosity don't feel it necessary to incessantly throw these words in people's faces to convince them. They serve the same purpose that "good taste" does in Fussell's mocking presentation of middle-class values. And they show that X-ers are not drawn from proles, who are more likely to hate middle-class know-it-alls than the elegant patricians who they rarely come into contact with.

Now, I don't deny that many X-ers are smart and curious people, even if they're not the unrecognized geniuses they think themselves to be. What's really appauling about them is that they have wasted their high levels of IQ and Openness to Experience by pursuing things that are, on an intellectual level, utterly frivolous. They are not contributing to our understanding of how the world works, since Fussell describes them as inveterate "verbal people" -- in short, those adapted to bullshitting, hoodwinking, and pranksterism. They are not creating valuable art, literature, or music either, although they may play an instrument or regard themselves as writers.***

What accounts for X's disdain for doing anything worthwhile, preferring faux contrarian behavior? A cynic would say this group is merely flaunting its intelligence and curiosity by investing them in perfectly pointless pursuits. And I don't mean "pointless" in the way that number theory has few real-world applications, but in the sense of "let's psychoanalyze the Transformers cartoon" or "let's make an AdBusters design." Or perhaps "let's maintain a weblog." The intended social signal is, "I've got so much IQ and curiosity to spare that I can afford to fritter a lot of it away on this useless crap." For example, Kant was reknowned for his appetite for arcane knowledge of obscure cultures. However, he was a highly disciplined, productive, and original thinker.

Unfortunately, though, the outcome for X-ers is as if a prole wore jeans and a t-shirt to ape the "understated chic" style of the upper class. First of all, the prole's jeans and t-shirt are poorly constructed, ill-fitting, and visually unappealing, just as X's actual output tends to be unimpressive. And if prodded for further proof, the prole would have no way to show he was upper class, while the true upper class can point to their houses. Similarly, X-ers cannot, when questioned, point to their Nobel Prizes, nor even to early work tending in that direction, or great works of art they've created. By contrast, if Robert Oppenheimer talked your ear off about Indian spirituality, leading you to suspect he was a halfwit, he could always have scores of eminent physicists vouch for his smarts and originality.

An apologist for Bo-Bos would claim that Fussell's final chapter is simply a subtle, ironic "deconstruction" of X's behaviors and motives. But his tone is too enthusiastic, and the other markers of class insecurity and envy too naked, to conclude anything other than that the chapter is a failed attempt at conspicuous ignorance. In reality, X-ers are just a particularly dopey subset of the middle class.

* My favorite finding of his is an ad in The New Yorker, most of which reads (original format):

"Dr and Mrs Jeffrey Logan Brandon
request the pleasure of your company for
[at this point the higher classes might say cocktails, or, if thoroughly secure, drinks. But here, "Dr." and Mrs. Brandon are inviting you to consume specifically]
Champagne and Caviar
on Friday, etc., etc."

** Throughout, Fussell adheres to the rule "never to split one's infinitives," even though this prescription is a perfect example of inorganic, rule-by-committee abominations that he derides elsewhere.

*** By the way, thank god the sexiness of "writers" has thoroughly evaporated -- imagine how difficult it would be today to adopt the earlier Woody Allen convention that cool intellectuals almost invariably aspire to be writers or architects. Hopefully, this will mean that only the serious will write for a living.

August 16, 2007

Younger babes, and dance nostalgia

Tonight on the metro, a solid 8.5 girl all but started doing cartwheels down the aisle to get my attention. I know because the car was nearly empty, the only males being me, an ugly high school dork, and an equally ugly IT geek, so she wasn't looking at someone behind me. She was in a group of four, and they were all about 19-20 (probably college students or interns).

Younger girls' flirtation is not effortless -- that's the wrong word, and assumes that they're trying but just make it look easy. Rather, they are not in control of their thoughts at all. Their behavior lacks the self-conscious calculation that a woman in her mid-late 20s would show. Aside from eye-contact and smiling, she wasn't just pushing around her hair a bit, but tossing her tresses madly about as though she were on an LSD trip -- I've never seen a girl stroke, tousle, and throw her hair so nervously. She also kept involuntarily touching her chest with her hand when laughing or giggling, and not in that pretentious seductress way. (It was the end of the workday, and I saw her walk evenly into the metro, so she was not drunk.) Nor were there gestures of skankdom: no forced pouty lips, conspicuous leaning over to reveal her underwear above low-rise jeans, etc.

Older women, when flirting heavily, give off the air of seduction, every subtle move planned out to manipulate you to where she wants you to go. Younger girls don't have the experience and cynicism to plan out such a thing: their more showy displays are meant to signal that their minds have been possessed. In them burns the flame of uncontrollable irrationality.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that this is adaptive, in the sense that it shows she won't just dump your ass for someone else.* If only your superficial qualities attracted her, she would leave you for someone who scored a bit higher on these, and her thought process would be: "Hmmm, let's look around... ah, that's a nice one. I believe I'll choose him for tonight." But if her reaction is "Omigod, who's that guy?!" and she gets butterflies in the stomach, then you can rest assured that, whatever qualities she finds attractive, she's been struck by Cupid's arrow and won't eyeball others who happen to score as highly or more highly than you do.

A cynic would respond that I only value girls when they lose control of their minds and can't think straight, as opposed to those who are rational and cunning. But -- and the few female readers I have can correct me on this -- for both sexes, it just feels more dignifying for the person who's flirting with you to appear "head-over-heels" rather than manipulating you for their own ends. Note that I haven't given in to the dark side and joined the players' club or whatever it's called: not in my nature. I've got a couple months before I turn 27, and I have a youthful face,** so maybe I'll have another try at the "young and in love" thing before it's too late.

Well, not with this particular girl -- I didn't do anything to approach her, other than flirt back a little, as I'm heading off to another part of the country tomorrow for graduate school, about the 34856994762nd time I've had to move. Being thrown about so often tends to make you more susceptible to nostalgia, and the last time I remember a 19-20 year old babe trying to get my attention was in Barcelonan nightclubs. (And come to think of it, this girl was very Mediterranean-looking, though I'd guess she was also 1/4 Irish or something.)

I've been to a club here or there in DC, but they just reek compared to even the mediocre ones in Barna -- the people here are on average more self-serious, they go out more "to be seen" than to cut loose and have fun, and the music will rarely include anything really danceable.*** It's a damn shame that the dance craze died so quickly in the US after disco's sputtering out. In The Last Days of Disco, we hear Ryan Paris' "La Dolce Vita," even though this song came out too late to be played when disco existed. I read this use of poetic license as a reminder that, despite the small role it played in the US, dance music would continue to draw legions of Europeans to nightclubs. With that, let's remember some of the better Italo Disco songs:

"La Dolce Vita" by Ryan Paris

"Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora

"Boys" by Sabrina Salerno (semi-not-safe due to nipple exposures)

OK, so the last performer is a total bimbo in the video. The music's still great for dancing. Her Wikipedia bio says she became more serious later on, so maybe she's the converse of Shakira and Mariah Carey: she is 19 in that video, so a fairly slutty start may have exhausted her early and made her do decent work in her late 20s and afterward. Vanity became a born-again, didn't she?

* Steven Pinker reviews some of this lit on romantic love in How the Mind Works.

** This got me carded for R-rated movies until I was 20, I'd guess.

*** And please don't tell me that Thievery Corporation, some of the more danceable of current club music, stacks up to Chic.

August 14, 2007

Clothing and class

Over at GNXP, I wrote a brief guide to cleaning up your nerdy appearance, emphasizing professionalism and making the place look nice, more than looking hot to get girls (though that's a good reason too). One thing I should've mentioned, but which was beside the main point there, is that it's a mistake to believe that putting more effort into our dress is bad because it might stoke class tensions, so why don't we all dress really down and be happy in our equality.

On the contrary, the downward spiral of casualness only increases the variance -- or as it's fashionable to say, it exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor. When even those at the bottom rungs of the white collar ladder dress more formally, and when (for example) waiters and waitresses are provided with stunning formal uniforms by their employers, both public and even private life has a much more polished look. Differences remain, but the contrast between a low-level white collar guy and a CEO is not night-and-day.

Once the more formal standards are abandoned, the very richest retain their impeccable attire -- Wall St. bankers will never adopt cargo shorts and polo shirts for work -- while everyone else tumbles into slobdom. The middle falls out, and now the differences between a CEO and an office worker look like something out of a muckraking cartoon from the Robber Baron era. Except, as Donald from 2blowhards pointed out, it is voluntary nowadays to look unkempt. As such, it could easily change if the will were there.

And when people are not in their "work-gear," these differences become downright embarrassing. The discrepancy between the suit of a low-level white collar worker and that of a CEO is noticeable, but it takes some investigation, and many naive people could be forgiven if they didn't see much of a contrast in the first place. However, look at the Wall St. banker in his t-shirt and jeans next to an office assistant in his t-shirt and jeans. Unlike a jacket and tie, the t-shirt and jeans look is pretty difficult to make look impressive. You could easily be mistaken for an unemployed or homeless person, but not so with a jacket and tie.

Sporty looks can be done right -- for a hefty price. While a jacket and tie from a low-level department store at least stands a fighting chance as a replacement for a $2000 suit, t-shirt and jeans from the same store would be hopeless to replace the $250 jeans and $150 t-shirt that would be required to pull off the relaxed look with some dignity and style. It's bad enough that a more casual approach results in less impressive items, but sub-CEO people are not merely wearing sporty designer sweaters and sleek jeans. The combination of these two effects really hollows out a large chunk of the public who would otherwise look pretty good.

Since the result is to push middle-class people to compete in an area where they are absolutely doomed -- casual sportswear -- let's ask Lenin's famous "who? whom?" question. Have the countercultural class warriors created the "less formal" trend in order to brutalize the appearance and self-confidence of the working and middle classes, exaggerating the most easily visible differences between them and the upper classes, all to fan the flames of inter-class hatred? "Guh, look at that pig in his yuppie suit!" etc., from a person who not long ago might have worn a jacket and tie himself.

Given that most of those who champion this credo harbor a more intense hatred of those above than a love of those below, this interpretation may not be as crazy as it sounds. Of course, I haven't read any of the popular (let alone, er, "scholarly") books on this subject, so this could have already been suggested, debated, and defeated. It's just hard to see who else benefits -- well, the upper classes themselves, but they can't control how those below them dress... without a mole to do their work from the inside. Those would be the celebrities -- from sub-elite backgrounds but who connote "high class" in the minds of the populace, and who enjoy dragging standards down, often into the gutter. But celebrities are for another time.

August 10, 2007

Eric Rohmer's Lady and the Duke

"Those Enlightenment philosophers should open their eyes!"

I've been meaning to give this movie a proper review -- see the trailer here -- but it's a historical movie and I don't know much more about the French Revolution than I learned in AP European History nearly ten years ago. Nor do I have time to read history now. So much for providing value-added insight into the history, then! The movie is an account of the Revolution leading up to and including some of the Reign of Terror, based on first-hand details from the diary of Lady Grace Elliott, a Scottish noblewoman who made France her adopted country.

The greatest aspect of the movie is that it humanizes the aristocracy. I can't say how the upper classes are portrayed in mainstream French movies and TV shows, but you only need to look at Law & Order and Titanic to see how vilely caricatured they are in the US. The heroine of the title is by far the most virtuous of the characters. She remains in France despite the danger posed by unruly mobs, she upholds the standards of civility during a time of mass chaos, and she even risks her own welfare to aid the escape of a reactionary polemicist who she does not care for but who has been condemned to death.

The original title, L'Anglaise et le duc, reads "The Englishwoman" rather than just "The Lady." This highlights Elliott's virtuousness all the more, as she has made a conscious choice to contribute to French culture, and it reminds the viewer that she could easily flee to her homeland. Sometimes it is the Outsider convert who most champions the ideals of a group, much as in the case of Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, perhaps because they are more aware of what life would be like in the absence of rarefied standards. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections, located the roots of English manners in earlier French traditions and is outraged that the latter may become extinguished:

In England we are said to learn manners at second-hand from your side of the water, and that we dress our behaviour in the frippery of France. If so, we are still in the old cut; and have not so far conformed to the new Parisian mode of good breeding, as [...] to say, to the most humiliated creature that crawls upon the earth, that great public benefits are derived from the murder of his servants, the attempted assassination of himself and of his wife, and the mortification, disgrace, and degradation, that he has personally suffered.

Although some critics complained that the movie was "too talky" and lacked action, * that only heightens the tension. Imagine how difficult it must be to force yourself to carry on as if there weren't a "swinish multitude" out on the prowl looking to make an example of someone like you. For someone raised on crude satires of "Let them eat cake" aristos, ** a movie like this makes an impact similar to that of a story like The Diary of Anne Frank for viewers conditioned to expect beady-eyed Jews sucking the blood of the Folk masses. And I don't remember anyone referring to a movie about Anne Frank as an "arty snoozer." What a clueless schmuck.

In both cases, the caricatures may have started off with a kernel of truth based on particular aristocrats or Jewish bankers, but once the herd runs with it, it spirals out of control. Also in both cases, the slandered group enjoys a higher social station than the swarm of malcontents, so that once the envy and wrath of individuals aggregate and are amplified by the envy and wrath of the rest of the horde, it is only a matter of time before they act to knock their superiors off their pedastal -- not by trying and dispassionately judging individual defendants but by a broad-brush "take no prisoners" assault on the group as a whole.

Moreover, the two groups had to fear both calculated apprehension by an organized military or police, as well as spontaneous bloodshed at the hands of the mob (such as in a pogrom). And in the specific cases of Frank and Elliott, the crowd's xenophobia toward their ethnic group makes their security all the more fragile. (Antipathy toward Marie Antoinette's Austrian background also features in The Lady and the Duke.)

The other title character, the Duke of Orleans, shows how idealistic individuals who encourage a revolution may become consumed by the very group they supported. That could be due to lack of sufficient zeal or to the fact that once the worst offenders are taken care of, frivolous charges must be trumped up in order to keep the nation's purifiers in business. Although Lady Elliott implores the Duke to take a firm stand and vote against the execution of his cousin the King, he responds that he agrees with her reasoning but that he is caught up in the advancing stampede (or some similar metaphor).

I don't read his defense as a self-serving rationalization: it seems that Rohmer wants to say that it really is unlikely that you will be able to stand still once you enter the herd, or swim against the current once you wade too far out into the sea. The only way to uphold your principles, then, is to make a bold existential choice not to enter the stampede in the first place. And of course the larger lesson is that small, tinkering changes and reforms are preferable to wild swings driven mostly by the caprice of the masses. That is because high civilization is an unstable equilibrium for homo sapiens, a state that can easily diverge off into barbarism after even modest perturbations.

Other revolutionaries receive relatively sympathetic treatment, showing that Rohmer is not a knee-jerk royalist either. Elliott harbors a fugitive polemicist and, fearing that a revolutionary patrol might discover him (and punish her as an accomplice), she hides him between the wall and the mattresses of her bed. She remains on her bed, nearly nude, hoping that she will not be asked to get up. Although it appears they may force her from her bed -- to the delight of several leering beasts in the patrol -- the officer in charge tells them to back off, since it would be a violation of etiquette. Elliott thanks him for maintaining propriety, and the fugitive evades capture.

Near the end when Elliott is put on trial, it is clear that the revolutionaries are not a cohesive monolith -- as a cartoon version might portray them -- but a group barely held together, riven by disputes large and small, some just delusionally idealistic and others consumed by hatred for aristocrats. Robespierre himself makes a brief cameo to tell the others not to bother with Elliott, as they have bigger fish to fry. He does not come off as a bloodthirsty, choleric tyrant; he seems more cold, calculating, and charismatic.

Another director could have easily used the occasion of making this movie to either skewer the aristocracy or portray them as angels, according to his ideological tastes. Instead, Rohmer takes a humanizing approach, showing both the foibles of the upper classes and of a few revolutionaries, as well as the savagery of the mob. *** The film ends with several high-ranking figures stepping up to the guillotine, the camera only showing their austere expressions and the dignified attire they're still wearing even as they await death. This approach works best, for as Burke observed, an inordinate focus on the faults of a group of people leaves little room for thinking up cool-headed reforms that would correct these faults (my emphasis):

Your legislators [in France] seem to have taken their opinions of all professions, ranks, and offices, from the declamations and buffooneries of satirists; who would themselves be astonished if they were held to the letter of their own descriptions. By listening only to these, your leaders regard all things only on the side of their vices and faults, and view those vices and faults under every colour of exaggeration. It is undoubtedly true, though it may seem paradoxical; but in general, those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation: because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things. By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little. It is therefore not wonderful, that they should be indisposed and unable to serve them.

* Poo-poo-ing a movie as "talky" rarely means there is too much dialogue. "Too talky" means "I wish they wouldn't say that." In the present case, bitchy reviewers just want the super-rich to shut their traps and get guillotined already.

** Marie Antoinette did not actually say this; that she did was propaganda and has survived to the present day.

*** In one scene, Elliott is accosted in her carriage by a ogre carrying the head of the Princess of Lamballe on a pike, presumably only shortly after she had been brutally gang-raped and mutilated.