July 29, 2007

The wasted minds of the youth

In the comments on the quit putzing around post, someone asked during what years is your mind at its sharpest. To a first approximation, before you're 30. That's worth emphasizing, since I don't think it's well known, and learning of it certainly got me going much faster in my studies. *

For a brief overview, search Ian Deary's Looking Down on Human Intelligence at Amazon, with the search phrase "cognitive ageing" (yes, with an "e" in "ageing"). Then navigate to the following pages for some sobering graphs: 224, 225, 228, 231 (or read the whole chapter if you have library / university access). What you see are two separate patterns for crystallized vs. fluid intelligence: the former tends not to decline until very late in life, while the latter begins a steep decline starting around age 30.

Since crystallized intelligence doesn't diminish for most of adulthood, your ability to acquire and store facts is not a limiting factor on your ability to contribute original insights to whatever it is that you do (assuming we're talking about smart people already). But because fluid intelligence -- your ability to reason through unfamiliar problems -- declines pretty unforgivingly at 30, you must exploit as much of your 20s as you can to come up with your Big Contribution.

Technically, this is true more for the fine arts and sciences, which make large demands on your fluid cognitive abilities, and not so much for anything about which you'd say, "OK, this isn't exactly rocket science" or "Well, it's not like I'm composing a symphony here." Still, in your early 20s you don't know exactly what you'll end up doing in your 30s, so it's better to prepare while learning new things isn't so difficult. That's the basic insight and argument underlying the idea of a standard curriculum for young people.

For example, while you could get a PhD in science or engineering and then read a lot of history in your 40s or 50s, it wouldn't be possible to get a PhD in history and then at age 40 or 50 learn intro calculus, genetics, and so on. It wouldn't take just a few months for someone else to teach you -- it would take as long as it would for an undergrad to learn, but now even longer since your mind isn't as sharp as it was at 20-25. And obviously if you remain pretty clueless about the basics, you won't get anything above that, nor be in a good position to offer an original thought that incorporates math or science. That's missing a lot: the accumulated knowledge we have about how the world works. And as Steven Pinker shows in The Blank Slate, an ignorance of the sciences of human nature has been the bane of many an idea about how society ought to be organized. Just one example of why it pays to study this stuff early on.

True, you don't need abstract algebra to understand any of the results that Pinker discusses, but I didn't say you had to do the equivalent of what a math major at MIT would do. Even a familiarity with basic statistics will go a long way to understanding such results, as well as give you the right weapons for intellectual self-defense, for when you come up against a know-nothing know-it-all, unfortunately a common occurrence.

So, like physical attractiveness and athleticism, raw fluid intelligence peaks during your 20s. By 30, your brain figures that it's learned most of whatever difficult concepts it must learn, so that continued investment of resources in fluid smarts could be better spent elsewhere. And as I mentioned in the review of The 40 Year Old Virgin, research shows that your personality traits remain remarkably stable after 30. The major tumult of life is done by that point, and you should have found your place in the world by then, so that significant further change would be somewhat pointless.

* In some cases, you could be a late-bloomer, in that you might have no trouble with the GRE, Miller Analogies Test, or other cognitive abilities test you take for graduate-level schooling, whereas you might have done well but not great on the SAT at age 18. If so, then you can probably assume the deterioration process won't begin until you enter your mid-30s. I think this is more likely if you are part or fully East Asian -- they tend to mature more slowly and live longer.

July 28, 2007

Say what you will about record executives...

At least they had enough sense to keep a lid on Mariah Carey's slutty and overly percussive tendencies. Remember when she cast aside her earlier manager and crew, and proceeded to go full-out skank for 1997's Butterfly, her music being sucked into the hip-hop vortex? The first CD I ever bought was her 1993 Music Box, when I was in seventh grade, and MTV used to play the video for "Dreamlover" every 20 minutes. If you ask me, she looks physically more attractive there than in the video for "Honey" (not that she looks bad here) -- her skin is tighter, even if you can't see quite as much of it, and her eyes are more glowing. Also, her demeanor is more charming and feminine than calculating and aggressive.

Age may account for some of the discrepancy: she was 23 in "Dreamlover" and 27 in "Honey." That may sound unfair -- "hey, she wasn't even 30, let alone 40 or 50!" -- but the early 20s and the late 20s really do have a different feel. Guys begin their 20s as complete losers and end that decade having at least secured a good foothold in their career, while girls start off as you see in the "Dreamlover" video but eventually jettison what remaining dignity they have, as they sense the imminent arrival of their "best taste by" date. (I know, but the alternative phrases like "best used by" sound worse.)

So think what you want about slick record execs who bully around their stars rather than give them free rein -- sometimes they know what they're doing.

Related: This reminds me of what happened to Shakira, although in her case she didn't slut it up nearly as much, but still comes off as much more cynical than before. For a pleasant reminder of what she was like at her peak, see the video for "Moscas en la casa" from her MTV Unplugged appearance in early 2000.

July 22, 2007

The 40 Year Old Virgin: It's about the woman, not the guy, changing her ways

This movie is not to be taken as a realistic depiction of how things are, but rather how the writers believe they ought to be, which Half-Sigma says is also true of Knocked Up by the same writer-director Judd Apatow. And while there are many enjoyable aspects of The 40 Year Old Virgin, including plenty of good sight gags, there remain several shortcomings that can all be traced to a naivete about the ability of middle-aged adults to significantly alter their personality traits.

Let's start with that. For a good overview, you should peruse Personality in Adulthood by leading researchers Robert McCrae and Paul Costa, who were instrumental in forming the Big Five model of personality traits. It is a very easy read for laymen, all key findings having been distilled into semi-stand-alone chapters of about 20 pages, and it currently sells for just over $5 used at Amazon. You can also search PubMed for the authors' names to find even more up-to-date abstracts. No matter what you read, though, the basic picture of personality after age 30 is that it is remarkably stable. There are tiny, incremental changes, though: as you age beyond 30, you become slightly more Agreeable and Conscientious, but less Extraverted, Neurotic, and Open to Experience. Importantly, your personality is not affected over the long-term by big life events such as getting married, having kids, getting fired, and so on -- although they may temporarily disrupt your basic disposition.

The skeptics may be wondering how that could be possible -- but the key is that it is true, whatever the causes, and the finding is the result of longitudinal studies spanning decades and examining large numbers of people, so it cannot be dismissed out of incredulity. Still, to make sense of this seemingly counter-intuitive result, think of how many irresponsible parents you've either met, heard of, or observed -- if becoming a parent caused you to become more Conscientious, there shouldn't be so many screw-up parents. If getting fired caused you to become permanently more Neurotic, how would people ever bounce back, even if it took several months or a year to do so? And conversely, if you became permanently less Neurotic from having secured a long-term job, wife, kids, and other events that we'd all think would make you less prone to negative emotions, then why do people who were Neurotic at age 30 remain so, despite achieving success?

Now, personality traits obviously change during life before 30, but since The 40 Year Old Virgin focuses almost exclusively on the lives of 30 and 40-somethings, the foregoing will be good enough to move on. We get a hint of the lack of realism when Andy (the title character) is encouraged to practice hitting on a girl by playing it smooth, turning every response of hers into a suggestive question. However, Andy is a meek, introverted nerd whose apartment is cluttered with action figures still in their boxes -- by age 40, it would be nearly impossible for him to turn on some switch inside his brain and effortlessly establish the playfully provocative banter that he does with this practice girl. It only appears seamless in the movie because Steve Carrell is a sufficiently flexible actor. This isn't a minor event in the movie either: it builds his courage, and the girl returns later on to offer him easy sex, forcing him to choose between a no-strings kinky hook-up with a skank vs. commitment to the woman he loves. In real life, the dilemma would never arise since he would have been hopelessly inept during his initial practice flirting with the girl.

Andy's meekness also presents a problem for the story arc that has him being promoted from a help desk assistant to the floor manager of an electronics store, due to his unexpected prowess as a salesman. This also boosts his self-confidence and makes him appear higher-status than he would be in real life. Note also that Steve Carrell is 5'8 or 5'9 -- this combined with a shy, ambitionless personality would prevent Andy from becoming manager of pretty much anything, let alone become a skilled salesman. I think the writers must have been aware of this contradiction, as even Andy's female boss is taller and has bigger balls than he does.

However, these two instances are failures at showing life as it is, and again the point is more to show how we ought to behave. Even there, though, the movie has two unbelievable events that also derive from the belief in the ability of middle-aged adults to easily and lastingly alter their temperament. One is a side-story about Andy's co-worker Jay, a profligate womanizer who feels no compunction in unannouncedly entangling Andy in his web of lies when he pressures Andy into lying on his behalf. Jay's irate girlfriend finds out that her boyfriend had gone speed-dating and written down a ranking of the girls' sluttiness (presumably to remind him in which order to call them), but Andy lies to her that the comments were his, not Jay's, which gets Jay off the hook.

Later, Jay forgets to take off the condom he'd used to fuck another woman the night before, and his girlfriend dumps him. He unwittingly impregnates his girlfriend, who then quickly decides to forgive him and take him back. Jay learns the lesson that sex complicates a relationship, that he should be devoted to his woman, and so on. He even appears enthusiastic about becoming a father, already bragging about how big his baby son's penis appears on a sonogram.

The idea that conceiving a child with an inveterate skirt-chaser will magically make him settle down and act responsibly is a joke, albeit one that manages to deceive many women into standing by their Lothario boyfriends. Remember, they're not a married couple coping with adultery; the boyfriend is just a letch. I'm not saying that change here is impossible -- we're not talking about a fundamental personality trait like Extraversion, but a more specific behavior like cheating on your girlfriend. Nevertheless, his girlfriend ought to remain very skeptical of how much her boyfriend has managed to change in just a few weeks' time, and she ought instead to require a long-term demonstration of sincerity and commitment before she accepts him back. The same would be true of any other mistreatment, such as if he'd smacked her around even once. By suggesting that women should go against their better judgment and quickly pardon the dishonorable behavior of their boyfriends, the movie misses the point in one of its "ought to" moments.

But worse still is the suggestion that Andy ought to seek out a relationship with Trisha (not the skank he used as flirtation practice). Throughout every stage of their relationship, Trisha reveals more and more red flags that should send shy guys looking for a decent woman running for the hills. First, she has three kids, one of whom also has a kid, and yet she has evidently been divorced for quite some time. She confesses that one of them was "a mistake," although as in Knocked Up she does not have an abortion; and she screams at her teenager daughter not to have sex and make the same mistakes she did when she was younger. When Andy tells Trisha that he rides a bike, she thinks he means a motorcycle and recounts how her boyfriend in college was a biker. And almost at the very start of their relationship, she admits that she usually does not go for nice decent guys like Andy, instead preferring bad boys -- and look where it's gotten her.

If Trisha were younger, we might believe that she'd seen the light and grown out of her wild youth, but the actress who plays her is 45 and looks it. If up through age 45 she's managed to spurn guys like Andy in favor of having unplanned kids by biker dudes who leave her afterwards, it's very unlikely that she'll be able to change her ways. It is like someone who has been an obese glutton all their life deciding to begin dieting in their mid-40s. Their natural inclination is to pig out on junk food, and they have had zero experience in exercising restraint, developing the positive habits of proper eating, and so on.

So how in the hell are they going to succeed in dieting for longer than a few weeks? What she would experience is misleadingly called "yo-yo dieting," when a better analogy would be a spring that's stretched away from its resting state but then soon snaps back to where it wants to be. Guys like Andy would be rice-cakes, and she would sooner or later dump them and return to her preferred bad boys. And in the meantime, unless he was too moronic to put two and two together, he'd realize that that's all he was to her -- a rice-cake that she had chosen not out of passion but as a last-ditch effort to protect her personal well-being. That's great for her, but it would humiliate any guy who had even a shred of dignity to be treated that way -- why not instead seek out a relationship with a woman who was enthusiastic about dating nice decent guys?

I already hear the laughs, but let's be serious: only someone with no self-respect would choose a long-term relationship with a semi-good-looking woman like Trisha, who viewed you as a dieting supplement to help her control her weight, rather than an average-looking girl who had fallen irrationally head-over-heels for you. True, Trisha would make a better casual sex partner, but remember that the movie presents her as the best choice for marriage. How could you wake up and look in the mirror every morning, knowing that your wife married you due to a mixture of self-interest and pity?

Besides, it's not true that there are few women who value virginity in a husband -- well, few in most of the developed West, that's true. But David Buss' seminal cross-cultural survey of mating preferences (PDF) showed that, far more than any other variable, a preference for virginity varied the most. Subjects rated their preference for a variety of factors that an ideal mate would have, from 0 (irrelevant) to 3 (indispensable). His Table 6 (p.11) shows that women in the following countries rated virginity as 2 or greater on this scale: China, India, Iran, and Taiwan, with the Indonesian average slightly below at 1.98 and the Irish average a bit lower at 1.47, though still far higher than most other places around the world. My first pick would be Indian and Persian girls, but if you prefer East Asians, then China, Taiwan, and Indonesia offer over 1 billion to choose from. And for those who prefer Europeans, the Irish produce plenty of stunners to select from (the darker ones anyway).

It's worth repeating that this variable varied more than any other -- despite variation around the world, men were pretty uniform in valuing "good looks" highly, and women "good financial prospect." So if you're an ugly girl or an unemployed guy, it's going to be rough finding a mate of any quality no matter where you look. But since there is such great variation in emphasis on virginity, it wouldn't be difficult at all for Andy to find an attractive bride from one of the aforementioned countries.

This more fitting and realistic alteration of the story could take the form of either him importing a mail-order bride from China or Taiwan, or to make him more dignified perhaps a wife from the more developed Ireland. Or, given the prominence of Andy's two South Asian male co-workers in the story, they could have fixed him up with a family member or family friend from South Asia. (There is a South Asian female who plays the ex-girlfriend of another co-worker, but she comes off as too prickly and self-centered to get along with Andy.) And of course, the story could have simply introduced an American woman who would have been magnetically attracted to Andy, even if she would represent only a minority of American women.

That suggests that The 40 Year Old Virgin is not so much about Andy and his difficulty getting laid, as it is about women like Trisha who have a past they're not proud of and are trying to better themselves by giving guys like Andy a shot, hopefully resulting in a steady marriage for once in their lives. It's hard to think of another reason why a woman with so many red flags was written as the one who falls for him. For, the best instruction to guys like Andy would be that, "You ought to look for a traditional, conservative woman who will already value what you are." The movie instead targets its instructions toward women like Trisha, to the effect that, "You ought to settle down with a guy like Andy while there's still a sliver of an opportunity for you to change your directionless ways."

That's all well and good, but again, it's pretty hard to swallow given how old and how much baggage Trisha has. It would have been more convincing if, as in Knocked Up, the female lead had been in her mid-20s (and the male lead suitably younger as well). It would have been more believable because basic personality traits are still somewhat up for grabs before 30, it would fit in easily with a storyline about her growing into an adult after partying hard in college, and the most important audience to reach -- young women -- would more easily relate to a female who was in her mid-20s rather than her mid-40s. Maybe Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, or Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild, would feel up to the task of writing an improved script.

July 20, 2007

No one cares if you don't watch TV, you're still a lazy blockhead

"You watch television to turn your brain off and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on."
-- Steve Jobs, in Macworld Magazine, February 2004

I know, try hard not to laugh. But we've all run across someone like this or a website like this.

Perhaps when television first became widespread, it might have been worthwhile to warn of its potential to numb the minds of smart kids -- you don't want to end up like Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, do you? That book was published in 1964, and an update in the spirit of the original would properly focus more on the internet and cell phones. [1] Tellingly, the two most common derogatory phrases for television -- "idiot box" and "boob tube" -- date from 1955 - 1970, when they would have been relevant. [2]

But for at least the past 20 years, it should be a given that intelligent people won't watch much TV, if at all. Boasting of one's disinclination to stare at the idiot box can, therefore, imply only one of two things: 1) the person prefers the company of numbskulls, among whom TV abstinence would actually be noteworthy; or 2) he associates with those of similar intelligence but believes he should be lavished with praise for meeting minimal responsibilities. Given the tendency for people to seek out peers of similar intelligence, perhaps aided by the internet, the second interpretation is more likely. It reminds me of Chris Rock's joke about differing expectation levels among "Black people vs. niggas" (see here, 2:10 - 2:50).

In reality, the greatest threat to the intellectual lives of college graduates -- at least those whose minds have not irreparably rotted from studying literary theory or women's studies -- is internet pseudo-learning, exemplified by an addiction to Wikipedia and to blogs. I'll admit that a few years ago, I too was trapped in an ever-increasing spiral of Wikipedia tabs open simultaneously. For unlike TV, Wikipedia is seductive since there is a veneer of respectability to it, and clicking through its entries does, at least occasionally, require more cogitation than channel-surfing.

A responsible person will then grow out of this phase and, pace Jobs, strive to remain disconnected from the internet as much as possible. Of course, Wikipedia and blogs do make useful references if you need a quick refresher of some important idea, or if you want to stay up-to-date on important ideas from professional journals. And blogs like iSteve provide a valuable corrective to the mainstream media's lazy research and mealymouthed discussion on important current events such as illegal immigration.

However, I've noticed an unsettling tendency for reading blog entries and discussing ideas on blogs to replace actually reading the work under discussion. I can't say how bad this is in other parts of the idea-world, but bad science articles (usually from the social sciences) now not only have the mainstream media outlets to disseminate their questionable conclusions, but also those of blogs that focus on science in particular or ideas in general. The most recent example of this was a Psychology Today article on making sense of the world through evolutionary psychology. Unfortunately, as popular as it was, it made little sense of anything and was a boon to morons who cast aspersions on viewing human behavior in the light of evolution. Worse examples abound. [3]

Briefly, I'll note that I do not have in mind articles on Creationism, Intelligent Design, astrology, and similarly retarded ideas. They're out there, but they do not persuade much of the elite in any developed country -- their ridiculousness needs no comment -- and the elite are the ones who run things, and thus whose worldviews you should worry about. Scrawling jeremiads against these boogeymen is like barging into a hospital for invalids and running laps around everyone in the physical therapy wing. Way to go: you win the highest award in setting the lowest goals.

Nevertheless, there is a promising partial solution to Wikipedia-style learning -- namely, Open Access media. Trying to better oneself through Wikipedia or reading blogs is doomed to failure for the simple reason that such media can provide only the most superficial hints of what the subject matter is. Unlike most refereed journals, those belonging to the Public Library of Science, for example, are freely available to anyone, so that the lethargic cannot hide behind the excuse of "I don't have access to that article." Moreover, both MIT and Berkeley have collections of their courses available online (OCW and Webcast), preventing capable students from complaining that all they have available is Wikipedia. [4] Only the most slothful and conceited individuals could not be socially shamed into doing more with their time by using these resources: they're there, so what are you waiting around for? Granted, if your interest is in marketing, MIT may not have much to offer you, so in this narrow case I'm talking more about lazy nerds.

Like all tools, the internet has no inherent quality that makes it harmful or beneficient (a hammer can be used by a carpenter or a mugger). If the larger culture that creates it and periodically expands on it takes a permissive attitude toward pride, sloth, and lust, then a preponderance of the content will consist of MySpace, Wikipedia, and porn sites. These vices are "excessive" or "inordinate" amounts of something that might not be so harmful in small doses, so they're fine to have sort of in the background, as long as the value-adding websites dominate the foreground. Remember that I'm concerned mostly with the state of the elite -- they're the ones who could be studying, say, applied math in order to train the logical parts of their mind, enhance their marketability to employers, and improve the economy. Of course, that assumes that the little fucker wouldn't just use his math skills to enrich himself by, for example, speculating on foreign currencies, as opposed to inventing a labor-saving device.

So, I don't expect that the more frivolous websites will disappear totally, nor even become unpopular, and most people will be incapable of benefiting from Open Access media. Still, it's entirely reasonable to expect that the better blogs will inform increasingly more of the non-elite public on important matters that mainstream outlets do not cover seriously (whether they are CNN, NYT, or the ubiquitous celebrity-driven "news" sites). But for that to begin, there must be a greater emphasis on diligence, delaying gratification, and humility (in the sense of admitting that one has much to learn). Thankfully, the moral flapdoodle that we've inherited from the Boomers is becoming both less tenable and less fashionable, although the sudden resurgence of identity politics in the early '90s -- fully 25 years after the late '60s -- shows that part of the way forward will always consist of the boring but necessary chore of giving these preposterous ideas their due thrashing.

[1] The 2005 movie version at least shows Mike Teavee as a video gamer, although that too is about 10 to 20 years out-of-date. Fortunately for those who'd agree with the Jobs quote, the story does not focus on early and late adolescents, in which case the internet would assume an even more central role in depictions of their laziness and self-centeredness, on naked display throughout three of the most popular websites for this age-group: YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook.

[2] According to the entries at Dictionary.com, which are based on the 2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

[3] To consider just the ones I have most direct knowledge of, from having contributed to debunking them:

- A brief self-esteem intervention allegedly boosted academic performance among Black but not White students (purportedly an instance of "Stereotype Threat").

- Girls with more feminine names supposedly performed worse and had less interest in the sciences.

- An all-over-the-place article by Ben Barres suggested a variety of silly causes for the overrepresentation of males in math, science, and engineering.

In the first case, much of the hard data was sequestered in "online supplemental files," which is like placing the footnotes for one book in another, so that few who even bothered to read the original article (already few in number) would be able to judge for themselves whether the authors' interpretations followed from the data. In the second case, the popular press and the blogosphere touted the findings of the study before it was even available in print or online, forcing all participants in the discussion to just shut up and take the author's word for it that the findings were real.

[4] It's true that, in their infancy, these Open Access sources do not contain all, or even a majority, of what an interested person may want. Still, PLoS contains several of the pioneering articles that document natural selection in human beings within "recent" time periods. And MIT's Open CourseWare site features full video lectures, problem sets with answers, exams with answers, and computer aids, for the more essential courses in a field (such as differential equations and linear algebra in math). And many others contain at least problem sets, exams, and lecture notes. Really the only thing the student must supply is the textbook, but they typically sell for only $50 used at Amazon. In fact, MIT Prof. Gilbert Strang has made his very readable textbook covering all three semesters of calculus, plus answers to all problems, available for free in pdf form: download it here.

July 16, 2007

The anti-Duke rape -- and murder

[Updated below, 7/17]

I was just browsing through the NYT's Education section, and found this notice that "The president of Eastern Michigan University was dismissed Sunday night, following a scandal involving the university's handling of the rape and murder of a student in her dormitory room..." In short, he gave the public the impression that foul play was not considered likely, when in reality that's what investigators believed from day one.

This notice is barely six paragraphs long and contains no information whatsoever on who investigators believe the perpetrator is, nor even about the young victim. Here is an article from the Seattle Times that shows what the victim looked like, and here is a mugshot of the alleged rapist, thief, and murderer, of whom the physical evidence doesn't paint a very favorable picture (from the ST):

...[S]chool police were interviewing four men as suspects, including Taylor [pictured in the link above], who told campus police he previously had roamed through dorms to steal electronics.

As the investigation progressed, seminal-fluid samples taken from Dickinson's body and her bed matched Taylor's DNA, police said. Surveillance cameras showed Taylor sneaking into Hill Hall early Dec. 13 and leaving 90 minutes later, carrying a gift bag, police said.

Dr. Bader Cassin, the Washtenaw County medical examiner who conducted Dickinson's autopsy, issued his final report: She likely died of asphyxiation.

So, here is a harmless young White college student who has been raped and murdered by a fellow Black student, and how much outrage did this interracial rape and murder manage to stir up at the NYT, which so shamelessly slandered the preppy lacrosse players at Duke? Zero -- despite the fact that, again, the present case involved murder and larceny on top of rape. I hope there's a special place in Hell for these craven liars.

UPDATE 7/17: The NYT has now expanded the original article, so that at least the suspect's name appears. However, there is still no mention of interracial rape and murder, and the focus from the headline onward is on the firing of the university president for covering up the crime -- not on the barbaric crime itself. There is still no picture of either the victim or suspect. Try real hard to remember the Duke charade and the Virginia Tech murder: I'll bet you remember seeing the faces of the accused. That's because they were White and East Asian, not members of protected minorities.

In fact, the article now does include a picture, but it is of the university regents showing consternation at the president's conduct. You can be sure that were the victim Black and the rapist-murderer White, the picture would show the victim's family and friends erupting in tears -- and rightly so. That's what would convey the horror and utter senselessness of the crime. Yet again, we see that PC taboos operate not so as to elevate Blacks and Hispanics and keep Whites where they are, but to knock Whites off of their "pedastal" while giving Blacks and Hispanics greater license to act as they please.

July 15, 2007

Best cities for young professionals

As if you couldn't guess, Forbes has ranked the Top 40 cities for young professionals. At the outset, let me register my frustration over the term "professional" -- the article surveyed elite college graduates, and I know from personal experience, anecdotes from those I knew in college, as well as just looking around, that a fair share of "professional" positions after graduation do not merit the term. The image that pops into my head when I hear "young professional" is not a young CEO or law firm associate, but rather the female protagonist from The Devil Wears Prada. (I have not seen the movie nor read the book, but I do know what her job consists of.)

I know, I know, in time these people will own a private medical practice, receive tenure at their university, or what have you, and they deserve encouragement in the meantime. But immediately bestowing upon them all the positive connotations of the term "professional" when they are pretty clueless and powerless as far as career life is concerned, only serves to inflate their egos, already bloated from having attended elite colleges. Any ranking of desirable cities for young, aspiring people should then reflect this: which cities score highest on the "deluded sense of self-importance" factor? While there's plenty to be said in favor of emphasizing easily measured factors like cost-of-living, number of historical landmarks per square mile, and so on, the factors that try to get a hold of the more subjective aspects of city life should focus on how easy it will be to get along with your peers vs. wanting to throttle them after a one-minute chat.

A city is only as enjoyable as the people who live in it. Anyone who has traveled to or lived abroad in cities with great architecture and a cornucopia of nightclubs and bars -- but where the 20- and 30-somethings are more likely to be mature and humble, as opposed to eternal bratty adolescents -- knows how frustrating it is to return to the US, where the best cities ranked by non-human measures are far more likely than their Continental European counterparts to be peopled by boors, jerks, skanks, and bottom-feeders.

Curiously, one of the handful of factors that the Forbes ranking considered is, well you read it:

Of course, even the most driven young professionals need to let off steam. With that in mind, the final metric was measured which cities had the highest share of never-married people in their 20s and 30s. Never married is an important qualifier. For example, of the 40 largest cities, Salt Lake City has the third-highest population share of people ages 25 to 34, but its standing as No. 27 in the never-married category really puts a damper on the nightlife.

I would be in favor if the factor were "never-married people 25 or younger," but for this measurement to take into account people in their 20s and 30s gives you quite a different picture from simply "good nightlife" -- it's more of an indication of how immature, self-absorbed, and off-putting the people are. If you have never been married, well into your 30s, you either have no interest in long-term relationships (meaning longer than a few years), you have an interest but are too wrapped up in your career to follow through, or something about you makes you unmarriageable. I'll admit there are sympathetic exceptions, but let's get real. For instance, droves of IT geeks who flock to a high-tech Mecca will surely ramp up its coolness factor by inflating the "never-married" statistic.

At some point in your life, you have to grow up -- or else face the consequences that the Boomers do (and perhaps half of Generation X -- they're more heterogeneous in this respect).* Fundamentally, growing up is about more than just having a job or even doing it well -- all but the unemployed will have a job, and students at elite colleges excel at what they do, so something else is needed to tell "the boys from the men." That prevents any criteria which are almost exclusively a function of earning an income: having your own apartment or house, shopping for groceries, paying taxes, etc.

Before the revolution of the youth in the late '60s and early '70s, these milestones probably correlated strongly with the true markers of maturity, which have more to do with one's character and behavior. Now, however, they have become uncoupled, and not a few 30-somethings resemble Tom Hanks' character in Big in their behavior, attire, and the appearance of their house / apartment. Because of the stronger, more deeply rooted social traditions of Continental Europe, the 1968 youthquake did not fundamentally alter society the way it did here: it was like a spring that someone stretched out but that quickly snapped back to a resting state. Our spring is more elastic and has yet to return to where it feels comfortable.

That presents some trouble for recent college graduates who are enthusiastic about moving to one of the top 10 cities in the Forbes ranking: it may be fun for a few years, but if there aren't larger social pressures that will push you toward adulthood, it's easy to get stuck in your early 20's. Now, if you could freeze everything else inside and outside of you, that would be rather tempting -- but in reality, you're not getting any younger, and becoming a mummified teenager is not flattering for anyone.

* It's a cop-out to suggest that growing up per se stifles one's creativity and sense of wonder -- for one thing, most people are not particularly creative or curious at all. Those who are creative but seemingly immature, for example the mathematician Paul Erdos, are more aptly described as "child-like" than "adolescent." Adolescence, you'll recall, is the time in your life when you're too busy thinking about sex to get much accomplished creatively, and when you affect an air of sophistication, losing interest in children's fantasies. In a documentary on Erdos, N is a Number, those who know him well liken him to a child, he professes a fascination with children, and he confesses that he receives no pleasure from sexual thoughts.

July 13, 2007

Clueless rewind

Just saw this movie for the first time in 8-10 years, and though I remember liking it when it came out, I like it even more now.

You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet.

That's the protagonist Cher explaining why she's still a virgin at age 16. It's the kind of thing you'd expect would alienate a lot of the teenage guys watching the movie, but I don't recall feeling a huge disappointment upon discovering that her character didn't put out (not that I recall cheering either). Not putting out is only a disqualifying liability in the eyes of the schmucks who get laid easily in high school; everyone but the top 1% of the male audience would have been satisfied just to date Alicia Silverstone, even if it meant signing a "no sex" contract.

I don't know what effect Cher's virginity had on the female viewers, but it is a relief to see a strong female lead who isn't either a slut, a bitch, an obnoxious gender warrior, or some combination thereof. And although superficially superficial, she shows a concern for the well-being of others and enjoys helping others, according to her talents (mostly at matchmaking). Her altruism is an enduring trait that will actually accomplish something on the small scale it's applied to. Contrast this with the transient poses of phoney-baloney "I care" celebrities:

Josh: We might get Marky Mark to plant a celebrity tree.
Cher: Oh how fabulous. Getting Marky Mark to take time from his busy pants-dropping schedule to plant trees.

The movie was a huge hit among adolescents, which is fortunate because White popular culture in 1995 was transitioning from grunge to skanky girl bands and solo singers. Hopefully Clueless served somewhat to convince girls that being a virgin didn't keep them from being cool, before the full onslaught of skankiness hit in the late '90s.

So okay, I don't want to be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don't get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and take their greasy hair - ew - and cover it up with a backwards cap and like, we're expected to swoon? I don't think so!

She doesn't let the previous phase of White popular culture get off so easily either. Grunge didn't focus on identity politics or sexual liberation, which were making a huge resurgence in the early '90s, and I think grunge worked out nicely to the extent that it diffused or co-opted what could have easily become another late '60s all over again. It's true that grunge artists and their followers were self-absorbed slackers, but I'll take that as the lesser of two evils. (And because it wasn't so revolutionary, I think it's more likely that grungies have grown out of that phase in comparison to hippies.) Unfortunately, though, slovenliness was not confined just to Beavis and Butthead wannabes, but was in full force as well in the early gangsta rap phenomenon, and in the later "sporty look" that made it cool to look like you just came from the gym (itself recycled from the '80s).

It's a sign of a diseased culture when girls tolerate guys who make zero effort to impress them, and the quasi-hippies of the early '90s really were the White version of slobs from the ghetto who felt like "keepin' it real" by not holding down a job / working for The Man. It's amazing to see that most guys, even in affluent metro areas, still refuse to put much effort into their personal appearance. Any large metro area has places like Filene's Basement, Century 21 (only in New York), among others, that offer suitable attire at affordable prices. So it won't do to say that it's too expensive to dress nicely.

I remember before I started to put any effort into how I look, and I was probably not the only one to think that an overly casual style was intended to show my disdain for conformity, snobbishness, and so on. Four years later, I now realize that that was all a load of horseshit. The current trend of uber-casualness is just as rigid in demanding conformity as Wall Street banks must be of their employees -- it says, "Wear anything more formal than a polo shirt or an untucked, striped shirt, and we'll snicker at you until you relent." And forget wearing a tie! At my tutoring center, most of the compliments I've gotten have been about my ties, blazers, glasses, and the occasional patterned dress shirt (not striped). Granted, this is coming from teenagers, but it just goes to show that girls wish that guys would dress better.

Finally, only someone with the most unjustifiably inflated view of himself would shout to everyone else, "I'm too cool to have to impress you!" Well, you'll excuse me if I don't take your word for it and instead look up your name in any list of eminent artists, scientists, or whatever you are. Typically these are brats sponging off of their trust fund rather than doing anything useful -- y'know, aside from upping the hip factor of some blighted nabe in Brooklyn with their store that offers custom, ironic shoe-creations. Like, maybe they remove the canvas uppers from your Chuck Taylors and replace them with flexible metal sheets cut from an A-Team lunchbox. What would the world do without them?!

Again, I'm not trying to be too harsh on slobs, since I was one too. Some of them could clean up well if they bothered. What gets under my skin is their disdain for doing well in anything outside of their narrow pet interests. This goes for one's living space as well: the losers profiled in this NYT article have no right to act like they're above maintaining a nice apartment or house. We rightly excuse a lot of this behavior when the person is a genius, since it might stifle their creativity -- or not, but why take the risk when it's just one person? Still, it cheapens that word to apply it to someone who is merely "pretty good at their occupation." Once you're awarded the Nobel Prize, then you can dress like a slob if you choose. Until then, grow up.

In retrospect, that's part of what makes Clueless so refreshing: it deflated a lot of the self-absorption of those perpetually adolescent Boomers (who were roughly 40-45 when it came out), while not coming off as fussy and prissy. Indeed, it was one of the defining cool movies of the time, starring two stunningly beautiful girls (and a third who would later become a knockout), so it was impossible to try to deride its moral message and yet appear young ("still got it") at the same time. I was relieved that Cher didn't end up with a scumbag, even though that wasn't true to reality in 1995 -- but it's meant as advice for how girls like Cher ought to act, not how they really do act. And this isn't one of those "fighting against gravity" scenarios, since male-female power dynamics change pretty noticeably over short time scales. In sum, this more prescriptive movie would make a fine complement to more realistic and jaded movies like Heathers or Mean Girls in order to guide young guys and girls to where they need to go.

July 8, 2007

Babes in classical music


Cellist Ani Aznavoorian

Dennis Mangan has put up a few pictures of attractive violinists, and although he went through the formality of including verbal praise of their musical talent, I'm in a rush. I just looked through a list of classical pianists at Wikipedia, and found the following pulchritudinous pianists:

Naida Cole, Ingrid Fliter, Katrine Gislinge, Alicia de Laroccha, Anna Gourari, Helene Grimaud, Ambre Hammond, Valentina Lisitsa, and Gabriela Montero.

In my search, I stumbled upon the website Beauty in Music, which catalogues attractive classical musicians more broadly. I don't think there's anything objectifying about lists like these -- and if so, then females who go ga-ga over violinist Joshua Bell are as guilty as we are. For one thing, as long as the individuals are selected from a list of established or accomplished people, that's sufficient indirect evidence that they really do possess some noteworthy non-physical talent. (So, direct confirmation of their talent is easily left as an "exercise for the reader.") These lists simply note that, in addition, they happen to be quite attractive.

Attraction based on physical appearance will never go away, so it's futile to try to deny this aspect of your being. At the same time, we shouldn't let physical attractiveness monopolize our attention, unless we're only focused on short-term gratification (which we hopefully are not). Publicizing girls who are both beautiful and gifted in some way provides good role models for young girls to emulate -- even if much of talent is endowed, this still sends the message that you should cultivate yourself in a variety of ways, rather than put all your eggs in the "porn star wannabe" basket. And it civilizes the male instinct to look for porn star wannabes by offering them equally attractive, but dignified, alternatives to admire.

The only caveat here is that such women tend to be found only in the performance-based areas: music, acting, and so on. A quick Wikipedia / Google Image search turned up plenty of attractive pianists, and I could find as many violinists or flautists, probably. But if I'd searched for female composers, I would've come up with hardly anyone to choose from, let alone anyone attractive. After perusing the composers at Beauty in Music, which seems more like a list of female composers, not necessarily attractive, this hunch is confirmed, an exception being Roxanna Panufnik. The same is true for acting -- it's easy to find beautiful, talented actresses, but nearly impossible to find beautiful directors, at least in the same proportions. This likely has to do with levels of sex hormones: gracefully showing off for an audience is more of a feminine thing, while leading a group of subordinates is more masculine. In fact, one of the composers featured in Beauty in Music is a male-to-female transexual, Wendy Carlos, who did the synth-based soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange.

As for the other half of the arts and sciences, I can say that finding a pioneering research scientist who is also beautiful is pretty tough.* I'll bet, though, that if you looked at the analogue of pianists and actresses, you'd find many more attractive females: these would be lab technicians, research assistants, or perhaps scientists-turned-journalists (including popularizers of others' work). I don't see any real downside to this, however, since most girls who strive to achieve tend to be interested in performance and interpretation rather than creation and steering / directing.

* I know of at least one well-cited scientist who, if I were 5 or 10 years older, I would totally fall in love with, but I won't embarrass her and myself by saying who! (Note: if you provide a guess in the comments, I will delete your entire comment, whether the guess is correct or incorrect. I've kept this in a footnote since this isn't a personal post, so the comments should reflect that.)

July 5, 2007

WASP vs Jewish elitism

One aspect of Metropolitan that I obviously left out in the post below is that the college freshmen characters belong to what one of them calls the "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie," a humanizing term for WASPy preppies. Fascinated by this movie (and by Barcelona, which I just saw), I've been reading lots of commentary on Stillman's work, as well as interviews with him. One thing that really seems to stick in some people's craw is the audacity he had to only portray well-off WASPs -- and in a human light! Not as the diabolical rapists and murderers you'd expect them to be, judging from their appearances on Law & Order. Stillman, in his defense, cites Samuel Johnson's suggestion that one should write about what one knows from personal experience, which in the director's case would be the UHB.

Another famous director who writes "talky," witty dialogue for privileged upper-middle class Manhattanites is Woody Allen, but he doesn't seem to draw the ire of as many critics with his own brand of "classism." In interviews, he readily admits that he is only capable of depicting well-off Manhattanites because that's what he knows from experience. The only pronounced differences are that Allen's casts feature a far greater number of Jewish characters, and that Stillman's movies are more socially conservative. Either could plausibly account for the discrepancy between reactions to the respective director's emphasis on Jewish vs WASPy urban elites: both WASP ethnicity and caring about rules and manners are out of fashion.

But regardless of what one thinks of the movies themselves, and focusing as some critics do only on which elite ethnic group and class is being depicted -- whose characters are more clich├ęd by now? Well-to-do Jewish professionals inhabiting the expensive Upper West Side have been a staple in movies and TV shows for several decades already, so a peek into the lives of WASPs is something of a breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong -- I like a lot of Woody Allen's movies, and I think it's silly to level charges of classism against a work of art. But if we're going to look at which director tends to receive more pardons for elitism and insularity of viewpoint, let's get real.

(Warning: any chauvinist comments will be deleted, whether anti-Semitic or "pro-Semitic.")

July 1, 2007

Whit Stillman, the anti-John Hughes

I finally got around to seeing Metropolitan, and since there are already good reviews of it here and here (the latter covering other of Stillman's movies as well), I won't expound on the plot much here. It's about the tension a group of 20 year-olds senses, as conventions that promote social cohesion begin to break down and they must grope their way forward into adulthood. It is set a little while after the start of the cultural revolution of the late '60s. *

To continue some points I touched on in two previous posts (here and here) on how well teen movies manage to capture reality, one recurrent theme in bad coming of age movies -- as exemplified by John Hughes' The Breakfast Club -- is that much of the conflict in the characters' lives stems from clashes with their parents, or perhaps from poor parenting. In reality, adolescents and young adults socialize themselves, and the only adults who matter are those who can break into the youth culture -- not the adults one lives with, in other words. Judith Rich Harris has nicely summarized the research to this effect in The Nurture Assumption, which shows that parents have no detectable influence on their children's adult personalities beyond what is expected from the parents' genetic contribution. And obviously, children don't dress or talk like their parents, nor listen to the same music or watch the same movies and TV shows.

In case you forgot, most teenagers don't bitterly resent everything their parents stand for, but instead pay them no mind, as though their parents were clueless and thus had little valuable advice. And that's true for a lot of things: a 40-something is (fortunately) incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of their teenage child who's debating whether or not to ask their crush to Homecoming. Since their worlds don't overlap much, the teen plays it smart and takes advice from those in a better position to know what the current weather conditions are. (And so, they'll only listen to their parents on matters that are invariant across the decades, assuming the parents can come up with a good solution.) This is one aspect of teenage life that both Heathers and Mean Girls got right: in both, the parents are portrayed as dopes in the background, all of the conflict stemming from the Lord of the Flies dynamic that prevails among teenagers themselves.

Incidentally, one cause of the greater breakdown of guidance of youngsters is the prevailing generation-time among well-off people, many of whom tend to have kids when the mother is about 35, so that the parents are 50 by the time their kid is in high school -- talk about non-overlapping worlds. This delayed age-at-first-child also offers another reason why the children of accomplished parents, like Charlie in Metropolitan, might dread not measuring up: the children would have been better off developmentally had the mother given birth at 25 instead of 35, even neglecting the effect of regression to the mean. And as I've pointed out before, it seems that 20-somethings spend much less time around little kids and teenagers than before, squandering an opportunity to impart what wisdom they've learned the hard way. Teenagers are far more open to what 20-somethings say than 50-somethings, and are thus more suitable as Trojan horses.

So, why all the melodrama about evil, overly demanding parents in "real life" teen movies like The Breakfast Club? For one thing, most of these movies were created by Baby Boomers, including Hughes (b. 1950), and theirs was the first generation in recent times to view any demand that a kid push themselves to excel as a violation of the right to "do what you feel like." Stillman (b. 1952) is an exception that proves the rule: Metropolitan documents the decadence that results from young people not being pushed hard enough. It is pretty clear that Stillman is not laying blame for this failure at the feet of the characters' individual parents, but rather of the larger cultural revolution that their parents' generation created in the late '60s and early '70s.

This produces, on the one hand, vapid nobodies like Cynthia, and on the other ineffectuals like Charlie who are stuck in theorizing about their own impending doom. Those in the top percentile of work ethic may not need a kick in the ass, but that's what conventions like pushing kids are for: to get the other 99% of young people where they need to go. If you've ever wondered why there are so many smart, promising people working at Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, when they should be doing research or making art, now you have your answer. (Clearly, I'm not talking about those for whom B&N is just their bill-paying job while they're going to school part-time, etc.) **

Another key scene involves a game similar to Truth or Dare, which the conservative Audrey objects to on the basis that revealing your intimate secrets could be dangerous. Sally, the party host, says she doesn't see what the big deal is, and Audrey responds that it's not important whether you see it or not -- keeping some things secret has probably served a useful social function if the convention has survived this long. Audrey loses the argument, and of course, someone gets emotionally hurt and publicly humiliated by the game. Contrast this with the many confessional scenes from The Breakfast Club, the most ludicrous of which is the nerd's confession that he had attempted suicide after failing to get an A. He should have told a counselor of this in private. Now, if someone like his character had tried the John Hughes idea in real life, his social status would plummet even further as the story inevitably spread, even if the initial spreaders were only concerned about him. Moreover, those who he confessed his secret to would look on him with pity, and that would make him feel even worse. And needless to say, whatever miniscule chance he may have had of getting a girlfriend would have dissipated to zero. (At least the movie got the "rules of attraction" part right: an attractive, conceited bitch falls for an ambitionless quasi-sociopath.)

Finally, there are no sappy Kumbayah moments in Metropolitan (or Heathers) as in The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls, wherein all individuals from all social cliques share their feelings and realize how much they have in common -- get real. In the former two movies, Cynthia is a hopelessly one-dimensional slut; Rick Von Sloneker would treat women properly only if threatened with jail time; and J.D. is at root a demented egomaniac. If I recall correctly, at the end of Heathers, J.D. says something to the effect of "nobody ever loved me" -- a cowardly excuse that Hughes and his characters would have swallowed whole. *** No, there really are individuals and cliques of individuals who are jerks and scum, and no amount of group feeling-sharing will make a civilized person feel much sympathy for them.

The only thing I worry about is whether high schoolers or even college students will easily appreciate Metropolitan's message, in the same way that they instantly get Heathers and Mean Girls. I doubt it could reach and instruct the group being depicted (college freshmen), but it could reach slightly older viewers who aren't quite so set in their ways, and who could pass the wisdom along in any mentoring capacity they may have.

* At the Rotten Tomatoes website, it seems that while most critics enjoyed Stillman's movies, those from San Francisco reliably detested them. No surprise from the City of Eternal Bratty Adolescence.

** As a personal aside, at my tutoring center, I came this close to successfully bullying three students into taking pre-calculus during the summer in order to get more done by the end of high school, but their schedules wouldn't permit it. One in fact felt disappointed, like he'd let down the coach (he is a smart jock), and I'd only worked with him for three or four months. As a 26 year-old, it's easier for me to establish a friendly, informal rapport with them, which makes pushing them much easier: no teenager likes being ordered around by someone old enough to be their parent. In a bad world, that may be a last-resort measure, but in an easily attainable world, 20-somethings would spend a small amount of time mentoring teenagers and accomplish a lot more with a lot less toil.

*** I'm reminded of the scene in Bowling for Columbine in which Marilyn Manson responds to the question "What would you have told the killers?" with "Nothing. I would've listened to what they had to say, and that's what nobody did." (I'm closely paraphrasing.) Yeah, that's all it takes to cure violent sociopathy -- a little listening.