February 28, 2010

On the impossibility of sympathy in today's culture

Does anyone know how to make a normal face anymore?

I'm not talking about people who aren't photogenic, but about the majority of people who think it's cool to contort their face into a kabuki mask whenever a camera is pointed at them. All of your friends do it in their Facebook pictures. Will Ferrell and company do it on the cover shots for their movies. And just to show that these are due to huge audience demand rather than some fringe fad, here are thumbnails of some of the most popular and most watched videos on YouTube right now:


Whether it's human beings (and across all demographic groups), cartoons, or anthropomorphic fruit and footballs, everyone has become incapable of wearing a real emotion on their face. Obviously this phoniness is part of the larger decline in sincerity that the culture went through starting around 1992 or so. Every facial expression you see is so overly exaggerated.

As Adam Smith details in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, being able to sympathize with another person -- in the sense of feeling what they feel, being on the same wavelength, etc. -- typically requires that the other person dial down their emotional intensity. Why? Because we are not them and therefore discount their feelings to reflect the fact that their causes are not affecting us. When you bang your knee on the desk, don't expect anyone to sympathize if you start howling -- after all, their knee is fine. Show some restraint, and they'll actually be able to meet you emotionally and will try to help you out.

That's why it's so difficult to get into most pieces of pop culture now -- if the person not only refuses to lower their emotional intensity before their audience, but actually ratchets it up to grotesque levels, they are going to find no sympathy from most people. The only ones who can sympathize are those whose life is as miserable as it is for the singer of Limp Bizkit or whatever other bunch of screaming dorks that will be popular tomorrow. Everyone else is going to shut that shit off because it's asking too much of normal people to feel what the band feels.

It's not that there can't be an intense emotion, just that the context should make the audience able to easily enter into that emotion. It's typically easier to feel sympathy with someone experiencing a positive rather than negative emotion, for example. That's why of the original punk rock bands, the ones who did the best then and now have been the less splenetic ones like The Ramones and The Clash. Even among the negative emotions, it's easier to feel sympathy with someone who's sad rather than upset.

If it's impossible to be on the same wavelength as these bozos, why are these expressions in such high demand? We have switched from valuing entertainers who coordinated the audience's sentiments to be on the same wavelength for an extended period of time, like cheerleaders and mascots during a sports game or black pastors leading the congregation in song and movement. Now we value entertainers who get a reaction out of us for a moment or two and then let us go on to whatever we were up to before, like the flashers you might have seen in Times Square in the '70s. (I think they locked up the wrong class of flashers.)

In comedy, we now worship the 7 year-old class clowns -- "Go ahead Cayden, make that funny face of yours for Uncle Jeff!" While overblown silliness does get everyone in the audience to share a laugh at a common joke, and while laughter is great, the ridiculous wears thin very soon as a cause of laughter, so the togetherness is superficial and fleeting. Contrast that with the experience that the early-era Simpsons gave its audience.

In romances, we now worship the overly sappy John Mayer and Norah Jones types. It's enough to make someone (not me) say "Awww" for a moment and then drop the feeling and move on. It's musical PDA. None of that garbage sticks in your head like "Ticket to Ride," "You Make My Dreams Come True," or even the pushing-it case of "I Melt with You." And it's not just because the former lack any melody; the latter are general and restrained enough verbally that while singing it you don't feel like reciting someone's corny notes in a love diary.

And in "dramas" -- anything that isn't mostly upbeat -- we now worship the entirely personal ranting of crybabies and psychos, rather than using the personal merely to illustrate some more general condition that the audience could sympathize with. Again look at Limp Bizkit and similar groups who sound like a bunch of brats throwing a temper tantrum because their mommy didn't let them have cookies after dinner, or because the girl in the front of math class rejected them for a date. No sympathy -- gee, that's too bad for you, but now I've got to get back to my day. There's a reason that people still like The Animals, Iggy & The Stooges, and Black Sabbath -- as angry as they may sound, they found a more universal appeal by dialing down how personal they were, so they would actually make you reflect on and off about those songs over the next several days or so.

Of course the same goes for sadness. We now worship the overly emotive and overly personal whining about how unfair and melancholy life is. The emo and pop punk bands sound like this, not to mention the rebirth of the singer-songwriter: OK, so someone's whining about something -- duly noted, kinda sad, and now back to my life. The mid-'90s were the last time when mainstream rock music, exemplified by Mazzy Star, showed a detectable influence of country, blues, or soul, genres whose musicians aim to focus on the human condition more than their narrow lousy lot in life. Just about any song on the sad side that brings you into it over the long term is from that lineage -- mid-'60s Beatles, T. Rex, Social Distortion, Love and Rockets, etc.

It ended about the same time in R&B music, with Boyz II Men being the last good example. During more sincere times, Sam Cooke and Al Green could have drawn you in. Since gangsta rap has taken over black music, though, sad songs have become almost exactly like those of their whining emo contemporaries: they're just too brooding and masochistic for normal people to sympathize with.

Pretty depressing, but at least we don't have to rely on entertainment and Facebook for happiness. When it comes to generating sympathy, nothing beats doing what you're good at in front of an audience. Luckily most people are passably good conversationalists, so at least you can socialize with your friends and acquaintances. I just can't wait for the culture to turn sincere again so that we'll enjoy that extra boost of good cheer. Enough already with meta-ironic queers and their kabuki faces.

February 27, 2010

Equalizing wealth will not make happiness more equal -- remember high school?

A post at EconLog brings up the topic of what effect redistributing wealth would have on people's happiness levels. I already left two comments there, which I'll just summarize. Briefly, happiness doesn't depend on how much money we have but rather on how much esteem and praise we've earned from others. The association between more money and more happiness is a case of there being an unobserved third variable that highly correlates with one that we're looking at -- namely, that in the labor market, you get more money if other people value what you do more. Those who are impressive tend to get paid more, but it's the feeling of being an impressive person that causes higher happiness, not the fatter bank account.

Just consider a loser who comes into great wealth through winning the lottery -- after a quick rush, they'll still feel like a loser because they didn't get that load of dough by doing something to wow others. And a winner who doesn't get a high salary isn't fazed by their meager bank statement because they command the respect and affection of lots of other people.

Still, even if that story is plausible, it's still hypothetical because no country has so massively transferred wealth from the rich to the poor. (If you think it's bad now, just imagine if the equalizers could get their way.) Are there cases where monetary and material stuff is more or less equal? Why don't we look there to see what effect the equalizers' policies would have. To be realistic I'm ignoring hunter-gatherer groups and sticking with advanced industrial economies.

Indeed there is -- from elementary school through high school, wealth and possession of material stuff is just about equal. Children and adolescents have little wealth because they don't work, and even those with wealthier parents don't have a proportionate wealth advantage themselves. If the poor kid's parents make $30K and the rich kid's parents make $300K, the rich kid does not get 10 times the allowance money, 10 times the money to go out with friends on Saturday night. In all likelihood, the extra money that the rich parents could give to their kids goes into a trust fund that can't be accessed until they turn 18 or 21 or whatever.

For the exact same reason, material possessions don't vary so much among children and adolescents -- the prevalence and quality of the jeans, mp3 players, cell phones, video games, etc., that kids have at the poor school and the rich school are pretty similar. It is nothing like taking a Wal-Mart cashier vs. a PR executive and comparing their clothing, cars, etc. It's true that rich kids get to enjoy the material stuff that their parents provide for the entire family, like a well designed house, good furniture, and so on, but children and adolescents don't factor these possessions into what makes them happy. Those things do not count in kid world or teen world -- they compete instead over clothing, consumer electronics, and other things that are for personal use only. On that dimension, the children of rich and poor are fairly similar.

Well, although it isn't an equalizer's utopia, it's still tremendously farther in that direction than grown-up world, so of course we're going to see a lot less variation in happiness, right? Think again. In fact the differences are even greater -- some teenagers want to crawl in a hole and die, while others are just walking on sunshine. What gives?

The answer is what I said at the beginning: happiness doesn't depend nearly at all on money or material junk, but instead on earning the praise of your fellows. And since there are gigantic differences in popularity among kids and teenagers, it is no surprise that having a more equal distribution of wealth and stuff doesn't make them happier -- the true source of happiness is feeling like a winner rather than a loser. Why are these differences in peer-esteem even more pronounced in high school than in the adult labor market? Because division of labor is limited by the extent of the market: in adult world, there are a fantastically larger number of people who can value your talents, while in school there are at most 5,000 or so people to give you feedback about your worth. There's a lot less variety in the things that will make others see you as a winner in high school compared to the case in adult world.

So, some people in school may not have what it takes to garner popularity among their schoolmates, but do have traits that could impress employers and co-workers -- and their fellows as well, if they told stories about how great they're doing at their exciting job. As teenagers, these people won't be so happy; as adults, they'll become more happy. At the other extreme, those few who do have what it takes to win over the crowd in high school will find much stiffer competition in whatever job they pursue on the adult labor market. They'll be less happy than when they were Miss Thang in high school. Esteem from peers is a lot more winner-take-all in elementary through high school than it is when you're settled into adult world. Still, wealth and material possessions are more winner-take-all among adults than among kids and teenagers.

The esteem theory of happiness therefore predicts that teenagers will be more miserable, while the wealth theory of happiness predicts they'll be happier. You can read the empirical data on age and happiness or just reflect on your own experience since the answer is really quite clear. In the end, wealth hardly matters, and believing that others value you is everything.

February 25, 2010

Why online comments are negative and online product reviews are positive

OK, there's been enough time for people to have thought about the question I posed a few days ago. To reiterate the paradox: anonymous online comments left at blogs, discussion forums, and newspaper sites tend to be much more negative than real-life comments; while anonymous online product reviews left at Amazon, YouTube, Ebay, etc., are much more positive. We only notice the former -- everyone's an asshole on the internet -- but the pervasiveness of the latter means we're missing something.

And when I say "positive" or "negative," I don't just mean the judgment the person is passing but also their tone of voice: "You absolutely MUST drop everything you're doing now, and GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!" vs. "omg gayest idea evar."

First, some replies on why the answers given so far aren't it.

In self-interested competition people accent differences in comments: negative to the extreme of playing the devil's advocate (taking a position they might not agree with for the sake of argument). Sympathy is positive and people will cooperate to enhance a liked product.

It's not just devil's advocates, though -- we're talking about people calling each other morons, using moralistic language that we normally reserve for child molesters, etc. It's not unemotionally giving the other side a fair hearing. As for cooperating to enhance a liked product, people also do the opposite -- they gang up and make fun of a common disliked thing to feel positive sympathy among themselves. And yet we don't see product haters piling on in product reviews, in the way we'd see a group of jocks surround and taunt an emo kid. We also don't see product reviewers playing devil's advocate by downgrading a product they've bought but whose reviews so far are overwhelmingly 5-star ratings.

People who leave comments on products have to admit that they bought it. People who bought a poor product would rather not admit that they made a bad decision, while those who made a "good decision" (i.e., they love the product) are more likely to review it.
On blogs, since there is no such product, it may be a simple case of not liking the idea via Not Invented Here syndrome.

But on blogs, discussion forums, and newspaper sites, you are definitely consuming a product and spending your time on that -- just not necessarily paying money out-of-pocket for it. Hence the thousands of resentful comments left on such websites that say, "I want my five minutes back, bitch!" Negative commenters are admitting that they've been wasting a bunch of time, the scarcest resource, on reading idiotic ideas and arguing with clueless morons.

You can try to fix this by saying that they're happy to waste their time and admit they consumed a bad product, as long as they get a later boost in happiness from signaling how great they are by really tearing into the stupid ideas, calling others morons, etc. But again, why don't these people signal their superiority or just enjoy some plain old sadistic fun by tearing into products in online reviews?

Now for the answer. I'm going to call the commenters or reviewers "the speaker," whatever it is they're commenting on or reviewing "the target," their comment or review "the remark," and those who the speaker expects to read the remark "the audience." What separates the negative from the positive cases is that in the negative case, the speaker expects the audience to have also experienced the target -- they too have read the blog entry, the post in a forum, the newspaper article, etc. -- while in the positive case the speaker expects the audience not to have also experienced the target -- they have not (yet) read the book, watched the YouTube video, bought from the Ebay seller, eaten at the restaurant, etc.

Indeed, that's the whole point of a comments section -- to bring together an audience who have all experienced the target. And the whole point of a product review is to bring together speakers who have experienced the target and a much larger audience who have not and who are coming to the review to read the remarks from those who have.

Why does this difference matter? In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith elaborates on how profoundly people are motivated by a desire to sympathize with others. Here, "sympathy" does not mean pity, compassion, benevolence, etc., but merely feeling what another person feels, being on the same wavelength, and so on. When the whole world smiles with you, or when your neighbors commiserate with you when a tornado tears through your house, these are examples of sympathy.

Crucially, our moral approval of someone's actions that affect another person depends on our sympathy with the actor's motives and sympathy with what an impartial spectator would feel about the effects on the person affected. So if an actor benefits someone else purely by accident, we don't give him moral approval. And if the actor has good motives but an impartial spectator would say the effects are actually harming the other person, we certainly don't give the actor moral approval. But even if we approve of the actor's motives and their effects on the other person, we may still disapprove if the actor did not observe propriety -- for example, if someone with just cause punishes someone but does so to an improperly extreme level, we disapprove. And conversely, if the actor with just cause punishes someone to an improperly low level -- a slap on the wrist when more is required -- we disapprove.

In the real world, it is often difficult to know what the actor's motives are, especially if we have "just walked in on" their action. We see someone chewing out another when we walk into Starbucks -- are they crazy or justly motivated? We can't tell. And without knowing the back-story, we also cannot tell how an impartial spectator would feel about the action's effect on the other person. Nor can we tell whether propriety is being observed -- even if the other person deserves to be scolded, is the actor being overly harsh -- or not harsh enough? Again we don't know since we're ignorant of the back-story.

In cases of punishment, though, despite our ignorance we give the benefit of the doubt to the person being punished. So when we walk into a bar and see someone lunging out to punch another person, we actually feel more for the person about to get hit! If you're a male, you may even rush in to restrain the hitter. Even though the hitter may have worthy motives, the hittee may deserve what he's getting, and the degree of punishment may be just right, we don't know the back-story and so side with the hittee. Perhaps if we'd seen the entire interaction unfold, we'd approve of the hitter's action and even cheer him on -- or join in ourselves. Perhaps he just threatened everyone with a gun, someone distracted him, and the hitter made a dash to punch him out while he wasn't paying attention.

Now you see how this applies to blog comments vs. product reviews. In comments, the speaker expects the audience to have experienced the target, so they know the full back-story. If the blog entry's idea really was stupid and deserved to be panned, the speaker can lash out knowing that the audience will approve of the remarks. This just says that it is possible, not inevitable, that speakers in comments sections will be negative. I think the status-jockeying arguments apply at this level -- making the possible negativity a realized negativity.

Why aren't there positive speakers to counterbalance the negative ones? After all, any part of the audience who liked the blog entry's ideas would sympathize with such speakers. I think people who generally enjoy the blog entries, newspaper articles, etc., just consume them and stay out of the comments because they know they'll get dragged into a nasty war with the haters. They may disapprove of the negative comments, but unless it's really bad, they aren't going to join in to defend the blog post, newspaper article, etc. That leaves mostly negative speakers to write remarks.

On the other hand, the audience of a product review is entirely ignorant of the back-story for a speaker's remarks -- the audience didn't sit over the speaker's shoulder while they read the book, didn't sit by their side as they watched the YouTube video, didn't chat over the phone with them as they tried out their new espresso machine, etc. In fact, the audience hasn't experienced the target in any way whatsoever, so they're ignorant of how any fair-minded person would review the product. Therefore, if a reviewer tears into the product, particularly in the curt way that newspaper article commenters do, the audience will go into "side with the punished" mode and disapprove of the speaker. No sympathy will form between speaker and audience. So, any speaker inclined to demolish the target will instead bite his lip and move on. That only leaves those inclined to praise the target to leave their remarks. Unless there are no such people (in which case there would be no reviews at all), the target will get overwhelmingly positive remarks.

This explanation does not capture everything, but it does explain the hardest part, which is why it's possible for the blog comments to be so negative (not surprising) but impossible for product reviews to be so negative, causing them to be rather positive (very surprising). It's remarkable when you think about it: entire armies of haters shut themselves up in product review places because they expect to get little sympathy from the audience, and to have the mob stare at them in disapproval. They are never going to interact with anyone from the audience face-to-face, and probably even not even impersonally through market exchange (except at 20 degrees removed). They don't even have a reputation to maintain since they aren't planning to hang around in the product review place -- just to leave an anonymous poisoned review and then leave.

Of course some people still do leave negative product reviews, but that will only happen when the speaker values meting out punishment more than he values not being disapproved of by a group of onlookers. That could either be because the product is so terrible that it needs to be said -- if a laptop overheated and burned a hole through your desk, say -- or because the speaker just doesn't care that much whether or not the audience approves of his actions. He thinks he's above them.

And this explanation also captures why some book reviews are withering critiques -- the speaker of these remarks expects a fair amount of the well-read audience to have already read at least pieces of the book. It's some hot new book whose hype has led a lot of literary types to browse through it. Now the reviewer is safer to launch an attack. But most book reviews on Amazon are written for an audience that is just about entirely ignorant of the book's contents. They just heard about it and want to see what's up. Those reading the book review sections of high-status newspapers and magazines, on the other hand...

I can't recommend Theory of Moral Sentiments highly enough, and I'm not just saying that to stay on my audience's good side. It's one of the few social science books over 100 or so years old that's still worth reading. It's a mix of social psychology and moral philosophy. EconTalk ran a six-part podcast series on the book, and I'd encourage everyone to give it a listen. The book is not long but very dense with ideas, so it'll take awhile to absorb it all. I did the podcasts first in my down time and then read the book. I found that the guide helped me to grok the ideas.

It really is one of those books that changes your entire perception of how the human world works, and in all of the modern social science I've ever read (starting with William James or so), I haven't read anything that has mentioned or independently rediscovered Smith's insights. (Certainly some have mis-attributed various ideas to him.) It's not like Wealth of Nations, where most modern econ textbooks will mention the benefits of specialization, division of labor, ending mercantilism, and so on. All the social sciences have a depressingly crude picture of what motivates human beings, and why they interact socially the way they do. If you invest the time in Theory of Moral Sentiments, you'll come away with a far richer view.

February 24, 2010

What hair color prevails among sought after porn girls?

Before I've looked at indirect measures of what hair color guys prefer on a girl when their brain is in sex mode, such as what fraction of the Maxim Hot 100 or some similar list is blond. (Go to GNXP.com and search "brunette.") Still, it would be more informative to see directly how guys vote with their time and clicks, rather than who a group of magazine editors deems attractive, where we have to infer demand from supply.

There are at least two sources, and they gave pretty similar answers, so I won't look for other similar ones. One is the list of most popular girls at Freeones, which allows you to search for someone by name and retrieve a list of links to pictures or video clips featuring her. They don't say exactly how popularity is determined, just that it is "from the search engine and the amount of clicks a model gets." I assume that means they take the number of times guys search for her, as well as the number of times her links are clicked, and weight these somehow. There are 100 girls listed.

The other source is the list of most viewed girls at Keez Movies, which is like a porn version of YouTube. Their videos have a tag for which girls are shown in the clip, so they can tell how many times any video featuring a particular girl has been viewed. As far as I can tell, the ranking is based just on these view counts, not searches. There are tons of girls listed here, so I just went with the first 100 to make things similar to the other source. (The mix of hair colors might change if we went from the top 100 to the top 1000, for example.)

I classified girls as either light or dark, which was fairly easy because there were very few in-between cases. My guess is that a lot of the blonds have dyed hair because it looks that way and because the gap in color is so extreme. If they were mostly natural blonds, there would be a continuum from platinum to dark blond, but they're almost entirely bright blond. That makes sense since entry into the porn industry selects for wild personalities, and brunettes are wilder. Some of these dark-haired girls then decide to bleach their hair for niche appeal. There was only one redhead, and I classified her as light.

At Freeones 62% are dark, while at Keez Movies 66% are dark. I give stronger weight to the Keez Movies figure because each girl's rank is based on millions or sometimes over 10 million views, while each girl's rank at Freeones is only based on roughly 1000 votes. Plus video clips more directly tell us what guys want when their brains are in sex mode, since most guys want to see moving rather than still images. So let's say that 65% of the most popular porn girls have dark hair.

In Northern Europeans, blonds make up about 16% of females. There are no data for Americans. * So blonds are a little over twice as common as you'd expect if hair color did not matter at all, but they're still a minority. While "twice as common as chance" sounds big, I see that as a small effect relative to other effects such as skin tone, breast size, butt perfection, and so on, all of which are highly related to age. Girls who have a nice ass are more than just twice as common among porn girls compared to the overall female population, and ditto breast size / shape and skin tone -- probably more like 100 times more common. (Remember to factor lower-class and trailer park people into your composite picture of what the average female looks like.) There's no shortage of blonds, so if that trait by itself were as powerful as skin tone, virtually all popular porn girls would be blond.

So there is a positive effect of light hair on sex appeal, but its strength is weak compared to those of physical traits that we commonly think of as determining sex appeal.

* I don't think it's correct to say that the blond percentage for Americans will be so much lower than for Europeans because of the large Black and Hispanic populations we have. That move would assume that Black and indigenous-looking Hispanics were even in the pool to choose from in the first place. There are virtually no popular Black porn girls, and almost all of the Hispanic ones look European. I see that filter as applying first -- for whatever reason, the average porn viewer isn't interested in girls of those races (white-looking Hispanics are fine, though). It's only after this screening occurs that managers choose based on skin tone, breast size, hair color, etc.

If only these latter traits mattered, you'd see a fair number of popular Black porn girls. They might sport straightened hair, but they'd be there. So it seems like there's a preliminary filter that allows in Europeans and only a handful of blacks and indigenous-looking Hispanics. That's why I use the blond percentage among Europeans, not whatever the lower percentage is among all Americans.

February 22, 2010

Why are online comments so negative while online product reviews are so positive?

Anyone reading this knows that comments left at blogs, discussion forums, and online newspaper websites tend to be a lot more negative than what you hear out of people's mouths in real life. The standard answer is that it's because of anonymity -- when people don't have a reputation to protect, they incur lower costs by being evil, so they'll indulge more in their evil side online.

But that cannot be right because anonymous web-surfers who leave comments and ratings on "products" at "retail" websites are overwhelmingly positive, often effusive. (I use quotes because I count YouTube as a retailer of video clips.) There was a WSJ article last year about this. The gist is that reviews of books at Amazon, of sellers at Ebay, of restaurants at foodie sites, etc., are so skewed toward the positive side that the ratings system doesn't seem to work -- the average product gets 4.3 out of 5 stars online. Where are all of the negative comments, whether nasty drive-bys or withering diatribes, that we would have expected from the behavior of anonymous online commenters at blogs, forums, and newspaper sites?

I'll put up the answer tomorrow or the next day. It's not an immediately intuitive answer -- you would have to have read and internalized some key insights from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments or be clever enough to re-discover his views on your own. It is a pretty simple and real answer, though. In the meantime, what possible reasons can you think of to resolve the paradox between negative comments vs. positive reviews? The people interviewed for the WSJ article threw out some ideas, but they don't really work.

February 20, 2010

No more children's songs about getting drunk? And will generational cohorts span 40 rather than 10 years?

Before we saw that young people today don't spread urban legends and don't play kissing games like they used to. Violent and property crime rates are down since 1992, teenage promiscuity is down since then too, so no surprise that these are reflected in folk culture. Alcohol and drug use among young people only started declining in the late 1990s, but it's still been down since then. Where might we see this reflected in everyday culture?

Well, whatever happened to 7 year-old children singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"? We sang that all the time in elementary school on bus trips, enough to make the bus driver rip out their hair. If someone's parents were there, they might occasionally scold you, but then like a smartass you'd just change the words to "99 bottles of ROOT beer on the wall, 99 bottles of ROOT BEER..."

Look through the pop culture references to the song in the Wikipedia entry -- almost nothing after the 1990s. There are two Disney movies from 2000 that allude to it, and another in 2003. (There's an episode of 30 Rock that mentions it, but that isn't even for kids.) There are references to it in a 1963 movie, so Baby Boomers must have heard it growing up, hence its appearance in Seinfeld and National Lampoon's Vacation.

Searching JSTOR, the earliest reference I found is from a 1962 article in the journal Western Folklore, which also cites a 1954 article in the journal in which the song is called "29 Bottles of Beer." The 1962 article doesn't say what the words are, but the 1954 version is different from the one I learned in the '80s which includes the phrase "take one down, pass it around." Back before the crime rate and rock music started soaring in the late '50s, the 1954 version goes:

29 bottles of beer on the wall, 29 bottles of beer.
If one of them bottles should happen to fall,
There'd be 28 bottles of beer on the wall...

So it's more like the British "Ten Green Bottles" song that doesn't have the children singing about passing around the beer. There are no other references to the "29 Bottles of Beer" version, so some innovative Baby Boomer children must have decidedly gone with "99" in the late '50s or early '60s. No other JSTOR references include the lyrics, so I don't know exactly when the song took on the more adult theme of getting drunk, but it was sometime between the mid-'50s and the mid-'80s. The most recent article is from 2000, which includes it among a list of children's songs with well known tunes. Before that is a 1986 fictional work where one character hums the song. So again, it looks like this song has started to die off during the tame times of the later-'90s and 2000s.

In all of my three years I spent working at tutoring centers in the mid-2000s, surrounded by primary and secondary school kids, I never once heard the song, even though students often get bored or restless and find ways to make light of the boredom. The real group to interview is school bus drivers -- they'd surely know if it were less common among kids than it used to be.

I wonder whether we're going to see a shift in generational affiliation from the mode that has been standard from roughly the Silent Generation through today, where generations include no more than 15 years' cohorts, and often just 5 or 6 years' worth (as with the mini generation sandwiched between cultural Baby Boomers, who weren't born after 1956 or '57, and Generation X, who weren't born before 1965). Those differences are real, but an even larger generational gap is becoming apparent between anyone born between roughly 1943 and 1985, and those born after. The former came of age during wild times, and the latter during tame times. That source of environmental influence is a lot stronger than influences that can swing back and forth over a 5 or 10-year period. (The two upward phases of crime waves in the 20th C. lasted around 35 years.)

Everyone in that roughly 40-year cohort heard and spread some version of "99 Bottles of Beer," played some variant on the kissing games "seven minutes in heaven," "truth or dare," "boys chase girls," etc., listened to and re-told an urban legend like "the kidney heist," lived through a new form of rock music growing up, and got to taste French fries that were cooked in beef tallow and popcorn covered in coconut oil instead of the ungodly vegetable oils they've both been cooked in for the past couple decades.

Those born in more recent cohorts have instead had much safer and materially prosperous lives, if less thrilling and fulfilling.

February 19, 2010

Tests in the modern college -- advances from 3000 BC

While grading a pile of exams that consisted of short answers and short essays, I thought, "Is this really the most cost-effective way to do tests?" It seems so backward for a TA to skim over ink-on-paper responses in a blue book, making a subjective judgment call on every answer, writing sub-scores in the margin, and then tallying those all up mentally to arrive at their final score. I imagine that Ancient Egyptian priests could have given and scored tests this way. Have we not developed anything more innovative within the past 5000 years?

The underlying problem is that test-makers and test-takers are not buyers and sellers in a market for educational services. College students don't pay anything out-of-pocket; it's like health care where it's almost all paid for by third parties -- the government, private foundations, their parents, etc. Students therefore have zero incentive to pay attention to what they're getting and ask whether it's worth what they're plunking down for it. Rather, our system encourages them to be slackers -- i mean whatever, i'm not paying for this crap anyway. Most people don't let their cars turn to shit because they've paid for the car itself and keep making out-of-pocket payments for gas, maintenance, and so on. Stripping away the insulation that students have from the price of education would be a good start.

But it's not just the students who are protected from market forces; the teachers, too, don't have any incentive to figure out what the most cost-effective way to teach is. Tenure isn't the source of the problem, since doctors aren't tenured at hospitals but are similarly insulated from the costs of their services. Rather, because the students don't really care whether they're getting the most bang for their buck, they provide very low-quality feedback about how well the teacher is serving his customers -- some under-the-breath griping, or perhaps a negative evaluation. But because they aren't paying, they can't use the ultimate discipline of withdrawing their monetary support from a terrible teacher, spending it instead on a superior teacher who would drive the first one out of business.

It's even worse, of course, because a lot of decisions that the professor makes have huge externalities -- namely, upon the TA. Should I write an exam that's short answer or multiple choice on a scantron? Well, short answer gives a richer depth, so we'll go with that. The costs and benefits of either approach won't go to the professor but to the grader, so we expect the professor to pay no attention to discriminating between the two based on merit but rather to express their worldview about How Tests Should Be Written. It's like voting -- if your vote fucks things up, you won't pay much of the cost, so why not use your vote to tell the world something about your unique lifestyle.

My basic take from having graded lots of papers and exams over the years is that you can boil most short answer questions into a multiple choice question and use a scantron. It takes slightly longer to think up a multiple choice question compared to "Write a short answer about X," but the savings you get from time and effort in scoring the responses is immense. How costly is it to feed the damn things into their machine? Do you lose a fuller richness of the student's thoughts? In most cases, there is no richness there at all -- if you've ever graded stuff for a large intro class, you know what I mean. For the minority of cases, you do lose something, but we always have to ask if that loss is compensated for by the huge gain in simplifying the grading.

For that, we should look to some kind of test-maker that operates under competitive market pressures, so that they've taken into account how cost-effective different approaches are, and so that the test-takers are paying most of the price themselves (or are a lot closer to this than with college). There are roughly two industries to look at: private tutor providers and standardized test sellers. I worked for two and a half years as a private tutor, both at a center and as a contractor, and most of the tests given in these settings (if at all) are short answer. This only works because the teacher-to-student ratio is so low that the teacher has quite a bit of free time to read over handwritten responses.

But what about when tens of thousands of students want to take a test? Well, you could hire tens of thousands of scorers, and it would be just like the tutoring center -- but that would cost a boatload of dough. Every one of these tests instead makes use of multiple choice, whether it's an aptitude test like the SAT, ACT, or GRE; something more like an IQ test like the Miller Analogies test; or even test on knowledge of specific subjects like the SAT II, AP, and GRE subject tests, not to mention the many tests for entry into a profession (law, law enforcement, military, etc.).

We really should think of tests as something that the test-makers sell, not to test-takers, but to evaluators of the test-takers -- potential employers, college admissions boards, etc. It's like a rating agency -- "We think this student is totally qualified to be a fireman," or "We think this student is dumb as rocks." If these ratings were not fairly reliable and predictive of real-world outcomes -- success in fighting fires, likelihood of flunking out during freshman year, or whatever -- then the evaluators would not "buy" them. They would require the test-takers to go take some other test that was more reliable and predictive.

There is obvious grade inflation of all of these tests, but still they work pretty well. That tells us that, because they've survived the competitive market pressures that their makers are under, the mostly multiple choice test is the best for the job. Sure, there are some parts that still require handwritten responses, namely where you can't split the question into several multiple choice ones, but are instead looking for a sustained chain of reasoning on a single topic. So the AP Calculus test has a handwritten section with word problems, and the GRE has two short analytic writing essays. But even the SAT II subject tests are generally all multiple choice -- including the math tests.

Sure, you're losing some of the richness of the student's knowledge by only allowing them to fill in this bubble or that one, but evidently you don't lose that much, and it's more than made up for by how simple it makes the scoring process. If this really did screw up the picture of who knew how much about what, then the SAT II math tests would place the 2nd grade drop-out on top, the numbers prodigy at the bottom, and so on. Mistakes may be made, but they must be trivial.

So why don't most college courses use multiple choice scantrons for big tests, maybe supplemented with an extended-response part? I remember taking those all the time in middle and high school -- where the teachers graded their own tests and therefore paid the costs and enjoyed the benefits of their decision about test format. How did I wind up back in the stone age of testing? It's simply because even though there's little market discipline in secondary school, the key actors are even more insulated from it in higher ed.

Finally, note how dearly professors cling to standardized multiple choice scantron tests when they're looking through graduate applications. How dare they look at some summary statistic like GRE scores and letter grades (or the still more compressed GPA) -- I mean, they're losing the full richness of the student's undergrad experiences. They should have to watch a 4 year-long videotape that captures the entire picture of the student's academic experience, both inside and outside of formal classroom instruction. If that's infeasible, they should at least have to review every homework assignment and exam the student took, in order to fully appreciate the vibrant detail that gets lost in crude letter grades and test scores.

Rather than indulge in feel-good talk about How Applications Should Be Made, they skip right to whatever's reasonably cost-effective. These are the same people who bloviate about how giving scantron tests as the default practice will lead us down a slippery slope toward a new Dark Age. So what needs to be done is to make them face the consequences of their decisions, which necessarily encourages prudent thinking. Have students pay for more out-of-pocket, even if it's still borrowed from a student loan group. And have the test-makers and test-graders be the same person, even if that's not the professor but the TA -- just not different individuals.

February 15, 2010

Facebook members lionize leftist politicians

We pay lip service to the great politicians of the past -- we even create public holidays in their honor. But what about when it comes to something that would cost us in order to affiliate with them? That would seem to give us a more accurate picture of who we truly admire.

There is a section for politicians among Facebook "pages," which are like encyclopedia entries on someone or something that members can join and become fans of. You like Starbucks? Go to their page, join, and your fan status will show up on your profile to signal to others what you like. Since that signal of affiliation is made public to those in your broad Facebook circle, you'll be pretty careful in your choice. Sure, you could become a fan of someone you don't really like, just because that person is approved of in your circle. Still, this is unlikely because when you look at what people are fans of, it's all over the place, conservative and liberal, hip-hop and punk, pro and anti-gay marriage, love and hate Wal-Mart, etc.

Below is a list of those politicians with at least 10,000 fans. I excluded those whose names I didn't recognize, in order to restrict it to famous politicians, not some provincial mayor from Tunisia in 1982. (I did quiz bowl in high school, so I'd recognize someone if they were big.) I also excluded recent politicians because their popularity is mostly due to fans jumping on the bandwagon. Older politicians have survived the test of time. Some political figures with lots of fans are not listed because they are in the "other public figures" section that I can't access -- people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. A few non-politicians slipped into the politician section, though.

The number next to the name is how many fans the politician has in thousands, and only takes into account their page with the most fans. For example, there must be 10 pages for Ataturk, but I don't know how many fans of the various groups belong only to one or to the others, so I can't simply add all fan numbers up to get the total number of Ataturk fans. Most, however, don't have multiple pages, so it doesn't matter.

Ataturk 304
Nelson Mandela 258
Che Guevara 212
Jinnah 70
Soekarno 51
Regan 37
Malcolm X 29
Harvey Milk 29
Lincoln 27
Tito 26
Allende 23
Rosa Luxemburg 23
Churchill 22
Castro 21
Yitzhak Rabin 19
RFK 19
Jefferson 19
Carter 18
Benjamin Franklin 18
JFK 17
Thatcher 17
Adam Smith 16
Washington 16
William Wallace 14
Nasser 12

Pretty sad! I'm sure that Ataturk's prominence is due to Turkish members, and ditto Soekarno, Rabin, Jinnah, and Nasser reflecting Indonesian, Israeli / Jewish, Pakistani, and Egyptian members. Most American college kids couldn't tell you who Ataturk was, although they know who Nelson Mandela, Castro, Che Guevara, and maybe even Rosa Luxemburg are, so their popularity is more real. Tito and Allende are less clear -- could be due to commie fans in the developed world, or agitators in the third world (Luxemburg might go in this group too).

Of those known to the typical Westerner, there are roughly equal numbers of liberal and conservative figures, but the liberal ones are much more popular and more likely to not deserve their popularity. All of the conservatives would rank highly on a conservative's list of who got stuff done for their cause. But Harvey Milk, RFK, and Carter? Why didn't they pick FDR, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, or anyone else who at least did a lot for their cause?

Conservative Facebook members thus appear more serious or intellectual -- if you polled conservative academics, you'd surely get lots of votes for Jefferson, Adam Smith, Regan, etc. But if you polled serious and intellectual liberals, I doubt RFK or Carter would get many votes at all. Again, FDR, Johnson, etc. would get those votes instead. Liberal people on Facebook view their political affiliation more as a fashion statement than a statement of their political philosophy or outlook. Gays are what's in, so let's become fans of Harvey Milk rather than that boring old fuddy-duddy Franklin Domino Roosevelt. And Che, isn't he one of those Zapatistas who liberated Mexico from Texas? -- whatever, he's that guy on that poster in Jayden's dorm room, so I'll totally fan him.

The presidents who we honor with holidays don't do so well when we're actually required to invest something in the endorsement. But perhaps that's for the better -- just imagine, based on this list, who'd win in a plebiscite to name the next political holiday: awww c'mon mr. agnostic, don't give us so much homework on harvey milk day!

February 14, 2010

A snapshot of the nascent Valentine market in 1860s New York

Once the Industrial Revolution got going into full swing during the second half of the 19th C., all sorts of new markets sprung up that could not have thrived before. We tend to think of the products sold in these new markets as fashioning minerals into heavy machinery, or harvesting grain more efficiently -- things that would make it easier to solve the pressing problem then of not starving. Contrary to the idea behind Maslow's hierarchy of needs, people did not sit around waiting for their myriad physiological and safety concerns to be taken care of before forming markets that would serve their social and esteem-related desires. One such case was the burgeoning market for buying and selling Valentines, which obviated the need to make them yourself from scratch.

Here's a data-packed little article on the trade in Valentines from the NYT in 1867. It mentions that the most popular type -- and the cheapest -- was the "comic Valentine," a collection of which you can browse through here. They were the Shoebox Greetings cards 50 years before Hallmark was even founded.

Using the NYT article and estimates of the population of Manhattan, I came up with the following trend in the number of Valentines posted and delivered per capita. Even by 1866, one Valentine was posted to every tenth resident of New York, up by a factor of 5 from even a few years earlier. This doesn't count those that were bought but weren't delivered through the Post Office, so that's a lower bound.


And despite how relatively new this industry was, there wasn't just one or a handful of cards to choose from: there were 23 different price-points, from 3 cents to 100 dollars. Again using the NYT article, below is the demand curve for cards made by a firm headquartered in New York. A straight line through a log-log plot shows that price is a power function of quantity sold (this power law relationship accounts for 98% of the variation in price). In particular, the predicted price where only 1 Valentine could be sold is $275, which in 2008 dollars is $4185. I think we could easily beat that today because demand has shifted up as we've gotten wealthier.


The NYT writer estimates that enough Valentines were produced overall to send one to every fourth American citizen. Hallmark research suggests there are 180 million Valentines exchanged, which means that there are enough for 3 in every 5 Americans -- more than double the rate of 1867. Again the growing participation in this market likely reflects our greater wealth, even though before Valentines were hardly available only for the well-off.

It's great that industrialization and fairly competitive markets have given us meat, eggs, and cheese at prices low enough that most people can afford a healthy and tasty diet, unlike agricultural peasants who must subsist on bland and nutrient-poor grains and vegetables. But often new markets allow us to consume things we could not have before, not only things that merely do a better job than things we already have. Who will stay in touch and send a token of their affection to many people in their social circle if they had to make the paper for the Valentine themselves, let alone craft the scissors, design a printing press, and so on? And again, this new stuff is not just some novel combination of minerals that will make the roof over our head more sturdy, but something that allows us to enjoy richer social lives and to more easily receive the esteem of others, which -- if we've earned it -- is more satisfying than to get to play around with the most dazzling new gizmos.

February 12, 2010

Do blonds get more attached to their crushes?

I've always favored brunettes, so I don't have tons of direct experience with goldilocks. But I've noticed that the high school and college girls at '80s night who are most likely to be repeat customers are blonds. That's true during a single night -- to keep coming back to say hiiii, wave whenever they see me again, or when they're leaving, to go out of their way to stop by, reach up to stroke my leg and say byeeee i'll see you laterrrr. It's also true across nights -- to make a little trip to where I am once they recognize me, smile brightly, ask do you remember me????!!?! and hang around for awhile.

Most of the girls who approach me are brunettes, so as a fraction of all girls who come up to me, blonds are especially more likely to get stuck. For guys who are less picky than I am about hair color -- are blonds more bond-oriented and brunettes less? And the same question for girls -- are blond guys more commitment-philic and dark-haired guys more commitment-phobic? (I count very few blond dudes among the pickup artist gurus.)

This is of evolutionary interest since we need to find out why light hair, eye, and skin color rapidly evolved in Northern Europeans. You can spin a physical story about light skin and vitamin D or whatever, but not about light hair and light eyes. Ideally there'd be just one story about lightening color in general, and it's surely behavioral. There are a handful of studies showing that blue-eyed children are more socially nervous, and ditto fair-haired children. But is the fitness benefit accruing to children, e.g. to avoid strangers when they're defenseless? I wonder if it's not just a precursor to their behavior as reproductive-age adults, where they might become more closely bonded to their mate instead of keeping one eye always on other potential flings.

The '80s did it better, dark and angry music edition

Maybe someday I'll put together a larger list showing how the '60s - '80s period actually did a better job of making what the '90s and 2000s were comparatively good at. Most people think of Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, etc., when they think of '80s music, vs. Nirvana, Green Day, etc., when they think of '90s music (or My Chemical Romance, etc., for 2000s music).

Clearly what the '90s were good at was the darker and angrier stuff -- their girl bands and boy bands were pathetic, so were their Latin crossovers (except Shakira), and their light or soft rock was abominable. And don't even start me on techno... Still, if you look for the pre-'90s counterparts of the dark and angry music that became more mainstream during the '90s and 2000s, it's a lot better. That only makes sense since the culture was wild rather than tame before the '90s (easiest to see from the homicide rate).

Good pop music requires a certain sociability among the musicians as well as the fans -- there has to be a thriving "scene" for the musicians to get quality feedback (from real-life people!) and to feed off of their energy. From that sociability, there emerges a by now strange characteristic of dark and angry music -- you can actually sympathize with it somewhat and get into it. It's not so over-the-top in intensity that only the musicians themselves can identify with it. There was a respect for the audience, like, "We know you're not us, and so won't feel as strongly as we feel -- I guess we'd better steel ourselves and man up a bit so that you can get into it as much as we can, and we'll all have a blast together." Clearly that sociability and "scene" evaporate when everyone starts locking themselves indoors and behaving themselves.

These few songs are just off the top of my head. Too lazy now to put links in, but they're all on YouTube.

Minor Threat, "Steppin' Stone" (1981)
Tones on Tail, "Go!" (1984)
Big Black, "The Model" (1987)
Love and Rockets, "So Alive" (1989)
Nine Inch Nails, "Ringfinger" (1989)

You get the idea. I hear "Go!" and "Ringfinger" semi-regularly at '80s night, and normal college kids love them. Normal people must find "So Alive" enjoyable enough because Starbucks used to play it in their stores for awhile a few months ago. You can easily dance to all three. Minor Threat and Big Black obviously aren't as palatable to normal people, but compared to the angry noisy music of the '90s and 2000s? They're exercising enough control over their emotions that the average person doesn't find it totally unlistenable.

Next time I'll look at sad and grieving songs.

Are writer-director brothers the result of lower trust?

Steve Sailer writes:

The writer-director brother act is relatively new in Hollywood history. Before the Coens emerged in the 1980s, the the only fraternal writing team I can think of were the Epstein identical twins (Casablanca). (There were acting teams like the Marx Brothers, and lots of brothers in various roles behind the scenes such as the Warners and the Selznicks.)

Since then, there have been frauteurs like the Farrelly, Wachowski, Wayan, Hughes, Weisz, and Polish Brothers. My guess is that the modern writer-director job often tends to be too hard for one individual to do, so brother pairs have flourished.

But why should this duo be blood relatives rather than two unrelated people?

These are different from brothers who act or play music together since writing and directing movies is much more managerial. When the costs of transacting in the market go up, people will operate more in firms and contract less with individuals. One huge cost of transacting is lack of trust, so when people have less trust in others, they'll work more in firms that don't include strangers. That leaves more or less the close family. Immigrants from low-trust societies form family businesses rather than write contracts with a variety of total strangers. So perhaps the same is going on for people who run the making of movies.

Here's how the level of trust has changed among males with at least 13 years of education, according to the GSS. It wobbles around during the '70s and most of the '80s, but it starts steadily sliding in 1988.

February 11, 2010

Psychologists: maintain testosterone by surrounding yourself with young girls

Here's a summary of a new study which shows that guys who smelled t-shirts of ovulating girls had higher testosterone levels than those who smelled unworn t-shirts or those worn by non-ovulating girls. You can find the full article free here. A guy's testosterone level rose as the girl who'd worn the t-shirt came closer to ovulation, and the level fell as she passed ovulation. The same rising-and-falling pattern in tandem with time to ovulation was seen for the guy's subjective evaluation of how pleasant it smelled.

More news you can use: keep your T-level from falling by making sure there are lots of young girls around you. Those used in the study were 18-19 for one experiment, and 18-21 for another. During the mid-20s, these olfactory cues nearly shut off, which makes sense given that she's not expected to be in the mating market anymore but rather to be raising her kids. No science there other than my own experience and the power of my sense of smell (and supporting theory).

Because evolutionary psychology is still a sexy new discipline, many older results bearing on their topics are just not well known. This happens in academia in general because theories go through fashion cycles, and competitive pressures to find out the truth aren't as strong as they should be. The list of references of the above article hardly has anything before the late '80s, which is when evolutionary psychology started marketing itself as something different from sociobiology.

Unfortunately that means the authors missed this key supporting study from way, way back in 1975 -- although it was published in Science, one of the two major academic journals, along with Nature. In brief, they found that men rated the scent of vaginal secretions from the ovulatory phase of a girl's menstrual cycle as better than those from other phases. Clearly there aren't enough well-read perverts among the peer reviewers for Psychological Science.

If evolutionary psychologists were as daring as they make themselves out to be, they'd re-establish the neglected "wet panties" experiment rather than crank out yet another "sweaty t-shirt" experiment.

February 10, 2010

The "midlife crisis" was a Boomer fad

Quantitative psychologists showed almost right away that the idea of a midlife crisis was wrong. You can find a good review of this, along with much more excellent data on how personality changes across the adult lifespan, in Personality in Adulthood, written by the pioneers of the "Big Five" personality trait approach.

But why let data get in the way of some gratifying whining? Here's how "in the air" the idea has been since its introduction in the early 1970s:


The peak year is 2000, and since they used "midlife" to refer to their 40s and 50s, that makes the peak-era believers born between 1940 and 1960 -- who else? Now that the earlier Boomers are past this stage, fewer of the overall generation are left to complain about midlife. Generation X is very self-absorbed, but more like the quietly bitter girl who thinks she's an unrecognized superstar, whose fame has been stolen by the louder, exhibitionistic older sister. So I doubt they'll be making a big stink about midlife. The silent mini-generation between Gen X and Millennials probably won't protest either. And while everyone says Millennials are attention whores, it's only natural since they're still pretty young, so it's too early to judge there. Also, it seems like more of a zeitgeist thing than a generational thing -- look at how many people well into their 20s and 30s make the duckface or other kabuki-like facial expressions in their Facebook pictures.

February 9, 2010

The iPad will compete on quality, not price

From Megan McArdle on the iPad dropping in price if sales are not hot:

The question, of course, is "how low can Apple go?" ...

One estimate is that the cheapest iPad costs $270 to manufacture. Throw in advertising, transportation, distribution, and so forth, and maybe they can cut the price $100 if they're willing to make a slim profit in order to establish a market. Of course, there's probably more room on the high-end models, and presumably costs will fall as they get more experience, and volume. But I don't see them getting within striking distance of a Kindle particularly soon.

I don't see them competing on price against the Kindle in the first place. No one wants the iPad for decoration. It is like a video game console -- not "a netbook without a keyboard" -- because consumers value it only to the extent that they value the games you can play on it. Or whatever it is that people are going to play around with on their iPads. Apple will try to deliver a cooler experience than what you get with a Kindle and charge a higher price for that. (Most people would pay a $10 premium just to avoid referring to their toy by the goofy name "Kindle.") That strategy seems to have worked for the iPod and iPhone.

It also worked for winners in the video game console industry. Nintendo had no real competition for its NES, and all three of the major 16-bit consoles were about $200. But from 1995 through 2005, prices varied; the cheaper consoles bombed and the winners were expensive. Sony's PlayStation cost $300 compared to the $200 Nintendo 64, and Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox both cost $300 compared to Nintendo's Gamecube or Sega's Dreamcast which cost $200. Only in the current generation has the cheapest console sold the best (Nintendo's Wii).

The reason that the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 could command such higher premiums over the Nintendo consoles is that consumers raved about the games for Sony's consoles and thought the N64 and Gamecube games were comparatively more forgettable. Expensive consoles that offered terrible games, however, obviously did not sell well, such as the $700 3DO or the $400 Sega Saturn. Video game consumers pick the console that offers them the best experience and figure that it's worth paying whatever the cost is, as long as it doesn't have a sticker price of over $500. So, there is no competition based on hardware price -- or software price, for that matter, since video games cost about the same from one system to another at a point in time. Competition here is based on the quality of the software that the console runs, so long as that wouldn't result in a $500 price tag (as with the ill-fated $650 Neo Geo, which had great games).

In fact, the iPad could get within striking distance of a Kindle right away simply by deciding to provide a crappier experience than originally planned, switching to cheaper parts, and so on. The supply side of "supply and demand" is just as subjective as the demand side -- Apple could take the money, etc., that it's now putting into whatever accounts for the $270 cost estimate, and reinvest that in cheaper parts, more limited capabilities, etc., in order to compete on price against the Kindle. In Apple's subjective evaluation, the current investment pattern is worth more to them than what they perceive as the next-best alternative use of that stuff. To put it simpler: price-based competition would have led Apple to design a much cheaper device in the first place.

Because no one knows quite what to make of this doo-hickey, it's like a movie, no two of which are alike -- you have to consume it in order to determine how you subjectively value it. (In Hollywood Economics, Arthur De Vany drives home this point and its implications for how the movie industry works.) Having used an iPod, iPhone, computer, ebook reader, etc., may give you the vaguest clue what the iPad experience will be like, just like watching Star Wars would give you a hint about what watching The Empire Strikes Back would be like. But there's so much noise in the guess about what a sequel will be like based on the first movie -- it could be a Nightmare on Elm Street 2 -- that you really do have to experience the sequel to figure out what it's worth to you.

So the planned-for price drops, if they happen, may be Apple's way of starting high and lowering it later just to feel out what the demand will be for this baffling sequel to the iPod and iPhone. It seems to have little to do with price competition.

Old men but not women in Super Bowl halftime due to menopause?

In the comments on a Super Bowl post at Steve Sailer's, there was some discussion of age and sex of the halftime performers. With a few exceptions, most of the old performers have been male ever since the halftime became a big event in 1987; female performers have been young or not so old.

While surfing YouTube to find some good female performers over 45 or 50, I discovered why they are unlikely to land a spot on the Super Bowl or other spectacle -- menopause. Forget the effect it has on their looks, as the audience could overlook the fact that the woman they used to fantasize about or imitate was no longer a spring chicken. The plummeting levels of female sex hormones means that they'll no longer have that girly energy and dulcet voice that they used to. That's what the audience really craves in female performers. Males don't stop producing testosterone, so they can continue on for awhile. Sure, The Who and Bruce Springsteen were bland, and most of Paul McCartney's set was dopey later-Beatles stuff, but Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones did well, and Prince was phenomenal.

Now don't get me wrong, at age 50, Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles is still very bangable, but you can notice how masculinized her face and voice have become by comparing these two live versions of "Manic Monday": first one (watch the short interview to see how feminine her face was) and second one. Here's yet another when she was about 40, which shows that she still had it. So it really does seem like a menopause thing. The only live performance I found of a post-menopausal woman who still sounded young was of a 57 year-old Rosie Hamlin singing "Angel Baby" with a teenager's voice.

The only way you could have a revival group with a female lead on the Super Bowl is to get one of the late '70s female rockers before they die. As I pointed out before, that period was so guy-driven that even the women were pretty hard-edged. No one expects Joan Jett to have a girly demeanor and light voice, so she could do it just as well as Mick Jagger did a few years ago. Here's a 58 year-old Chrissie Hynde singing "Brass in Pocket" in 2009, and it's not worlds apart from what it must have sounded like live in 1979.

Do young female musicians take menopause into account when they're deciding whether or not to make a career out of music? If they're girly, they'll have great success early but be unable to reproduce that later. If they're more masculine, they probably won't steal as much of the spotlight early on, but they'll be able to keep going for a lot longer.

February 7, 2010

Were beer ads always this doofusy?

While watching the Super Bowl commercials, I wasn't surprised by the level of stupidity, given that the infection of meta-irony spread to advertising as elsewhere in the culture. The only exceptions I noticed were for low-end cars, hi-tech -- though not consumer electronics -- and Coke (whose non-ironic slogan is "Open happiness"). Everything else was just a variation on those lame self-aware Orbit gum commercials. By the way, Megan Fox making a duckface for her camera -- minus 10 points.

The worst offenders by far were the beer commercials, half of which you could've mistaken for Will Ferrell movie trailers or public service announcements for Betaholics Anonymous. These are the only kinds of beer ads I've ever known, but then I wasn't of drinking age in the pre-ironic years, so I wasn't really paying attention then. Fortunately YouTube gives 354 results for "80s beer commercial".

Here is a montage from the '60s to the '80s -- nary a doofus ad to be found. Many, including this ad for Stroh's, focus on friends and family getting together and having fun, not a bunch of dorks who have no life. Several others, like this one for Busch, make a sincere congratulation to strong men who accomplish tough jobs, not an ironic wink at drone males who use alcohol to numb awareness of their weak and faggy behavior.

Beer commercials used to appeal to men's pride -- "this Bud's for you" -- but now they tap into their shame. Don't blame the ad companies, since they're just supplying the demand of fragile crybabies. Meta-irony avoids a sincere look at their lifestyle that would reveal what a joke it is, although you'd think then they'd buy more beer. People drink more to escape shame than depression.

Body scent attractiveness, climate change, and love poetry

From an NYT article on product differentiation in the online dating industry:

Consider ScientificMatch.com, founded about two years ago, which aims to create romantic chemistry via genetic testing. The site, which matches people based on certain genetic markers for the immune system, takes its cue from studies showing that women are more attracted to the smell of men who have very different immune systems from their own. The site charges $1,995.95 for a lifetime membership -- the lofty fee includes a cheek swabbing kit, DNA processing, a criminal and bankruptcy background check, as well as verification of age and marital status, the site says.

I have a more cost-effective way to find out which men smell better to you -- go to a gym, bar, dance club, or other place where there are lots of people giving off lots of odor. Now can I collect my billion dollar investment from a venture capital firm?

The company's website plays up the sweaty t-shirt studies, where evolutionary psychologists show that people are more attracted to the smell of t-shirts from others who have very different immune system genes. The idea is that by mating with someone who is different, the combination between you and your mate will be close to novel. In this way, pathogens will have a harder time figuring out how to infect your children -- if their genetic profile were one that already existed, they'd already know how to pick that lock. It's just an extension of the Red Queen hypothesis for why there is sexual reproduction at all.

Certainly if you planned to use online dating sites to find someone to have children with, having the genetic data would give you a more accurate estimate of how different your immune system genes were. However, few are interested in that, as shown on the company's website. They emphasize all of the child-irrelevant perks like finding your partner's smell more appealing, having a greater chance of female orgasm, and so on. It's clearly for daters rather than aspiring parents.

The trouble with that is that most of these studies are done on college students. For those who don't remember, teenage and college girls smell wonderful. The 30+ women who these genetic screening services are aimed at do not give off powerful pheromones like the young girls do. Because there is low ceiling on how intense older women's scent can be, the magnitude of these effects is going to be very small. The same goes for orgasming: it's not uncommon among college girls, but pretty rare for 30-somethings and beyond (lower hormone levels). Even if genetic screening ensured that the woman would derive the maximum benefit, it still wouldn't amount to much because the ceilings are too low.

By the way, I noticed at the most recent '80s night that a lot of the 18-20 year-olds have already begun to produce their powerful ovulation aroma. Last year, it wasn't until around March 20 that this happened. We had a much longer, colder, and snowier winter last year. This year, there's hardly been anything, and it's been mild enough during the past week that I could comfortably go out in an undershirt and sweater -- no coat. The more I think about it, the more it looks like human females really do have a mating season that responds on-the-fly to the weather. If it seems like there's going to be a harsh winter, their pussies go into hibernation. If not, they just rest it out for a little bit before concluding pretty soon that it's safe to come out and play. There's another reason to welcome global warming.

I wonder if we see this in history -- there was the Medieval Warm Period that saw the flowering of the courtly love and troubadour traditions. Something was getting those guys awfully worked up. Here's a graph of annual temperature over the past 2000 years. We'd predict hormone-governed love poetry to hit a nadir during the 17th C. during the Little Ice Age. Shakespeare's love sonnets are an exception in that century. I recall the rest of that period from my freshman English class as being much less raw and lusty, culminating in the work of metaphysical poets like John Donne. I rather like those elaborate conceits, but they sure don't pack the punch of troubadour-era songs.

We'd also expect highly hormonal love poetry to start coming out of hiding toward the end of the 18th C. and certainly by mid-19th C., when temperatures began climbing again. That's more or less when the Romantic movement broke out all of a sudden across Europe, followed by other losing-sleep-over-girls movements like the Pre-Raphaelites. Something about females started driving guys crazy again, and I'll bet it was a return to the warmer temperatures that allowed men, for the first time since Bernart de Ventadorn, to enjoy the ovulation scent nearly year-round. And of course the love song has only exploded further in popularity during the warm 20th C.

February 4, 2010

Social performers enjoy greater Flow than solitary hobbyists

I just read through two books on Flow, the state of mind where you're totally immersed in an activity, you lose self-consciousness, time passes by faster, etc. It's what athletes mean when they say they're "in the zone." What's so striking about this concept -- which does really exist -- is how biased its proponents are toward solitary Flow activities and against in-front-of-an-audience Flow activities. It's understandable that they'd rank a chess player or scientist above a dancer or basketball player, given that most professional psychologists were never the social and popular kids in high school. Still, it's time to correct some glaring misunderstandings about which activities lead to greater Flow among their practitioners.

In Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Czikszentmihalyi provides four concrete examples of Flow activities: rockclimbing, playing chess, surgery -- as the surgeon -- and dancing to rock music. (The rock music referred to is later '60s and earlier '70s.) He grudgingly admits that dancing has all of the hallmarks of a Flow activity, and interviews with people who "get into the groove" (the dancer's "in the zone") show quite clearly that their mental experience is exactly that described by the Flow idea. If anything, they make it sound like they're much more energized, focused, and in a state of rapture than a rockclimber or a sculptor or a computer programmer.

However, he sees some flaws in rock dancing that lead him to characterize the experience as "shallow flow" in contrast to the "deep flow" that the three by-themselves Flowers enjoy. These three flaws, and my responses to them, are:

1) Ambiguity of feedback. Flow happens when the person matches their skill level to the challenge level, ideally pursuing a high-level challenge with high-level skills. He believes the feedback you get about attaining this ideal is unambiguous for the solitary Flow activities but ambiguous for dancing. How can you tell you're doing well? It seems much clearer in chess than in dancing. *

- For all Flow activities, the only unambiguous feedback you get relates to the barebones level of competence -- does a chess player make a series of illegal moves, does a rockclimber move steadily downward in altitude, does a surgeon see blood squirting all over the walls, and does a dancer lose his balance and fall? These are like the rules of grammar -- once you break them, you notice right away, and the feedback is crystal-clear. If you cannot even surmount these minimal obstacles, you are not any good at the activity and will never experience Flow because you cannot meet a high challenge with high skills.

Beyond those things, though, everything else you do is improvisational rather than like following a rigid script, and the feedback you get is necessarily ambiguous. Sure, rock dancers may be unsure of whether or not they're giving a good performance, aside from not losing their balance, keeping time with the beat, etc. But then how does a rockclimber know for sure that he's doing well? He's not going steadily downward -- great for him -- but could he be moving faster? Could he chose a more elegant path to the top? Should he have moved an arm then leg, or should he have moved one leg and then the other? None of this is clear.

How does a chess player know he's setting a high challenge and meeting it with high skill? There are so many options open to him at every step of the way, and some may lead to a faster win, a more bewildering and shocking win, and so on. His only feedback is what his opponent does, and that doesn't give him much to go on, other than to assure him that at least he isn't royally screwing up.

When a surgeon cuts into someone, nothing is exactly the same as it was the last time, and again he has so many options open to him at each step, even if not an infinite amount. There are all sorts of unanticipated obstacles, or opportunities for an epiphany: "Hey, I don't have to do it the way everyone else does -- there's a simpler way!" Once more, the feedback he gets doesn't tell him with complete certainty whether he's going as fast as he can, as seamlessly as he can, as inventively, or whatever.

So, for the part of Flow activities that actually give it the Flow feeling -- those that set up a high challenge and demand high skills -- there is no unambiguous feedback. That only comes from the parts of the activity that confirm his basic competence. Everything else is like aesthetics, not grammar, and therefore while not ungoverned, it is open to honest debate.

Indeed, social performances like dancing, live music, live acting, and doing spectator sports are more likely to give the performer quality feedback. Why? Because there's an audience full of impartial judges -- they're not the performer himself (who is subject to self-deception about what the feedback says about how good he is), nor his friends or relatives (who are also going to deceive themselves or politely lie in his favor). If you aren't setting a high challenge and meeting it with high skills in a dance club, then guess what -- no one will notice you, cheer you own, reach out their hand so that you'll pull them up, spontaneously praise you or confess that you're their hero, etc.

How does a rockclimber, chess player, or surgeon get such high-quality unbiased feedback? Unless they're performing before an impartial audience, they obviously cannot. Going it alone, or mostly with buddies, relatives, and workplace subordinates, is asking to get more self-deception, white lies, and butt-kissing in the feedback.

2) Greater chance for self-consciousness to spoil the loss of self. Here Csikszentmihalyi only quotes from the bad, awkward dancers -- who unsurprisingly feel incredibly self-conscious. But he makes a larger point about the social setting raising the chance of feeling stared at in a bad way. More solitary activities lower the feeling of being in the spotlight.

- Obviously it's only the good dancers who matter in assessing how self-conscious dancers feel during Flow. And they report that they completely lose themselves -- not just among the crowd of other people, but also in the darkness and in the music itself. Most performers, aside from athletes, perform in a mostly dark space too. I do notice that when the lights are brighter than usual during a song, I can't get into the groove as well. I know they're staring at me dark or light, but seeing their eyeballs drives that home. Still, provided the lighting is suitably dim, that's not a problem.

Moreover, when there's a crowd of people before you, your loss of self-consciousness is heightened because you're not only losing yourself in the activity and the physical environment but also into a sea of people. You're feeding off of their energy, and they're feeding off of yours simultaneously, like yin-yang. A rockclimber can only be at one with his physical motions and the environment.

More importantly, it's not true that the presence of a crowd ramps up the potential for self-consciousness. We automatically imagine a spectator or crowd when we're doing solitary Flow activities -- the patrons at the gallery where our sculpture will be on display, the panel of judges in a rockclimbing contest we're preparing for, our martinet math teacher who told us never to write "hack" proofs but to make them elegant, and so on. When you suspect you're not rising to the occasion, the feeling that you're failing your judges is only slightly dampened when they're in your head rather than in the flesh.

I will concede, though, that dancing in dance clubs (rather than in a ballet performance) somewhat opens the door to self-consciousness through other ways. If girls jump on stage and pinch your butt or bend over and start shoving their ass in your crotch, you become more aware of yourself. Overall, these interruptions of Flow are a trivial damper -- like the audience applauding in the middle of a piece of music rather than holding it till the end.

3) Opportunity to drop the activity in the middle, rather than be caught up in it. Csikszentmihalyi believes that unlike rockclimbing, chess, and surgery -- where once you start you proceed inexorably to the end -- you can quit rock dancing during any of the breaks between songs, or even in the middle of a song if you wanted to! This makes dancing less absorbing of an activity, since you have freer exit.

- Again, only someone who can't dance would think that a dancer would just stop mid-song and leave. Like surgeons and rockclimbers who all take some kind of break, dancers might rest between songs to replenish their energy. But otherwise they aim to go until the club closes. Other than those required breaks, dancing absorbs close to 100% of a dancer's focus.

And besides, who says that rockclimbers, chess players, and surgeons are so drawn into their activity that once they start, they are assured of finishing? Does a rockclimber say, "Well, I made my first movement up off the ground, so by mathematical induction, I've scaled the entire cliff"? Each time he's lifted a limb from the rock and secured it in a new place, this gives him a natural time to say, "OK, I've made enough moves -- this isn't going anywhere," or "Just one more move and then I'll have given my arms a good enough workout, and I can go home."

Right after a surgeon washes his hands, he's literally on auto-pilot and couldn't stop to, say, attend to more pressing matters if an emergency patient needed him, or let another surgeon step in to finish the job? The pause between each snip gives him the opportunity to say, "Good enough so far -- I'm needed elsewhere," or "Somebody else can take it from here." When playing chess, a player is given a natural chance to just get up and leave the table -- namely after any move is made, like the breaks between songs in a dance club. So it's simply not true that solitary Flow activities don't have built-in pauses that tempt their practitioners to give up.

To sum up, the three criticisms leveled at rock dancing -- and by implication any Flow activity that consists of a performer before an audience -- are wrong. Indeed, the first criticism actually rules in favor of social performances because these give the person higher-quality feedback about how great of a challenge they're setting and how great their skills are. All the wishing in the world from adherents of Eastern philosophy or Positive Psychology won't make woodwork in one's basement a greater source of Flow than dancing, acting, jamming out, telling jokes, or dribbling a basketball before an audience. That's clear enough just by watching performers -- they are more absorbed, lost in the moment, and energized, and they're getting much less ambiguous feedback than someone whose only jury is himself or his hobby buddies.

I see the Flow proponents as a special case of the general tendency among modern intellectuals to favor individualistic or atomistic solutions to leading a good life, even if they admit that people feel happier in closely knit communities where people are like each other. They need to go back and read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which largely inspires my response to the Flow concept. The Stoics, the early Christians, the myriad entrepreneurial schools of classical Greek philosophy -- they too focused more on how to lead a fulfilling life based on how you interact socially with your fellow man, not about how to find the right solitary hobby, how to trick yourself into eating less, or how to contemplate life in a better way. Just get out there and be active and social!

* Actually, his exposition after the list of flaws describes the ambiguity of the tasks involved in the activity, not of the feedback. For example, some dancers feel ambiguous about whether they're dancing for its own sake (Flow) or in order to make a thinly veiled pass at a girl they want to bed (non-Flow). This ambiguity is also present for rockclimbing, chess, and surgery -- how do they know they're "really" doing it for its own sake rather than to keep their muscles in attractive shape, to have a way to signal their IQ to others, and to impress the cute nurse he wants to bed? Dancing is no different.