November 30, 2010

Flesh in movies tracks the crime rate

Starting around 1992, young Americans began killing off the sexual revolution that reigned during the '60s through the '80s -- by waiting much longer to get started, having fewer partners, using condoms more often, and so on. These are just a few of the starkest examples of how sexual wildness tracks the level of violence in society, the logic of which I explained some posts below.

Earlier we saw that reports from lit fic observers that interest in sex shriveled up among the novels of the superstars of the 1990s and 2000s, especially compared to the blockbuster writers of the '60s through the '80s, for whom no amount of sex was gratuitous. An even better place to look for the cultural reflection of the birth and death of sexual liberation is movies. They have to appeal to a much broader audience, there are a lot fewer of them than books and hence easier to study close to the whole universe of "popular movies," and busybody parents have already put together a wealth of information about whether a movie shows skin or not.

To quantify this, I took the top 10 movies at the box office for a year -- that's surely a good measure of the movie's resonance with what audiences wanted. I then checked the "parental advisory" section of their entry at (or in a few cases where the movie was more obscure, at other "protect the kids" online resources for parents). If there was at least one scene of partial nudity -- even an exposed nipple -- that lasted longer than a moment, I counted it as having nudity; otherwise, not. So this isn't a measure of really raunchy stuff. Because it's such an easy threshold to clear, if hardly any movies in some year fail to meet it, then we are very safe in categorizing that year as a prudish one.

The first full year that nudity in movies was allowed was 1969, after an earlier ban was reversed in 1968. The ban, also known as the Hays Code, was only enforced starting in 1934 -- the very first year of falling crime that would last through the '50s, after the earlier surge of crime from at least 1900 through the Roaring Twenties and the early '30s. As an aside, a probably something I'll flesh out more later, these bans typically only occur when they are not needed -- when the people are themselves already becoming tamer. They are expressive of the more prudish zeitgeist, not an attempt to deal with a real problem.

Here is the change over time:

The change is so incredibly stark that you could probably go just by your impressions -- though that's only assuming you remember anything, which most people don't. We hear so much nonsense about how skankified and sexually perverted the culture keeps getting, but try to think of the last time you saw some nice T&A in a mainstream movie. Back in the late '70s and '80s, every movie was also partly a softcore porn flick. It wasn't just the screwball teen comedies like Porky's -- even mainstream comedies that were actually funny, like Caddyshack or Stripes or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Beverly Hills Cop, show plenty of skin. Same with dramas like Fatal Attraction. Ditto for action movies, like when Conan the Barbarian and a witch get it on, or when we see the actual sex act where Sarah Connor conceives the future savior of humankind with Kyle Reese, or when Dirty Harry chases a criminal across some rooftops and they happen to crash through into an orgy with about a dozen people being filmed for a porno. And it's hard to think of a thriller/horror movie from that period that does not have a nude scene.

There are two clear periods: a wilder period from 1969 through 1988, where the mean, median, and mode are all 4; and a tamer one from 1989 through 2009, where the mean, median, and mode are all 1. Although each year's movies are only a handful of draws from the larger distribution of culture, creating year-to-year variation, it's clear that sometime in the late '80s or early '90s the main tendency of that distribution shifted sharply in the covered-up direction. To my eye, the year-to-year variation doesn't allow us to pinpoint whether the decline of T&A in movies slightly preceded or occurred right alongside the fall in violence and promiscuity, but it's obvious that the two trends are closely related.

One thing is certain -- the internet has nothing to do with it. The internet only became widespread among the audiences that go to movies around 1994. I remember that very clearly, and there was no porn around. Free and easy-to-get internet porn didn't show up until the late '90s (the first year I recall it being a phenomenon was 2000, but I was probably late to the trend). Nudity in one domain of entertainment or media is not a substitute for nudity in some other domain, as this idea assumes (internet nudity replacing movie nudity). Rather, they are complements -- they all feed off of each other and contribute to a larger culture of sexual liberation. That's why in the heyday of the sexual revolution, there was nudity not only in movies but also in lit fic novels, on album covers, in magazines, and anywhere else they could have shown it.

Similarly, once the sexual counter-revolution began in the early-mid 1990s, nudity vanished from all of those domains. We can't use the internet in this comparison over time because it did not exist during rising-crime times. But can you imagine what people would have uploaded to YouTube in 1977? Or what percent of all internet traffic would have been for porn in 1984? If you think kids today post sexualized photos on social networks, you can guess what it would have looked like if people at Studio 54 or Danceteria had had Facebook or Flickr to show their friends what they were up to last weekend (or what they saw at any rate). I've earlier noted the death of streaking during the falling-crime times. They captured more images of streakers in the '70s and '80s without the benefit of more modern technology because people were actually streaking back then, and have not since.

It's harder to get a feel for, but I think even adolescent guys' bedrooms aren't saturated with nudity like they used to be. I'm just thinking of every YouTube video I've ever watched that was shot in someone's bedroom, and I don't ever recall seeing one where there was a poster of a girl showing her boobs, let alone posing nude. But rewind to Jeff Spicoli's room, and it's covered in pages ripped out of Playboy or Penthouse. During the '90s, this practice was fading but it was still prevalent enough on an absolute level for me to remember it (at least the early-mid '90s anyway, not so much after that). Even if it wasn't a Playboy centerfold, maybe it was Kathy Ireland from Sports Illustrated or the Janet Jackson cover of Rolling Stone.

Maybe someone with more free time can go through all the teen screwball comedies over the years and rate them for how much square footage of the characters' walls are taken up by pictures of girls. I don't recall any in American Pie or Superbad, but I wasn't paying attention for it either. Plus I haven't bothered with a lot of the dork squad comedies like the Harold and Kumar movies. My impression is that the same pattern seen above would hold up. Millennial guys are too busy using their computer, TV, internet, and cell phone to play video games -- no time left to think about girls. And I think the posters on their walls would reflect that too -- more likely to see ones about video games than half-naked chicks.

The final reason that the internet or technology in general has nothing to do with these changes up and down is that we see the same pattern over historical time. When violence was surging in the 14th C., there's an obsession with explicit and raunchy sex themes in even high literature like the Canterbury Tales or the Decameron. Ditto the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, the Romantic-Gothic period, and the lesser crime wave of the early 20th C. These cultures not only are more interested in the act of sex -- the look, the feel, everything -- but they explore a lot more, I hate to use the word, "transgressive" sexual themes. The clearest example is incest, perhaps the ultimate sexual taboo: see Hamlet, The Duchess of Malfi, Vathek and the Episodes, Twin Peaks, among many others.

The periods in between these are falling-crime times, and they barely touch these topics at all. There seems to be a greater treatment of bodily hygiene, STDs, and the unhealthiness of masturbation, but not of wild sexuality per se. People sheltered from the sublime have more important Matters of Exquisite Taste to attend to.

November 28, 2010

The Expendables, a case study in how low movies have devolved

Well, you can imagine how I would place this review into the larger context of the wussification of the culture after the 1992 peak in the crime rate, and how action movies differ between dangerous vs. safe times, so I'll cut to the chase.

This has to be one of the worst movies ever made, as in not even watchable. The errors are so basic that it's hard to believe it got made, let alone that audiences liked it enough for it to get a 7/10 rating at

Most people don't realize how cultural cycles work. They think that after the glory days of some phenomenon, things will stall out and it won't innovate anymore. Shoot, I'd be happy with stagnation! It's much worse, though -- things actually devolve, losing the wisdom that had been accumulated over years or decades. Given how apparently simplistic the conventions of the '80s action movies were, you'd think it would be impossible for movie-makers to forget them -- but The Expendables proves that even simple wisdom is easily lost. Here are the major mistakes and some no-brainer solutions.

- None of the good guys die. To make the audience sympathize with the main hero, they have to feel that he's in real danger, and nothing signals that like seeing your fellows drop like flies. If everyone around him is doing just fine, then his environment isn't threatening at all. Instead, we feel like we're watching Stallone play a video game with his buddies online -- and not a hard game like Contra where you get your ass kicked, but one of these newer games for pussies, where after taking a lot of damage you merely hide in the corner and your health automatically recovers. Solution: have the bad guys pick off his buddies one at a time, leaving at most three, though perhaps none. See Predator, Aliens, Rambo II, etc.

At the very least, a lot of innocent people have to die in order for us to feel that the world they've gone into is dangerous. In Die Hard, most of those killed are not the official good guys but innocent bystanders at an office party. They can't be faceless (one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, or however that goes), though, and the makers of Die Hard make sure to humanize and personalize the individuals who are about to be killed. The Expendables didn't even show the up-close effects of a reign of terror in a Latin American dictatorship, which should not have been too hard to pull off.

- The good guys are mercenaries who never get chastised. The audience wants the heroes' action to serve some larger moral purpose, and mercenaries never meet that requirement unless they undergo a transformation as a result of the mission, becoming a true band of brothers. Otherwise, as with The Expendables, we never get the sense that they're devoted to one another. Solution: give them a real danger to run into, which will force them to adopt a strong Us vs. Them mindset. The soldiers in Predator and Aliens are technically in a state military, but they come off as jaded and complacent mercenaries -- until the Predator and the aliens start picking them off. That wakes them right up and makes them stick together to serve the larger purpose of preserve Us and exterminate the evil Them.

- The girl's role is pointless. None of the mercenaries have any reason to be connected to her, so it feels totally bogus when Stallone goes back to rescue her. The real connection she has is to her kin and especially male kin -- like her father, the dictator. The writers do dip their toes into this obviously better storyline, by having him speak out against his corporate master about her torture, but they abandon it because it seems too Old Testament or Shakespearean and therefore gripping. Solution: they should have junked the entire story about the mercenaries and made it a modern-day Faust legend set in Central America. An idealistic revolutionary makes a Faustian bargain with an American drug lord, whereby he'll rule as puppet dictator in return for allowing the drug lord to run his business there. The dictator then pays for it with the life (or at least the welfare) of his only child, who inherits the zealous idealism of her father and stirs up a group of rebels against the American invaders. Haunted by her ghost, and seeing what a foolish pact with the devil he's made, he plots to avenge her death, rape, torture, or whatever her punishment was, but is himself slain in the act. The highest ranking male in the group of rebels who'd been stirred up by the daughter then assumes the new dictator role (still no democracy or cheery ending), vowing not to let the American drug lords do business there anymore.

The other solution is to keep the main story about mercenaries but have a lengthy courtship and mating relationship between Stallone and the general's daughter, as lengthy as could be squeezed into a short time anyway. Even better -- he gets her pregnant. Now he has a real motive to watch out for her, like with Ko in Rambo II. Also as in that movie, the girl has to die to give him a morally righteous motive to kill the head villain. At the very least she must be kidnapped, like the wife in Die Hard or the teenage daughter in Lethal Weapon.

These are just the major three mistakes, but they're so glaring and so easily corrected that further discussion would be pointless. Still, I'll add for the record how hard the so-called special effects of the past 10 to 15 years have failed to pull the audience in. Maybe in a million years, CGI blood and fire with look more like the real thing than real-life special effects, but not now. Even watered down ketchup would look better than video game blood. And do they not have stuntmen in Hollywood anymore who set themselves on fire? With as much money as they blew on The Expendables, you'd figure they could at least hire a real person to get set on fire. Jesus, A Nightmare on Elm Street had that -- including a long shot where he climbs and falls down a set of basement stairs -- and that was made on a budget over 25 years ago.

By the way, this shows just how much the story does matter even in a blow-shit-up action movie. Terminator 3 and The Expendables are not even watchable, while Rambo II and Aliens are a thrill. It may not take the greatest story, but it does need to be there. The pathetic excuse that "testosterone-fueled action flicks don't need a story" is no better than the Modernist pretension that being able to paint or tell stories didn't matter, that the makers and consumers are like so above those petty concerns.

I went into seeing this movie knowing how strong the zeitgeist determines the quality of the movie, album, or whatever, but I didn't expect that it would go wrong in so many places so badly and so foolishly. Even the cheesiest, low-ranking action movies from the '80s, such as Kickboxer, outscore the most popular blockbusters of the safe times on the above measures, let alone how these would fare against the best ones from dangerous times like Dirty Harry, Rambo II, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Aliens, etc.

My brother, who received this movie from Netflix during Thanksgiving weekend and who I watched it with, always gives me a ribbing about preferring older movies (ones from dangerous times). But it's never hard to point out that this is because those movies are better, and to give him a ribbing back about how old greats beat new garbage. At that point, you either concede the point or admit that you're just following fashion even when it leads in degenerate direction.

November 27, 2010

Using time travel narratives to measure the rate of change in our way of life

When a population is more or less in a state of equilibrium, forecasting into the future doesn't yield any dazzling new picture of the world -- being stuck, we'll be living just like we are today. There could be cycles up and down around this equilibrium, like the rise and fall of empires, or the spinning of the wheel of fortune in our personal lives, but there won't be some fundamentally different direction that we head off in.

Thus, why waste time imagining what the future will be like, and why bother listening to such stories, if it'll be so similar to our own world?

There have been two major changes in the human way of life, however, that do seem to have sparked our interest in just how far the changes would go. The first was the switch from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a sedentary farmer way of life. For quality of life, all measures show that this was a disaster -- people lived shorter and sicker lives, had a more limited and vegan-like diet, although they did have more stuff to accumulate. This is when folklore, legends, mythology, etc., start to explore "fall from grace" and apocalyptic themes. These project just how bad things will get if their present rate of change -- downward -- continues.

Herder mythologies and religion are like those of farmers in this respect at least, as they feel like they're hold-outs for a more free and nomadic way of life, yet under pressure to settle down and join the increasing ranks of farmers. The descendants of Proto-Indo-European mythology, not to mention Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all were born from nomadic pastoralists.

Then sometime during the 19th C. in the industrializing countries, it became clear that this wasn't just another upward phase in a cycle that would inevitably return to a lower level, but was a sustained move toward a different way of life. It's during this time that writers start to show a profound interest in just how far the technological and social changes will go in the next 50 or 100 or 500 years if their present rate of change continues.

But somewhere around 1990 that century-old fascination will the future comes to a grinding halt. The last major cultural works that show a sincere attempt to project the present rate of change into the future and see what life would look like are Back to the Future II and Total Recall (maybe a couple of less popular others). The original Back to the Future movie looked at how much the way of life had changed from 1985 back to 1955, and it was clear enough even to those who weren't even alive in the 1970s, let alone the '50s.

The sequel sent time travellers the same amount of time in the opposite direction, from 1985 to 2015. There are clothes that blow dry themselves when wet, shoes that fit themselves to the wearer's feet, and of course hoverboards, a skateboard the glides on the air without need for wheels.

Total Recall shows what life looks like once we colonize Mars. There will even be tourist trips to Mars.

Then after Total Recall, released in 1990, there are scarcely any of these stories that were as successful. 12 Monkeys doesn't count because time travel forwards is not used as a way to imagine what life will be like if the current rate of change keeps on going. It's more of declinist or apocalyptic narrative that would have been popular during the transition to agriculture, as an epidemic disease wipes out most of humanity and nature reclaims spaces from ruined civilizations.

In fact, if anyone tried to make a movie like Back to the Future II today, the audiences would laugh them out of the theaters. "Yeah right, we don't even have hoverboards and commuting a la The Jetsons, yet we're supposed to believe that in the near future we're going to have whatever you're showing us? How naive."

Everyone has sensed that the rate of dazzling change that began with the shift from farming to industrial capitalism is more or less completed. They observe this in their personal lives, they hear it from their friends of friends of friends, and they see it in the media, who can show them what life is like outside of the social networks they're a part of. I mean, Jesus, even the Japanese don't have hoverboards! I thought they were supposed to be like 50 years ahead of us in technology.

Hardcore gadget worshippers are desperate to see mind-blowing change everywhere, but normal people recognize that there is little change in going from a world with cordless phones everywhere to iPhones everywhere, at least compared to the no-phone to phone change. Ditto with iPods -- hardly more dazzling than a Walkman, especially compared to the no-portable-music to Walkman change.

The internet has made daily life a little different, but not much. If you took someone from 1990 and showed them what you use the internet for at any time since then, would they be as spellbound as someone who lived in a pre-computer time transported to a world with personal computers (a pre-1990 shift)? Not at all. It's a bit different, but nothing on the scale of "we're moving off into uncharted territory," like the no-electricity to electricity shift.

Social network sites like Facebook don't really connect you to anyone who wasn't already in your real-life social network, or any more strongly to those who were in your real-life network. If there is no radical change to project forward, it's no surprise that there are no cultural hits that forecast what life will be like when the whole world is in your friends list -- it'll be just like now.

Returning for a moment to cell phones, nobody except me remembers how easy it was to communicate in a post-Bell but pre-cell world. We had phones in our houses, and by the '80s we could even walk around the house with them -- outside too! If we were away from home, we would never need one in the car since we were busy paying attention to driving. If at work, they had phones there, and there were always offices or homes that you might pass by and ask to use theirs. If you didn't want to trouble someone else, they even had these things called pay phones that you'd drop a quarter (or earlier a dime) into, and call whoever you wanted. The major difference in the post-cell world is that it's a lot easier for others to bother you on the go -- before it was just easier for you to bother them.

In any case, the closing off of this part of the popular imagination shows that most people have decided that their way of life has not fundamentally changed much in the past 20 years. If there had been a radical change, they would've noticed and dreamt about how far it would go within the next 30 or 50 or 100 years. Therefore, things have stayed the same over this time. Again, gadget-worshipping geeks will desperately try to give examples of big changes in the past 20 years, but we don't care about that -- we're talking about real life as it's lived. If people don't see what the big deal is about the gadget-worshippers' favorite new toy, then this doohickey doesn't make any difference in people's daily lives.

For me it's a bummer that the tumultuous and topsy-turvy future has turned out to be static, but I'm grateful for at least getting to live through part of that industrial transition period. Millennials only have memories from after the equilibrium was reached, although given how playing-it-safe they are, they must find it pleasant to not feel the ground shifting beneath your feet.

Still, even if we've already hit the future, we'll always have the past to travel back to, and I've always found those stories more fascinating anyway.

November 22, 2010

The Sixth Sense -- not even as haunting as Ghost

And that was a chick flick, for god's sake. I watched The Sixth Sense for the first time in a long while, probably the first I've watched it all the way through in one sitting, as it's pretty boring. I figured I'd give it a fair hearing since it's one of the post-1992 movies that people say is still a good thriller, and I'd like to find as many exceptions to the general trend of terrible movies since then, especially in genres that need an element of the sublime in them.

Well, first let me point to a handful of movies that have bucked the trend after 1992 toward emotionally empty thriller and horror movies. In order to stand somewhat above the zeitgeist, it takes someone unusual. (When the zeitgeist itself is pushing things in an exciting direction, even movies and albums that are put together by committees aren't half-bad.)

For supernatural thrillers, who else would make any good ones during this time except for David Lynch? I haven't seen Lost Highway in awhile, but Mulholland Drive was gripping. That Winkie's Diner scene alone is spookier than all of the Saw series combined. The only major downside I found in these two was their urban settings. I showed earlier that an interest in the pastoral and a disdain for the urban tracks the violence level. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, both made during rising-crime times, benefit from the antiquated suburban and rural settings that a gothic narrative is naturally suited to.

As for where the thriller shades into the horror movie, Wes Craven made not only Scream but also his New Nightmare a year earlier. Scream is good enough to watch, but it's not unsettling since the characters are too self-aware and there is no supernatural element at all. In New Nightmare, the characters are aware of how famous and cliched horror movies had become by the peak of the crime rate in the early 1990s, but their complacent meta-awareness is shattered when the supernatural evil contained in the Nightmare on Elm Street narrative begins to break into the natural world and haunt the real-life actors and crew of the film series.

(Candyman, made at the peak of the crime rate in 1992, explored the same theme of a supernatural force returning to kill in the real world as a reminder of his existence after people had become too smug and self-aware about urban legends. Still, this one, like the Clive Barker-inspired Hellraiser movies -- or the first two, which I've seen, anyway -- suffers from a main villain who talks like a clingy homosexual instead of a powerful demon.)

Those three or four post-'92 movies are about all that comes to mind, though. After a closer watch tonight, here are some off-the-cuff reasons for why The Sixth Sense doesn't come close to making the cut.

- As with the Lynch movies, the setting is urban, and brownstones are far less likely to be haunted than the woods. It's not impossible, as we saw in Ghostbusters, but it's a real uphill battle to convince the audience. Furthermore, since the movie was shot after the crime rate had been plummeting for nearly a decade, the urban setting doesn't look gritty or threatening at all -- not like in Rocky, made during armageddon times. It rather looks like a brochure for the explosion of gentrification and white flight back into the cities that began once the violence level had dropped through the floor.

- The total ban against synthesizer music since alternative killed off rock music, and gangsta killed off rap music, has really crippled the thriller and horror genres. Its timbre is inherently spooky because it lies in the "uncanny valley" between clearly organic sounds like a flute and clearly artificial ones like early computerized speech. Some movies can pull off a good piano-only score, but this is harder to do since pianos don't benefit from inherent spookiness. Even a so-so synth song like the Ghostbusters theme can strike enough of a creepy note that it doesn't need to be a masterpiece otherwise. (I'm thinking of the part that builds suspensefully before "I ain't afraid of no ghosts.")

- Too much quick and jumpy editing, not enough lingering. There's a shot of a man turning a doorknob at the top of some stairs, then without even a dissolve we see him seated and working away in the basement. This pervades the movie, and other recent movies. Obviously it's just some silly fad that NYU film school dorks fell in love with. To truly build suspense, we need longer shots that track the characters' movements. When the characters in a gothic novel descend a staircase, we get all sorts of detail about the texture and sound of the stairs, how a noxious fog hangs visibly just below the ceiling of the stairwell, the candle that the person has brought in a vain attempt to see clearly, how they descend faster and faster in order to get the hell out of the creepy claustrophobic space, until it feels like they're in freefall rather than making steps, and so on. Cutting away every fraction of a second to another scene so remote from the previous one in time and space utterly dissipates whatever tension there might have been.

- The ghosts aren't evil by disposition or even by deed. They're simply misunderstood souls who want to establish communication with certain of the living. This makes the ghost-seer more like a well-trained marriage or family counselor than a shaman, an exorcist, or a Faustian character who wants to join them in their evil.

- Related to the above, there is little emphasis on temptation and sin, crime and punishment, trust and betrayal, or any of the grander themes of human narratives. A more quotidian role for ghosts in driving the plot cannot call up the sublime, only a somewhat flaccid and preachy message that more communication is the best therapy for relationship sadness. This fake memento mori aspect of the movie, laid on so thick yet solemnly, also ruined any potential that the Saw movies might have had. At the end of Aliens, we don't need a narrator to walk us through a sequence of shots to tell us how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted. It's already been worked seamlessly into the action and dialogue, like Hudson's neverending gallows humor.

Other things too, but those were the main ones. It was watchable, but definitely not an exception to the trend. For that I say go with Mulholland Drive or Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

November 17, 2010

Taboo against spoilers is a sign of low-quality products and vapid consumers

Did anybody enjoy The Passion of the Christ less because they knew that Jesus was going to get crucified? Or did having such an easily predicted ending prevent Titanic from breaking box office records? Obviously not -- so why is there such a hysteria about revealing "spoilers"? It is now even worse than when it was confined only to movies; now every reviewer of video games is spooked about blurting out spoilers, lest the army of gamer dorks desert him and ruin his chances of being an internet celebrity.

Some part of the enjoyment of a movie, book, or video game is remaining in suspense and feeling the shock when a secret is finally explained. But in any narrative worth wading through, this is only a small part, hence the appeal of plowing through them over and over if they're that good. Therefore, the panic about revealing spoilers means that this is the only possible source of enjoyment -- don't rob us of what little potential is there!

Now, enjoyment is a function of both the product and the consumer. Maybe spoiler-phobia means the product is otherwise garbage and its sole appeal is a shocking reveal. However, it could also mean the product is pretty good, but the mindset and personality of the consumer is so incapable of appreciating any aspect other than the acquisition of new information, as though following narratives were like flipping through someone else's PowerPoint slideshow for the gist and the all-important "take-home message."

Steve Sailer guessed that spoiler-phobia began in full force with the release of The Sixth Sense, and there was indeed a real hysteria about that one. Here's one example from an NYT review:

At first, the doctor doesn't believe the boy. But then, well, let's not take the story any further lest its colossally sentimental payoff be compromised.

The first appearance in the NYT of the term "spoilers" in this sense actually came earlier that year, referring to newly added scenes to the original Star Wars movies when they were re-released in theaters. has an entry from some jargon databank that shows it appearing on Usenet in 1995.

So, like all other infuriating aspects of today's culture, spoiler-phobia began just after the violence level began plummeting in the early-mid 1990s, causing everyone to focus on more trivial matters, throwing overboard their earlier appreciation for the grand and the sublime. Again, that could be due to the movies themselves becoming more empty, the audience members becoming more airheaded, or both (yep).

Even though the exact term "spoilers" doesn't appear earlier, perhaps the same panic appeared but using different words, as with the Sixth Sense review above. Note: not just a lack of spoilers, but a conscious paranoia about even hinting at spoilers, and a clear declaration that there will be no spoilers in the review. I tried looking for NYT articles on The Empire Strikes Back and Psycho from the year they came out, but they're all behind a paywall. I could do a Lexis-Nexis search, but I don't care that much about this topic. Someone else can go for it.

I have little personal experience to relate from the movie culture of the 1980s and before, as I either wasn't born or watched more movies on home video than in the theater (though I saw lots there too). I don't recall any such paranoia, though. There was one popular video game, however, that had a shocking plot reveal at the end -- that the bounty hunter who's been kicking alien butt is really a woman under the suit of armor -- and yet there was no hysteria about it. In fact, one of the first password codes that we learned for Metroid put us far enough into the game that this plot point had already been revealed -- you start off playing in plain clothes and no armor, and it's clear that it's a woman.

Even as late as 1995, I don't recall any spoiler-phobia about a shocking twist in Super Metroid where one of the aliens who you'd been destroying in the first game now comes to your aid right as you're about to be killed, sacrificing itself for you. Back before video games attempted pathetically to imitate movies, though, no one played them for the narrative, so spoiler panic was ruled out for that reason alone.

November 15, 2010

You don't have to be old to be wise

One thing that strikes you when reading about periods of dramatic upheaval, as signaled by a sustained rise in the homicide rate, is the youth rebellion that coincides with it. It's not just young people acting even more prototypically youthful -- becoming more violent and horny -- but a broader behavioral and cultural experimentation.

The clearest sign of this is a widespread disobedience of adult wishes and commands when it comes to dating and mating. Usually these come from parents who want their children to marry in a way that will benefit themselves and the wider family, not just now but into posterity, which is not entirely the same as the way that will benefit the son or daughter themselves. But they could also come from non-kin in their parents' age group. Against that, the young person pursues only who they want to.

This practice of romantic love shows up in statistics during the recent crime wave -- those young people's parents certainly did not want them having sex so early and with so many partners. During previous waves of violence, the concern about romantic love -- whether for or against -- starts to take over much of the cultural products. The 14th C. saw such a wave of both violence and romantic impulsivity, as did the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, and the Romantic-Gothic period. (The U.S. had another wave from at least 1900 to 1933, and the Roaring Twenties were the culmination of a youthful, romantic movement away from Victorian and Gilded Age sensibilities.)

Are these youth rebellions irrational, misguided, harmful, and so on? Probably not. (We are only ever talking about "compared to the alternatives.") Why not?

Behavioral strategies, and codes of morality that regulate behavior, are like tools that help a person make it through life successfully. Like other tools (and cultural thoughts or practices in general), they may become outmoded if the environment changes. If sea levels swallow the land, we will have to throw out a lot of things that just won't work underwater and we'll have to add things like goggles, air tanks, etc. And of course if sea levels don't change that radically, our existing toolkit will work just fine as it is.

It sounds silly to state something so obvious, but most people don't get it in the context of behavioral strategies and moral codes. The "don't trust anyone over 30" crowd is wrong because if the relevant features of the world haven't changed so much in 100 years, then grandma probably does know best and you shouldn't waste time experimenting so much. On the other hand, the "respect the status quo" crowd is wrong because if the world has changed a lot, then today's young people can no longer adapt themselves to their environment using the cultural tools of their recent ancestors.

As with genetic adaptation, they have to resort to trial-and-error -- blind mutation -- if they ever want to stumble upon what works best in this new environment. Most experiments will fail, just like most genetic mutations are harmful. But the ones that begin sweeping throughout a population are probably not just getting lucky (especially if the population is large) -- they're the ones that lead people successfully through life in the new environment.

You cannot object that, sure, the new mix of behaviors and codes can be successful, but they may still be fundamentally immoral. Remember -- compared to the alternatives. Take an extreme case, where the elders preach non-confrontation and peace. In a world of falling violence levels, like most of the 18th C., that advice works fine. But when violence levels soar, how moral is it to let the resurgent forces of evil just walk all over you and everybody else? Existing institutions are always impotent to stem or reverse the crime wave, so outsourcing the job is not very satisfying. You have to develop a greater propensity to use violence in order to protect yourself and others, and occasionally you'll even have to act out that impulse.

The same applies to the full range of newly successful behaviors and codes. In a safe and monogamous world, perhaps the elders really do "know what's best for you" by advising you to pick a certain type of mate, but only one of them, and to stay with them forever. However, when violence soars, this "good dad" strategy may be for suckers only, as I detailed in a recent post about why females will shift to a more promiscuous strategy in more dangerous environments. The elders may also be out of touch when it comes to moral arguments for monogamy that stress community harmony -- in the new world, an attempt to enforce monogamy may only lead to greater resentment and destructive behavior, unlike such an attempt in a safer and more well-behaved world.

This evolutionary way of looking at things -- that the culture of the elders is wise for the young to the extent that the environment has remained the same -- also shows why for every youth rebellion there is a later youth counter-rebellion. Again the main environmental change that matters is the level of violence. When the violence level cycles into a much safer phase, then the adults -- who came of age during violent times -- preaching the value of self-defense, courage, etc., will have little to contribute to the young, who don't need a lot of that anymore. Advice from middle-aged males to younger males that they should get out and cat around more will fall on deaf ears -- safe times cause greater monogamy, so that strategy would go nowhere. Or at least, not where it went during the sexual revolution that the middle-aged guy lived through during violent times.

As with youth rebellions, we have clear statistics on the youth counter-rebellion of the past 15 to 20 years, after the crime rate began plummeting. I've gone over that enough by now that it doesn't need repeating. There was a similar self-domestication of young people during the mid-'30s through 1950s, during the Victorian era in Europe, during the long fall in violence from roughly 1630 through 1780 (peaking during the Age of Reason), and during the interval between the 14th C. and late 16th C. waves of violence (peaking during the heyday of Renaissance humanism).

We don't typically think of young people wanting to live tamer and more boring lives than their elders, but this analysis shows why we should expect to see it, and when it should happen. Fortunately for skeptics, we're living through just such a phase right now, so don't take my word for it. Middle-aged people today have more exciting tastes in music and movies, are more likely to have unprotected sex, and drink and smoke more frequently; meanwhile the teenagers and 20-somethings are a bunch of young fogies.

So long, "psych!"

While watching Candyman the other night, I was struck by one of the character's use of the exclamation "psych!" (Also spelled "sike!" by elementary school kids who didn't know that Greek prefix. We couldn't have seen it in print since it was only spoken.)

It not only means that what the speaker had said before was a lie, or that a connotation that the listener inferred was wrong, but that the speaker led the hearer to that false belief, and in a playful prankster way. It's roughly the same as "I had you going," "fooled you," and so on, except better because it was concise and commented on how the speaker used cunning or toyed with the listener psychologically.

I recall this word spreading sometime in my later elementary school years, late '80s or early '90s. Candyman was released in 1992. Then suddenly it vanished. "Not!" and "as if!" were not up to the job. They both meant that what the speaker had said or implied was a lie, but the context was not one of playing a fun practical joke -- it was to make a sarcastic and haughty dismissal. "Sure Mom, I'd love to babysit my younger brothers on Saturday night -- not! [as if!]"

You could also have used "psych!" in that sarcastic way, but it was a lot more versatile, allowing the prankster usage too. "Not!" and "as if!" couldn't be used in that playful practical joke way, though -- only in the contemptuous way.

During my many years of tutoring during the 2000s, I never heard the Millennials (whether children or high schoolers) using another word that could replace "psych!" Either it just went out of fashion or young people were far less likely to be in a playful prankster mindset after the 1992 peak of the violence level, paralleling the wider decline in wildness among young people.

Whatever the reason, it's about time for a new "psych!"

November 13, 2010

Why does promiscuity rise when violence levels soar?

What started me on this path of looking at the rising or falling of crime rates as a driver of larger social and cultural changes was the connection between the plummeting violent and property crime rates since their 1992 peak and the falling levels of sexual wildness among high schoolers during that same period, as reported by the bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

One question asks if you've ever had sex, another if you've ever had sex before 13. It is straightforward how these behaviors will respond to a rise or fall in the violence level: when violence soars, people expect a shorter lifespan and therefore get an earlier start on life's major milestones, whereas a fall in the crime rate will produce the opposite effect because people expect a longer lifespan and thus lower costs to delaying maturity.

Yet the YRBS not only shows that people start to mature later after the fall in the crime rate, but that they have become far less promiscuous (a question asks if you've had 4+ partners in your life). Although we lack good survey data from the period when the crime rate was rising (1959 to 1992), it is clear that people became more promiscuous compared to the previous era of falling crime (1934 to 1958). The sexual revolution was not the figment of everyone's imagination.

What's the logic behind promiscuity tracking the violence level? I'll focus on females since male promiscuity is not surprising. It isn't immediately obvious, unlike earlier maturation. There are at least two reasons why: to recruit more male protectors into her social circle, and to further diversify her offspring as a hedge against a suddenly greater variety of dangers.

1) When violence soars, females want more male allies and friends in order to be better protected against the world's dangers. I've detailed before how violent times cause girls to want to hang out more with boys, while safe times lead them to retreat into the domestic sphere, have a few female friends, and perhaps some gay male friends only.

Part of what keeps males in her close circle of allies is the possibility of a sexual encounter or longer relationship. Granted this isn't a certainty, but it isn't trivial, and even a small probability of sex times a large number of female friends yields an expected number of sexual encounters within one's social circle that is worth the cost of protecting your chick friends. Readers who grew up mostly during violent times will be familiar with this, but it's worth stating it explicitly for the benefit of Millennials, who only came of age during highly sex-segregated times and have never had very close boy-girl friendships in the first place, let alone one that could go a little farther than that.

This pattern shows up in other primates, such as chimpanzees, where the female mates with many males in order to make each of them think they stand a chance of being the father and thus invest in her offspring (or at least refrain from harming them). Human females aren't more promiscuous for exactly the same reasons, but it's pretty similar -- recruiting more males who will help her out in surviving and ensuring her offspring survive too, when the danger to herself and her children starts to shoot up.

2) When violence soars, people not only perceive a shorter expected lifespan, but also a greater variance or unpredictability in the sources that these dangers are coming from. Suppose that the only reason that her expected lifespan has shortened is that there's a ritual sacrifice that used to occur upon her 70th birthday, but now occurs on her 60th. That would only lead to the change in when she got started sexually; it would not make her more promiscuous.

However, suppose that the cause of her shorter lifespan is a general rise in violence. This looks like a breakdown in the order of things, and that there are all sorts of dangers that no one had even imagined before. I mean, we had always been worried about catching a deadly infectious disease and had taken precautions against that -- but now it turns out that there's a supernatural killer who can enter your dreams and murder you when you're asleep, and that Satanic cults have taken over day-care centers in order to abuse your children as part of their perverse rituals, and so on. Who saw that coming?

If there were only one source of danger, then the female could plan for this very well -- just mate with a single male whose genes will make her offspring most robust to that danger. For example, if the only source of danger were a beast that could bite people 6' or taller, but which couldn't stoop low enough to bite people 5'3 or shorter, then she should mate with a very short male. Then her kids would be short enough to avoid this only source of danger.

Not so when the sources of danger seem to explode in variety -- and that's only the ones that people have currently seen. Who even knows about the new dangers that we haven't uncovered yet! Now she has to hedge her bets on where the danger to her kids will come from, namely by mating with a variety of males in order to diversify the portfolio of her offspring. Perhaps she should mate with an average-height and skinny lead singer of a rock band -- and then again maybe she should mate with a tall and muscular athlete. Well, when the variety of dangers starts to explode, why not have kids by both, just to cover all bases?

This is somewhat like the Red Queen argument for the evolution of sexual reproduction. After all, reproducing sexually involves more partners (at least one) than asexually (zero). William Hamilton's idea was that the wide variety of pathogens that one's offspring will face selected for a mating system where the genetic combinations could be scrambled every generation, throwing the pathogens off our track for a little bit. Bobbi Low showed that where pathogen load is higher, human males are more likely to be polygynous, which diversifies offspring more than monogamy, and especially in a non-sororal way (that is, the wives are not sisters, which further diversifies his offspring). As with violence, the sources of danger from pathogens present an endless variety every generation as the germs mutate and give rise to new strains.

Those who have read this blog for awhile will have noticed a major shift in my judgment of promiscuity. Earlier I saw falling promiscuity levels as a good sign of where society is headed. But after stumbling onto this secret passageway of how the violence level affects so much else, I've changed my mind. It's not that promiscuity per se is a socially desirable thing; probably all else equal, a society with more monogamy is more pleasant to live in for the average person. But all else is not equal -- so much else is inextricably tied to promiscuity.

Trust levels are one -- you wouldn't be so promiscuous if you weren't fairly trusting of others, and when you trust no one you won't take on many partners. Girls seeking out close friendships with boys is a subset of this. Only during violent and promiscuous times do boys and girls form tight bonds. And it affects female psychology -- if she is to be more promiscuous in her behavior, she must be capable of falling head over heels more easily, which puts her in a more romantic and boy-crazy mindset. On planet Earth, the alternative to this is not cool-headed rationality, which will never be common among females, but the cold-hearted mercenary use of her sexuality a la the femme fatales of film noir or the butt-kicking babes of the '90s and 2000s.

A greater chance of being cheated on, or dumped before cheating begins, and the greater costs this implies for heartbreak and for monitoring your girlfriend -- that's just the price you have to pay in order to enjoy the larger benefits in a rising-crime world, part of which is that girls will be more sexually curious and solicitous, more eager to hang out with the boys, more boy-crazy psychologically, and overall just more fun to be around.

November 9, 2010

What does it take for societies to make cool chicks?

Steve Sailer has a post up about what traits creative women tend to have, like whether they tend to be outsiders or more well connected. From the major figures he listed, along with ones that spring to my mind, the most noticeable thing they share is that they did their work during times when the violence rate was shooting up.

Recall from earlier posts that there are four eras of soaring homicide rates apparently across all of Western Europe: the 14th C., ca. 1580 to 1630, ca. 1780 to 1830, and ca. 1960 to 1990. In the US we also had a crime wave that began around 1900, maybe a bit before, and lasted until 1933. That one shows up in some European countries too.

There’s clearly a trend over the centuries of greater female creative output – they were nowhere to be seen during the first two major crime waves, aside from Gentileschi who worked during the wave that peaked around 1600. The next one, though, during the Romantic and Gothic era, sees women coming out of the woodwork. Some are pioneers in the new schools (Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe), while others are more (neo-)classical (Kauffman, Vigee Le Brun) or skeptical of passionate youth movements (Jane Austen).

During the Victorian period, though, they go back into hiding. There’s Wuthering Heights, itself set during the Romantic era, but not nearly as much as before. Once the 1890 or 1900 to 1933 crime wave takes off, they come out again – Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, etc. From the mid-‘30s through most of the 1950s, again they most retreat into the domestic sphere.

Once the Sixties kick off, they come out again, although the literary culture isn’t as prominent as it was before (still there’s Mary Higgins Clark, Joyce Carol Oates, and others), so now they show up more in pop music, the dominant cultural expressive form of that time. That includes the R&B girl groups of the 1960s (the Ronettes), the disco and hard rock groups of the ‘70s (Sister Sledge, Pat Benatar), and electronic/dance and rock of the 1980s (Madonna, the Bangles).

Since the crime rate began falling around 1992, however, girls have gone back into hiding. Some are still making pop music, it’s just not any good. Similarly, I’m sure there were female writers during the pre-Romantic part of the 18th C. and the Victorian period, but their work isn’t as enduring as that made during rising-crime times.

There’s a dearth of female movie directors no matter what time period, but spellbinding actresses fit this pattern too. I know some guys like the cold, bitchy type from film noir, which flourished only in falling-crime times, but not most guys. (The present-day counterpart is the butt-kicking babe of the post-1992 period.) The real sex symbols and girls you’d love to hang out with were most likely from the Roaring Twenties and the ‘60s through the ‘80s.

Getting even more general, it’s not just artistic creativity or skill as an interpreter of someone else’s creation – it’s an overall aura of coolness that girls get more of when times get more violent, and an overall cloud of boringness that hangs over them when times get safer.

Why is this? First, when the world gets more dangerous, girls start to socialize a lot more with guys, partly to have more protection from harm. And guys are more exciting than girls. Rarely is a girl the life of the party, the one egging people into thrills rather than being a wet blanket, and so on. Thus, by hanging out more with guys, girls in violent times absorb some of their wildness through osmosis and get a taste for it themselves. Who’s going to initiate a girl into punk rock or foreign movies? – not another girl, but some guy whose life revolves around having fun.

Plus there’s always more competition within sexes than between, so even if she could find a girl knowledgeable enough to make a good guide, she’d have to worry about her misleading her and sabotaging her, so as to not be replaced on the totem pole of coolness. Guys and girls stand on separate totem poles, so that’s no problem with a male guide.

Second and more importantly, when the world looks like it’s going to blow itself up, and that order is already breaking down, girls (and guys) are going to discount the future a lot more. In particular, they’re going to care less about the punishment that other girls (or guys) would inflict on them for acting wild. They’re more in the mindset of “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation.” Normally this conformist fear of being looked at like a weirdo paralyzes an otherwise creative and fun girl from living out her potential as a cool chick.

But as we see with the higher rate of promiscuity during dangerous times, girls act with a lot less worry about how The Group is going to judge her. Hell, by the time that ostracism, persecution, or punishment would come around, she could well be dead by then anyway. When the world gets a lot safer, however, she expects to live a lot longer and is more certain of that. With no unpredictability or volatility to make her discount the far future, she can’t help but dwell on how every little choice will impact her reputation decades and decades from today. And because the primary basis on which females ostracize or punish other females is “standing out” or “being weird,” she will become more conformist and dull.

It is a mistake to look at the film noir women and today’s butt-kicking babes and see liberated, rebellious women with no regard for their reputation. Rather, they represent the default state of women – frigid, catty toward females and bossy toward males, preferring small and behaved groups to large and rambunctious ones, and mercenary in the use of their own sexuality. That is exactly the type you’d expect to succeed in the crucible of the tiny middle school clique or the cult of domesticity.

A truly liberated and rebellious personality in females shows up as having a general warmth toward others, at least tolerating the presence of other females, wanting the guy to control things (whether being swept off her feet during courtship or having a guy friend be her guide into the exciting areas of life), not wanting to be alone and constantly seeking out large wild groups, and having little control over her own sexuality (that is, being boy-crazy rather than a man-eater).

This is what’s behind the common observation that, compared to teenagers and 20-somethings from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, today’s young females are more like those from the mid-‘30s through the ‘50s – less passion, less exciting to be around, and generally more bitchy and nagging. Totally unlike the teenage honey bunnies who I had as babysitters back when the world still looked like it was all going to fall apart any time now.

November 7, 2010

Criterion Collection 50% off at Barnes & Noble

Last night I picked up Eyes Without a Face for only $15. Looks like the sale is good online too, where the selection is even wider than at your local store (and there's free shipping if you spend $25). Normally I think these versions are overpriced, mostly for snob value, although if they have unique director or actor commentaries, that could make it worth it (not if the commentary is just some film dork regurgitating the bits of psychoanalysis that he was spoon-fed in grad school 30 years ago). But $15 to $20 is just right for good movies that are hard or impossible to get in any other version.

November 6, 2010

Fun-hating geezers intensify the borification of the Bay Area

San Francisco and the surrounding Silicon Valley have or will ban toys in kids meals at fast food restaurants. The reason given is to protect children from being duped into eating foods that are high in calories, fat, and sodium. Back on planet Earth, no human being needs to be plied with the lure of free toys to gorge on calories, fat, and sodium -- yum!

Notice they are not targeting any place that serves up mountains of sugar, like the yoghurt and fruit juice aisle of Whole Foods. (A serving of either has about as much sugar as a candy bar.) No wonder kids have gotten so fat -- they're being told to suck down all the sugar they want, as long as they don't contaminate its purity with nutritious fat and salt.

At the same time, it's not like this ban will affect any actual children, given how devoid of young people the Bay Area is. Once upon a time it used to be overrun with white teenagers and 20-somethings, making it a mecca for thrill-seekers. Now it only attracts graying, childless dorks desperate to prove how sophisticated their tastes are to one another. Boooorrrrrinnnnngggg. God damn, what ever happened to "mellow out, man," "simplify," and "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll"?

Before moving somewhere, make sure to check out its age pyramid to get a feel for how much hormone-borne excitement will be hanging in the air.

November 4, 2010

Generalizing Pascal's wager to all of the supernatural

In none of the presentations of Pascal's Wager have I seen it applied to other entities, concepts, etc. that are found among the world's religions. For example, not believing in god (or not behaving in a way consistent with that belief) is not the same thing as believing in the devil (or acting in accordance with that belief).

Pursuing Pascal's approach seriously, each entity or concept requires its own wager -- the devil, demons capable of possession, and so on. You might be able to group some of these into larger, more catch-all wagers like one about "evil beings that can influence human outcomes here and now as well as in the afterlife." But there will still be a list of wagers, one for each independent cluster of beliefs. The list will be finite and probably not too long -- no more than a dozen clusters, I wouldn't think.

Each wager follows the same logic as the one about god and heaven. If the thing doesn't exist, you're out some finite amount if you believed in it, compared to the person who did not. However, if the thing does exist, the non-believer gets nothing (maybe they are even punished) while you enjoy infinite benefits.

For example, if witches and sorcerers don't exist, then over a lifetime you've used up a certain amount of time, energy, and resources in order to protect yourself from them, to redirect their magic back at them, etc. Since beliefs cost you nothing, this comes down to all the little and large behaviors you work into your life. Adding it all up, it's probably no more than all the nuisances that we go through sorting every recyclable item into this and that category, hauling the bin out to the curb, lugging it back, paying taxes to run the program, the opportunity costs of the machinery, labor, etc., that powers the program, and so on.

We perform these rituals largely without thought or investigation into whether it really has the effect on the world that we believe it does, and that experts tell us it has. So a witch protection routine isn't so burdensome by modern standards.

As for the potential upside if witches do exist, well then the routine could save your life or that of a family member or friend or ally. Aside from overall health status, there's the stuff you own or the resources you depend on, whether plant, animal, or artifact -- they'll be more bountiful and secure if you can keep the witches away. And then there is the greater reproductive success you'll have if witches have a harder time making you infertile, stealing your children, causing abortions, etc. Not to mention the greater sense of happiness or satisfaction that you'll enjoy as a result of all this. Most people couldn't put a finite price on all of these benefits, and when we look at how such benefits would help the person out in Darwinian fitness terms, they do appear, if not infinitely large, then close enough to it, especially compared to the puny potential losses.

If you don't behave in a way that says you believe in witches, then you're going to miss all of that upside -- indeed, since you're so sure they don't exist, you'll be their easiest target and they'll exploit you first, hardest, and for the longest.

It's odd that modern people, even if they don't accept Pascal's wager, at least treat it as a respectable approach when it comes to god and heaven, but would certainly keel over laughing if they heard someone apply it to witches, possession by spirits, divination, etc. In those cases, it would look too backward and primitive, and professing intellectual beliefs is mostly about showing how sophisticated you think you are, so it would be a no-go. Of course, maybe beliefs and behaviors about witches are among the most widely held and practiced across the globe because they're closer to the unknowable truth than are other religious beliefs and acts.

The rationalist skeptic will foolishly object that you don't need to believe in witches to avoid the real harms of those styled as such. They'd say there's a perfectly naturalistic basis for what appear to be acts of witchcraft -- a once-a-century drought is what killed your crops, a newly introduced pathogen is what wiped out your livestock, and it was a sociopathic serial killer who went on a murderous rampage, not a witch acting from afar. A person can avoid these naturalistic sources of danger without having to dress it up in religious garb.

Why is this objection foolish? Because people who are complacent, overly optimistic, and not paranoid enough in one domain of life are that way in all others as well. I mean, c'mon, a once-a-century bust of the housing market couldn't wipe out the global economy! A brand new "killer germ" -- yeah right, how many times have we heard that one before? An epidemic of serial killers -- please, that's just the powers that be trying to stoke your fears in order to brainwash you into obedience and consumption so you won't be a threat to their power.

So, someone who quickly dismisses the probability times the impact of a bizarre event of supernatural origin is also going to dismiss the contribution of a bizarre event of natural origin. They won't perform the same degree of protection from "witches" as the believer in witches, only stripping away the supernatural mumbo-jumbo and replacing it with more rational and naturalistic ideas. They have a domain-general contempt for what they see as unfounded paranoia about the bizarre, no matter the intellectual framework that supports the paranoia.

Again it's not hard to imagine how easily this overly complacent mindset would be weeded out by natural selection. It seems to be on the rise in industrialized countries, but that's not even 10 generations in most of them, thus hardly a proven stable equilibrium. For all we know this super-sanguine sensibility is going to lead us right over a cliff -- ah c'mon, we've taken 1000 steps in this direction so far, how could the next step do us any harm?

November 3, 2010

More on acronyms as a sign of Aspberger's

Somewhat recently I showed how acronyms scarcely existed prior to the 18th or 19th centuries, and that their rise is tied to a shift toward a more autistic or Aspbergery mindset. The examples were from hard and well as soft science. Still, finding them in geeky areas of academia isn't too surprising. But what about where you'd least expect them? That shows just how autistic people become as they genetically and culturally adapt to modern life.

Within English and folklore studies, there's the viral acronym FOAF -- "friend of a friend" tale, meaning who the supposed source of some urban legend is. These people are arts and humanities types, not the ones who are supposed to be dorks.

Then there are the even fluffier fields like queer studies, women's studies, etc. There and within related activist groups, there's some permutation of the widely used acronym LGBTQ (that was the form I remember among the "theory" people and activists at Brown), standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender(ed?), Queer. "Gay and lesbian" or "homosexual" or whatever just won't do -- an acronym must be coined!

Weird sexual preferences even among straight guys are also littered with acronyms, which you can look up on your own: BDSM, CBT, CFNM, and the most mellifluous YKIOK,IJNMK. Not being a porn hound, each time I tune in there are at least one or two new genres with cryptic acronyms as names since that last time. You can bet that these genres have a nerdier-than-average fan base. This isn't an academic field at all -- just porn. Earlier I mentioned the alphabet soup of terms found among PUAs.

Video games also show lots of acronyms, even though they aren't inherently geeky -- they're just toys or games. But the ones that appeal most to the Aspbergery mind are full of them -- RPG, MMORPG, LARP (not a video game, but related), and terms like MP, HP, XP, NPC, etc., not to mention the names of their favorite games. Hardly anyone refers to SMB (although that term does exist; just not popular) for the Super Mario Bros. games, or DD for games in the Double Dragon series, and so on. Yet just about every role-playing game is referred to by fans in acronym form: FF, BoF, CT, SoM, etc. And while role-playing game terms are only referred to by acronyms (XP, NPC, etc.), no one does this for platforming games like Mario Bros. -- "one-hit death" is not called 1HD or OHD, "mini-bosses" are not called MBs, and so on.

Every group wants to make shibboleths to distinguish in-group from out-group members. But in a pre-modern world, people were creative enough to coin whole new words ("transubstantiation") or evocative phrases ("Sturm und Drang"). With the shift toward autism and lower creativity, no effort is made to endow today's jargon with any charm -- just begin with the most straightforward and anodyne description of something, then turn it into an acronym (like "U.F.O." or "IS/LM"). And as the above examples show, it's not just the inherently geeky areas of life that are being colonized by acronyms -- games played for fun, sexuality, and the arts and humanities are also under attack. This has less to do with the essential qualities of the domain in question and more to do with the people whose desires are reflected therein.

No one dresses up as characters made in low-crime times

Recently I showed that the most enduring characters from new mythological sources (such as comic books, video games, horror movies, etc.) have come from periods when the violence level was shooting up. The public wants a role model to emulate when the world looks like it's about to blow up, so we get better quality heroes. They also want a clearer picture of who's fucking things up, not just a vague sense that there are more bad guys than before, so we get better quality villains and scapegoats.

Even outside the "heroes against villains" framework, the entire culture is just more exciting when times are more violent, so characters that don't fit as good guys or bad guys will also endure longer if they were created in high-crime times.

Sure enough, over the four days or so that I saw people dressing up for Halloween weekend, there was hardly anyone imitating a character created since the 1992 peak in the crime rate. I saw some of the Scream masks for sale, so someone must be buying them, but it wasn't common enough for me to see anyone wearing them in real life. Hell, I saw more adolescents dressed up as Waldo from the late '80s kids books than I saw Scream masks. I did see a girl dressed up as a Pokemon character at a dance club on Saturday, though. And maybe some of the littler kids are dressing up as someone from the Toy Story or Harry Potter movies (though none that I saw).

But for the most part, all of the big characters created over the past 18 years haven't lasted. No more Power Rangers, Darth Maul, or anyone from those dopey Saw movies or Halo video games. Yet they're still dressing up as Transformers, Darth Vader and slave Leia, Freddy Kruger, and characters from the Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda video games, all created 20 to 35 years ago. Then there's Spiderman, Iron Man, etc., who were created in the early-mid 1960s.

Moreover, there's hardly anyone from the previous falling-crime era of 1934 to 1958. No Creature from the Black Lagoon, that robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Howdy Doody. Go back to the previous rising-crime era of at least 1900 to 1933, though, and you find them still being imitated today -- especially Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy. These characters are older, but the particular way that we imagine them and dress up like them today dates back to their portrayals during the 1920s and early '30s.

There are also popular costumes for gangsters and flappers from the Roaring Twenties, hippie chicks and disco dancers, and punks and metalheads. At the supermarket I saw a 4 year-old boy dressed up like one of the guys from KISS. Yet there are no popular costumes for big band, bobby soxers, or beatniks.

Taken together, these patterns show that the popularity of certain older icons is not due to nostalgia but to their being higher quality. If it were nostalgia, then everything in the past would be carried on -- yet it's only the exciting stuff from high-crime times in the past that survives, while the boring stuff made during low-crime times in the past fades away.

November 1, 2010

How many trick-or-treaters?

Jesus, what a pathetic showing. Saturday it rained hard late afternoon and early evening, so that explains why we didn't get any then. But we didn't get any at night either, despite it being Saturday night with no school the next day. Tonight we got exactly one, a little girl, or maybe two if you count her 2 year-old brother being escorted via stroller by their parents. How castrated has this society become when a kindergarten girl has more guts than males of any trick-or-treating age?

I even got somewhat dressed up and waited for them outside, so it's not as though there were a lot of them who for some reason didn't approach our house. I only saw one trick-or-treater making the rounds on the other side of the street, and again it was a tiny little girl. Hey Millennial boys -- grab your sack and go trolling for some candy. You might become a man yet, but not the way things have been going.

At least I brought a book and got some reading done. I sat out there from 7 to 8:30 and retired after that; no one knocked after I headed inside.

You know, I didn't even see any teenagers out pressing their luck to get some free sweets, let alone egging the houses of their enemies from school, let alone toilet-papering anyone's house. I know they wear costumes and go to parties, but being huddled around a game of beer pong, with everyone but the two players being bored out of their minds, is no replacement for the thrill of "TP-ing" or "wrapping" someone's house, as they used to say back when adolescents still acted wild.

I got all pumped up a couple weeks ago when I heard a toddler in the row behind me on a plane reciting the classic "Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat," despite his mom telling him to stop. Elsewhere on this blog I've covered the theme of children not knowing most of these subversive and gross-out songs and folklore (like when was the last time you heard 1st graders singing "99 bottles of beer on the wall"?). So I was thankful to hear at least one little booger keeping the tradition alive -- though he did leave out the killer concluding line of "If you don't, I don't care -- I'll pull down your underwear!"

But that (tempered) enthusiasm isn't translating into behavior. I know Halloween's been dying at least since I kept informal track of it while passing out candy in high school (mid-late '90s), but to only see two kids out just blew my mind. And of course both had their parents not just there but literally hovering over their shoulder the whole time, but you take what you can get. I guess their older siblings are too shackled to their Xbox 360 or Facebook chat window to escort their little brothers and sisters, a truly disgusting abdication of the "cool older brother/sister" role. (That was still going as of 1995, judging from the Halloween episode of My So-Called Life.) Is that what the anti-addiction ads of 2020 will look like? -- a parent discovers that his son is a loser who makes video games a part-time job, only to be told "I learned it from watching YOU, Dad!"

Both families were blue-collar, by the way. I can't begin to imagine how dead trick-or-treating must be in lacrosse-and-SAT-tutoring neighborhoods. Working-class parents know that their kids will face a more dangerous world, so they don't try to insulate them as much while they're growing up -- they've got to learn a certain amount of toughness. Although hovering, the little girl's parents didn't fetch the candy for her -- they at least prodded her to work up the guts to approach a zombie stranger and say "trick or treat."

Since kids these days are so damn coddled, I made sure to give her a little scare and said, "Trick or treat? Hmmm, I don't know which one... have you been bad or good?" I was going to give her two of each candy no matter what she said, either rewarding her for not blowing society up or for having some rambunctious fun every once in awhile. The point was just to throw her a curveball and show her that the social real world isn't so simple to navigate. Yeah yeah, I know, like she'll really turn out different, but you never know, and I'm certainly not going to be part of the wussification problem.

So many people whine about "the commercialization of ____" -- Halloween, Christmas, etc. -- but I'll take that any day. At least it shows that most people still care about it, or else the sellers' pleading would fall on deaf ears. Cynical hack moralists love taking this route, especially in the form of documentary movies, but as usual they're clueless. In popular culture, the portrayal that's closest to reality is a fantasy -- The Neverending Story, where cultures are swallowed up by their own apathy, by the Nothing. The Grinches and Scrooges can only sink a holiday when its one-time celebraters have stopped giving a shit about it anymore.