December 31, 2011

Nudity and MPAA ratings of top 10 movies at box office, 1969 - 2011

This is an update to a similar post that went up through 2009, now including the past two years.

Among the 10 highest-grossing movies released in a given year, here is the number of them that show at least partial nudity, according to the parental advisory section of their IMDb entries:


The last two years continue the trend since 1989 of showing hardly anything. The median and mode for this period are still 1, and the average 0.9, compared to 1969-1988 when the median and mode were 4 and the average 3.7. What jumps out most when watching movies from the good ol' days is how much T&A there was.

Even fans of those movies may call the nudity level "superfluous," i.e. they didn't need to show so much for the movie to work. But that is one of those "all else equal" situations that does not happen in reality. There aren't two independent dials, one for nudity and another for all the other good stuff. There's a general dial for seizing the audience's attention rather than putting them to sleep. When you dial down nudity, you must do it by dialing down that general knob, so the other good stuff disappears along with it.

Showing some flesh is just one piece that contributes to the audience's physiological state of arousal, helping to ease them out of their self-consciousness so they can get fully absorbed in the movie. It turns on your sympathetic nervous system, the one for "fight, flight, fright, and fucking." So they tended to use it when the movie tapped into those other feelings, such as action and horror movies, as well as anarchic and screwball comedies, but not so much for romantic comedies.

Moving on to ratings:


Again the past two years are just more of the same: most are PG-13, then PG, 1 or 2 are G, and there may or may not be an R. For a long time lots of commentators said that Hollywood was making too many R-rated movies, leaving money on the table that people would've paid to see movies with less sex, violence, and profanity. Along with the rest of the culture, that all turned around during the '90s and through today. So there probably was not a lot of unmet demand in the good ol' days, but rather that the society's tastes underwent a drastic change, opening up a vast new market for boring, inoffensive kiddie movies.

As with "superfluous" nudity, be careful what you wish for. People warned about how common R-rated movies used to be, but what has been the real-world alternative? -- grown-ups flocking to movies that even a 7 year-old would have found immature back in the day, and often eagerly! How pathetic is it that college students get dressed up for a new Harry Potter movie? At any age past 11 or 12, that would have invited merciless shaming, although most people would never have had the inclination in the first place. Now we have people 10 years past puberty who get excited over toddler stuff. It's better to grow up a little too fast than a little to slow.

December 29, 2011

When did New Year's get so competitive?

My hunch is that it was sometime in the early-mid 1990s, during the shift in the entire zeitgeist.

Halloween changed from a carnival holiday for children, testing and proving the strength of guest-host relations within the community, to a one-upsmanship contest among grown-ups to see whose costume is the most ironic, clever, and effortful, or which female can whore for the most attention while giving away the least interaction to get it.

The Fourth of July used to be a display of patriotism, at least of neighborhood unity (e.g., block parties), but now is Nuclear Family BBQ Day. Trust has collapsed so low that only the closest blood relatives are allowed into the circle.

Christmas used to focus on the supernatural and gift-giving. Now the focus has shifted from Christmas to Black Friday, a purely materialistic orgy of self-indulgence -- buying stuff for yourself at deals that only come once a year.

New Year's I don't remember being a big holiday in the '80s. I was too young to go out nightclubbing or anything, but I still would have noticed my parents and others getting psychotic about it, if that had been common. It seemed like a lower-key version of Halloween, for grown-ups, where the point was just to get out and join the revelry of the crowd. Also, to make a New Year's Resolution, which was for the benefit of others -- being kinder, losing weight (which most do out of shame, not for personal health benefits), spending more time with friends and family, etc.

Now New Year's has become It's All About Me Day. My brothers and I were trying to figure out what we're going to do for it, and it's nuts how status-conscious all of the options are, how expensive, and inevitably how boring. Pay $175 for an evening of tapas, wine, and competing against the other customers to see who can use the most authentic Castilian accent when ordering. Or $90 for some lame DJ in a yuppie / hipster part of town. No matter what it is and how much it costs, it's now very important that people know What You're Doing for New Year's. It broadcasts a signal about who you are, one that everyone else just has to know, just like your clever Halloween costume.

Things have been heading in this direction for awhile, although the heights they've reached by now are still perplexing. What ever happened to rounding up some friends in a car, getting drunk in public -- a park, a city street, or wherever -- and singing and carousing with whoever else happened to also be there? Not like it's vanished, but it's moved toward a self-congratulating holiday. And not only for SWPLs as I may have suggested above, but including folks who will enjoy bragging about "poppin' bottles," etc.

People don't seem to take their New Year's resolutions seriously anymore either. Maybe they don't make them at all, or give little thought, or from the outset don't intend to give them much effort during the new year. It would ruin the feel of "look at how unique and exclusive my plans are" surrounding this Self-Esteem / Statement of My Identity Day.

The charitable mob

I might write this up in broader terms later with pointers to some social psychology studies, but I just got back from a long series of family gatherings and don't have the state of mind to focus too much.

The standard story in psychology about "deindividuation" -- losing yourself in the crowd-feeling, no longer very aware of yourself as a cut-off individual -- is that it leads to all kinds of harmful activities. When the mob gets together, accountability is diffused over the entire group, so no one feels so responsible themselves, they're in a state of physiological arousal and thus pumped up to do something big, plus they're so group-minded that they are less able to monitor themselves internally and regulate their individual behavior within acceptable norms. Hence all of the spur-of-the-moment violence that mobs are capable of.

However, losing your self-consciousness lets you step outside of your normal boundaries not only in the anti-social but also the pro-social direction. Normally we might be penny-pinchers when it comes to charity, when suddenly we become absorbed in the crowd at church services and give much more liberally to the collection plate than we would in our normal state of mind. Especially if someone else has already gotten the ball rolling, and we're just going with the flow of the group.

It's no surprise, then, that fund-raisers try to create a carnivalesque kind of atmosphere: dim or dark lighting, seating people near each other and facing each other in groups, working them into arousal with catchy music and humor, and encouraging them to dress similarly rather than compete against each other in dress styles. Getting them drunk helps too.

The other place I found it easy to donate -- as in, no one needed to ask or pressure me (as they do at the supermarket check-out, or at Wikipedia) -- was at a diner after we'd eaten and went up to the cashier to pay the bill. Get the customers worked up into that self-unaware state of mind as they shoot the shit and laugh it up during their meal, and place a collection jar near the cashier.

Are the donors being exploited by fund-raisers, or at least "nudged" paternalistically by the collectors? Here and there maybe, but on the whole they must realize that in those situations they tend to give more than they normally would -- they may even express surprise to themselves after leaving the crowd and coming back down to normal life. Purposefully or not, they must be seeking out opportunities to donate more, or donate at all, where they won't have to self-consciously reflect on whether or not to give, what the consequences would be, and so on.

They want to shut up their inner Scrooge for awhile, and only losing themselves in the crowd can do that. If this loss of self-monitoring and self-regulation lasted forever, they'd "splurge" on charity all day every day and ruin themselves, but we're only talking occasionally here.

The crowdophobes only focus on the harm that impulsive mobs can carry out, neglecting the far more frequent and substantial altruism that comes from such an atmosphere. In the real world, outside of lab experiments, for every mob that torches a car, there are dozens that gather in church and provide mutual aid of one form or another. We just have to get used to taking the bad with the good in encouraging more activities where people lose themselves in the crowd. The alternative is to a high level of self-consciousness, which will keep us from getting whipped up into a violent mob, but will also keep us from working ourselves up into a hand-lending mob too.

December 16, 2011

Other recent rising-crime societies, and their sociability

When people see their world getting more dangerous, they feel a stronger impulse to seek out and provide mutual aid, specifically in a face-to-face way rather than by relying on distant, abstract institutions. In the middle of a crime wave, such institutions don't seem to be very good at their most basic job of ensuring physical security, so people withdraw their faith in technocracy.

By pursuing a more face-to-face solution to the problem of community security, such as getting to know your neighbors, they must shift their mindset from one of "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone" to "approach others and be open to others approaching you." So they are not only more gregarious and affable but also more inviting and socially open.

The Western world used to be like that in the '60s through the '80s, but since the peak of the violent crime rate in the early-mid 1990s has returned to cocooning behavior and a "look but don't touch" mindset. It sure would be nice for people who miss the old social world to have some place they could turn to. We already saw that South Korea has had a rising crime rate for at least 15 years, and sure enough they seem to be more outgoing and chill than their Northeast Asian neighbors. Still I find them too culturally dissimilar to join up with them, although others may feel at home with them.

Looking back at my college years, when you crave more social interaction, and when at the time America had been in social decline for about 10 years, certain groups of foreign students stand out as being much easier to make friends with, and seeking out more interactions. Not surprisingly it turns out they all came from countries whose crime rate had not peaked in the early '90s, and in some cases kept soaring even after we graduated. And again their neighboring countries that saw a crime decline during the '90s and 2000s like we did, were not as remarkably social.

The interactions that I wanted most in college were with girls, so that's what stands out in memory. I'm sure males would have shown a similar pattern, but my mind was elsewhere back then.

The first country was Turkey, whose homicide rate didn't peak until 2000 (the two lines are from different sources, but both show that it didn't peak in the early '90s):


Everyone agreed how beautiful Turkish girls were, but then they also said the same thing about the Greek girls. And yet it was the Turkish babes who drove everyone crazy. I probably speak for the other guys in pointing to the Turkish girls' more sociable personalities and behavior. They smiled, giggled, and laughed a lot more than the Greeks, who seemed more aloof and sometimes even stuck-up -- perhaps no more so than American girls at the time, but still in contrast to their southern neighbors. And Greece's crime rate was falling through the '90s like ours was.

Turkish girls also stood or sat closer to you, and in general were more touchy-feely. A Turkish friend from work was into the goth scene, but she was really more of a reincarnation of the '80s goth who smiled, went out dancing, and had a Romantic rather than nihilistic streak.

Unfortunately the graph above suggests that college-aged Turks today are less outgoing than they used to be 10 years ago, however they may compare to other Western places today. So they may not be the best place to look to anymore. They did seem very similar to other European groups culturally, although most of them were secular educated elites from Istanbul, with a handful from Ankara and Izmir (if I remember correctly).

The other places whose people stand out in more recent times are all in South America (all below are murder rates per 100K):


Brazil's crime rate has been increasing for longer than shown, I think since the '60s or even the '50s, after being flat or falling sometime before. We tend to think of Brazilian culture as being inherently, well, carnivalesque, but I wonder whether that view only arose when Brazil's crime rate was soaring. I don't think we noticed Brazil that much before the '60s, when Astrud Gilberto's voice became familiar. There was a vogue in American pop music of the 1940s to refer to the Caribbean or maybe Mexico, but Brazil didn't seem to fascinate them back then. Probably their crime rate was flat or falling, making them more Apollonian -- by Brazilian standards anyway.

Like the Turks, the Brazilian girls in college were universally certified as hot stuff, no doubt about it. Still, there were other places that produced similarly good-looking Latin Mediterranean beauties, like Mexico. (As foreign students they got no financial aid, so all were rich, and hence of European stock if they were from Latin America.) But Mexico's crime rate has been falling since the early '90s, so they were unlikely to produce people with magnetic personalities.

Brazilian girls were just the opposite, almost entirely lacking in self-consciousness. I remember how they always looked like they were in a dream-like state. (If their folk religion is any guide, Brazilians must find it easier to enter a trance.) As with the Turkish chicks, even the best-looking Brazilians didn't think they were above socializing with normal people. Not just tolerating them, but actively seeking out interactions with just about anybody, because you never know who you'll need to count on to have your back in dangerous times. (And also people are more promiscuous in rising-crime times.)

Unfortunately again, it looks like Brazil's carnivalesque heyday is over. Their crime rate has been falling (a lot) since the mid-2000s. Just wait, in 20 years we'll be saying that we remember back when Brazil used to be famous for its wild culture, social connectedness, and intense patriotism.

Probably the most out-of-my-league date I've ever been on was with a Spanish-descended Ecuadorean who looked and carried herself like Audrey Hepburn would have at age 20. God, I'm ashamed to admit that before I knew any better, I actually wrote her a poem when I asked her out. I doubt she counted that as a plus, but she was forgiving enough to overlook it -- like, why let that get in the way of meeting a new boy? You never know.

As far as first dates go, I've never felt more emotionally absorbed before or since. (I mean social emotions, not the rush you feel if a first date whirlwinds into the bedroom.) I don't even remember what we talked about for those 2 or 3 hours. For most of it our sense of self-awareness had been shut off, allowing the flow of conversation to meander wherever. And having zoned out into a sub-trance state of possession, we didn't even notice all the times we kept reaching out to touch each other, play footsie under the table, and so on. The only thing that woke us up from the dream-vibe was when a worker at the coffee house politely notified us that they'd been closed for 15 minutes, and could we please leave now.

After that I thought dating her would be a fairly safe bet, but she must have wanted an even closer click on the first date. What seemed intense by the standards of America in the early 2000s must have seemed only above-average for Ecuador in that time. I dwell on this example because even landing the date never should have happened. I wasn't chopped liver, but I didn't get lots of attention from girls until senior year of college and later. But in this case it was with a girl who came from the right place and the right time.

There was another Ecuadorean girl who I worked with, and she too was a free spirit overflowing with smiles. Not like a neo-hippie, whose free-spiritedness is a self-conscious affectation, and also not like the more bouncy and super-extraverted Brazilian free spirits. More like nonchalant. The crime graph says that you might still be able to find girls like that there.

I never ran into any Colombians in college, but I include that graph since it's another major exception, with murder rates only turning steadily downward by the mid-2000s. It's probably no accident that the pop sensation throughout Latin America in the 1990s, who then crossed over to North America and beyond by 2000, was the product of a rising-crime period. Shakira's persona would have been a sight for sore eyes, had Americans known about her in the '90s -- vulnerable but not weepy, tender but not sappy, assertive without being bitchy, fun-loving but not slutty or attention-whoring, and so on.

If she had been in California in the '80s, she would've fit right in as a new member of The Bangles or The Go-Go's. But the music backing up Shakira's voice was run-of-the-mill '90s pop and alternative, so even her earlier songs don't reach pop music greatness.

As a result of the civil war in Colombia, and overall crime rate, many have poured into America, including a good number of the white elite. Even the first-generation ones raised in America, if they still have some regular contact with their homeland, seem far more Gothic-Romantic in temperament than, say, Mexicans, who are more complacent and inert. The wife of a friend of my brother's came straight from Colombia a few years ago, and she seemed almost Brazilian in that trancey, flirty way. There were several first-generation Colombian girls at the tutoring center I worked at (all of whom were white), and they seemed about halfway between Brazilians and today's Americans. Kind of like '80s chicks in America. Very boy-crazy!

But I was around them last in 2007, and the graph says that Colombian girls are probably moving away from where they were as late as 2002 or 2003. Fans blame Shakira's decline in musical quality on her leaving Colombia and crossing over in America, but that was also about the same time that they entered a falling-crime period, which halts or reverses the trends in music from the rising-crime period before.

To wrap up, Turkey is clearly in a falling-crime period, and so is probably not churning out hyper-social babes like they were 10 years ago. Brazil and Colombia have somewhat recently entered falling-crime periods, although I don't think the societies have completely switched into complacent/cocooning mode just yet -- give it a few decades. So there's still probably a good number of approach-driven and approachable girls there. My best bet, though, for where to find a girl who's care-free and charming is white Ecuadoreans. Given how infrequently you'll meet them, though, you might as well seek out Brazilians and Colombians, bearing in mind that they're slowly moving away from the (true) stereotype that we've held about them.

December 14, 2011

Do males or females have more intense relationships?

In a recent podcast on sex differences, psychologist Roy Baumeister mentions that men and women feel lonely for different reasons. Men feel a greater desire to belong to large, broad groups, and they therefore feel less socially satisfied when community life starts to evaporate. Women are not as alienated because they prefer fewer but closer friends, and you don't need a rich, extensive community environment to meet those goals.

This is one example of the pattern where males are thought to prefer more social relationships that are shallower in depth, while females are thought to prefer fewer but deeper connections. Baumeister reviews some of this in a talk on sex differences in sociality.

I used to believe that too, but changed my mind when I took a longer-term view of community life. The current idea is that a person has a fixed amount of time, energy, emotion, etc. to invest in social relationships. They can spread that out broadly across a lot of individuals (the supposedly shallow male connections), or concentrate it into a few (the supposedly intimate female connections). Within a given day, that does seem true: females don't interact with as many other people, but they spend a lot more time, and invest more emotionally, per individual that they do interact with.

But this view only looks at how diffuse or concentrated our social investment is across individuals. We could just as well look at how diffuse or concentrated the investment is over time. Sure, on a typical day a guy has fairly shallow connections to the people in his network -- but then look at how intensely they get each other pumped up on the weekend, for seasonal celebrations, annual rituals, undergoing rites of passage in groups rather than as individuals, going off to war (literally or figuratively), and so on.

So, men also concentrate their social investment into really intense relationships, but they concentrate it into fewer time periods rather than into fewer individuals like women do. And women also have a shallow aspect to their relationships -- they are shallow across time, rarely involving a short intense burst of team-work or working each other up into a frenzy that bonds them together for weeks, months, or years afterward. Their bonding activities are lower in intensity, like discussing how their day went, giving each other complements, making each other look prettier, helping each other solve their mundane problems, and so on.

Are these just two equal-valued points on a trade-off? That is, perhaps you could concentrate your social investment into a few intense time periods (males) or into a few close daily friends (females), but over the long term you would feel equally socially connected?

I don't think so. The male pattern produces bonds that can last a lifetime -- if you're a guy, you can contact any of your old friends or team-mates at any later point, and assuming you didn't have a disastrous falling-out, you can pick up almost right where you left off, and still feel like you've got each other's back. Girls tend not to stay close with even their supposedly more intimate friends for more than a few years. They have a very high turnover rate for friendships, and over the long term wind up more burned-out than satisfied socially. You only see this if you zoom out to the year or decade, beyond the day or week.

So when two best friends from high school meet up again 20 years later, they don't immediately get right back on the same intense wavelength, like when they were gossip buddies as teenagers. Not that they hate each other (though that too is more likely than among males), just that their spirits have come unglued, and they interact with each other like they would any other acquaintance. The guys 20 years later are still patting each other on the back, bumping chests, giving their secret handshakes, and splitting their sides laughing about their wild times together. Although it wouldn't be exactly as intense as it used to be, they could still go out to a bar or some other old haunt and have fun with a group they still felt they belonged to.

This is probably why men control just about any society whose scale is above that of hunter-gatherers, where the sexes are about equally powerful. The idea that they could accomplish that by relying on shallow relationships seems counter-intuitive at best, even silly if you stop and think about it. There must be some other way in which our relationships are more intense, and it is that they are more concentrated with respect to time rather than individuals.

These sporadic rituals are more saturated with the feeling of collective effervescence, communitas, or whatever you want to call it, compared to the daily private conversations of two BFFs. No pair or group of girls ever came away from a conversation feeling like guys do after playing a team sport, performing in a band, returning from the battlefield, or even being part of the audience of these performances. And far from being passive spectators, the mob in a sports stadium, the crowd at a concert or dance club, and the cheerleaders of war work themselves up into almost as great of a frenzy as those performing.

The key point here is to take a longer time horizon when looking at how deep or shallow people's social relationships are. When you pick a random time at a random day and see guys sitting around on the couch barely talking to each other, communicating more through a repertoire of grunts, you might be fooled into thinking that they had "many but shallow" relationships. To see their greater sociality, you'd have to hang around long enough to see them march off to the football stadium once a month to contribute to and feel nourished by the total heartbeat of the crowd.

Long vs. short shorts and low vs. high trust

It remains an unsolved mystery what possessed men to wear such short shorts during the '60s through the '80s, so let's take a crack at it. I'm focusing on men because it was a much more extreme departure from the norm, and because it didn't have to do with trying to look sexy. So it requires a more thoughtful answer.

From the timing of its rise and fall, it looks like it's tied to the trend in the violent crime rate and all the other things that are associated with it as well. But which ones? I think it's trust, but let's look at the pattern of its rise and fall first.

Unfortunately the climate was much colder during earlier major waves of violence, so we can't go back that far to examine the possible link. Men didn't wear any kind of shorts in the Elizabethan-Jacobean or Romantic-Gothic waves because they were still in the Little Ice Age. So we'll look just at the 1950s through today.

Men's shorts were knee-length in the '50s:


Even though that was a time of falling crime, the first hint of short shorts began around 1956, and a year or so later there had been several pop songs referring to them. ("Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts!") Although they were talking about girls wearing them, there's usually a close fit between male and female fashions for how much skin is shown. So men were probably wearing somewhat shorter shorts by the mid-late 1950s as well. Because the crime rate doesn't start rising until 1959, it looks like shorter shorts slightly precede the crime wave. I don't mean they existed at all, but that they were widespread, unlike say the Beatniks who also prefigured some of the '60s culture but were totally marginal in the '50s.

Of course short shorts only exploded in popularity during the '60s, '70s, and '80s:


When did they vanish? I looked at a class picture from spring 1990, and both boys and girls are still wearing fairly short shorts, though not quite as bare as dolphin shorts. However, the class picture from 1992 shows almost everyone with shorts that hit the top of the knee, boys and girls both. That was elementary school, but here are what the teenagers were wearing in the early '90s:


Because the crime rate peaks in 1992, it looks like they had already been in sharp decline for several years before falling-crime times began to set in.

Shorts only got longer and baggier throughout the '90s, and by the 2000s every guy was wearing some version of cargo shorts, baggy jean shorts, or even the occasional closeted faggot who wore capri pants. (These were re-named "man-pri" pants in yet another case of emasculated behavior being labeled "man ___" in a poor attempt to conceal its blatant homosexuality.)


The only thing I've seen that overlaps the crime rate trends, but beginning to move up or down slightly before the crime rate does, is trust levels. That would seem to be what guys' wearing short shorts is about then. It's not about their more promiscuous mating strategy during rising-crime times, because that would've gotten started only in the '60s and lasted through the early '90s. Plus girls don't care what your legs look like anyway; to the extent that they do look you over, it's your face, upper body, and butt.

Trust levels go hand-in-hand with cocooning: low trust is just the description at the psychological level, while cocooning describes the actual behavior. So I see wearing short shorts as part of the larger trend toward leaving your own isolated cell in the hive, putting yourself out there, letting your guard down, and trusting others not to put you down or take advantage of you. You've already left your house, but why not also remove some of the remaining physical barriers between you and the outside world -- like clothing? I don't think it's a "return to nature" thing, or a generalized "lose your inhibitions" thing, since those were not underway by the mid-late '50s.

When trust levels peaked in the late '80s, that's about when shorts started getting longer, probably because people had already begun to retreat from public exposure and into their own little worlds again. From the '90s through today, we've come to trust others so little that we don't feel comfortable putting ourselves out there, even in admittedly trivial ways like wearing shorter shorts.

There's something related going on with clothes that are closer to the body vs. more tent-like, again just another aspect of wanting to hide yourself and keep people farther away in public vs. being more carefree because you trust them. I'll write that up another time, but women's dresses became more column-like and less poofy during the Early Modern and Romantic-Gothic waves of violence, also during the Jazz Age, and then skin-tight during the New Wave Age. They bloated out, hiding any hint of her actual figure, during the mid-1500s, the Age of Reason, and the Victorian era, all periods of falling crime. During the mid-20th C and the past 20 years, they haven't returned to quite that degree of circus tent concealment, but they still weren't as clingy as they were in the Jazz Age or New Wave Age.

There are two main camps regarding how fashion responds to larger social trends: one says they aren't related to anything else, and the other that they're related to material subsistence or economic health. Both are wrong. Some fashion trends really do look unconnected to other trends, but a good deal is tracking the trend in the violence rate. I've got more quantitative data going back to the late 1700s, but for now it's probably better to stick with some case studies that are richer in detail so you get a good sense of just how cyclical fashions can be, and in particular matching the cycles in the violence rate.

December 12, 2011

With rising social isolation, why don't people feel more lonely?

Loneliness is a subjective feeling that your actual level of social interaction isn't meeting your desired level. So, you feel more lonely when you raise your desired level higher, or when your actual level falls. And conversely, you feel less lonely when you desire less interaction in the first place, or when your actual level rises.

The trend in people's actual level of social interaction, over the past 20 years, has been steadily downward. I've documented too many case studies to provide links for them all, but let's look at a new case anyway, and one that gets directly to how socially integrated people are.

The General Social Survey asks a question about how many people the respondent has discussed important matters with over the last six months. * This means it's not a superficial relationship, like water cooler chat with your office-mates or conversations with family that are still impersonal. Here is the percent of people who had 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 others who they were close enough to discuss important matters with, in 1985, 1987, and 2004:


The red bar at the bottom of each year shows people with 0 confidants. It was 8.3% in '85, fell a bit to 4.3 in '87, and shot up to 22.6% by 2004. The median American in '85 and '87 had 3 confidants, while their counterpart in 2004 only had 2. In '87 there were also fewer hyper-connected people compared to '85, and that seems to fit with the more carnivalesque zeitgeist of the new wave era earlier in the decade, which had calmed down a bit by the late '80s. Still, the main difference is between the two years from the '80s vs. 2004.

These contrasts between years show up in both sexes, all races, age groups, social classes, and regions of the country. It's not a result of changing racial demographics, which would have stricken the regions with more blacks and Hispanics and left the rest of the country alone. It's not due to there being more elderly people in recent years than when the country was over-run with young people, since it shows up even among 18-29 year-olds. There has instead been a society-wide shift toward much lower levels of actual social interaction.

Isn't it strange, then, that we don't see popular movies that treat the theme of loneliness, such as Taxi Driver or L.A. Story? And what happened to all those hit songs about yearning for more and deeper connections, from Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" through Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone", Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)"?

In fact, when people's actual level of interaction and support was highest in the mid-late '80s, it seemed like every other song was about lonely hearts. Sometimes it was directed toward the supernatural -- "Where's that higher love I keep thinking of?" More likely, though, it was about romantic connection -- "You can't start a fire without a spark / This gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark".

Given how powerfully these songs resonated with people, and also considering how high their actual level of connectedness was, their desired level must have been to encompass the entire nation. And indeed we were much more patriotic back then; it's funny to think that it took until the 1984 Olympics for us to invent the chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" which has since fallen out of use and not been replaced.

This underscores the importance of looking at both components of loneliness, the desired and the actual level of interaction, since someone who didn't know better about how incredibly social people were in the '80s might wrongly assume from all those songs about loneliness that they were socially deprived.

As the violence rate fell after 1992, causing people to feel less of a need to connect with others for mutual support, their actual level of interaction plummeted as shown in the chart. So you might think people since then would have identified even more strongly with songs or movies about loneliness than during the gregarious rising-crime period before. Instead people are content with their existing level of interaction, often bordering on smug and glib.

And it has never been more popular to drip derision and scorn on the call to connect with more people, and at a deeper level. You can just hear Jon Stewart's simpering sarcastic voice: "Oh look at meee, I'm.. going to... reach out to... other... people... [grin]" If anything people subjectively feel the opposite of lonely -- too connected, frazzled, and over-loaded. How can that be, when they barely interact with anyone beyond a superficial level?

It is because their desired level of interaction has fallen off a cliff. Having even one confidant is already grating on their nerves, two is pushing it, and three is asking too much. We see this desire for minimal interaction in their other cocooning behavior as well, like avoiding public spaces, eating dinner in separate rooms or at separate times, and not touching each other with their hands when they pose for pictures or go dancing.

Obviously we do not have survey data on people's actual level of social interaction from the mid-century or other periods of falling crime, but the qualitative picture looks like they were less broadly socially engaged. And like the past 20 years, in other falling-crime periods people looked down their nose at the desire to belong to a broader community. In the eras of Renaissance humanism and the Age of Reason, the cool thing was to espouse cosmopolitanism -- i.e., to bond with no other soul at all.

As the Anglo empires neared their peak, cosmopolitanism was no longer the right way to wall yourself off from your countrymen. In the Victorian era and the mid-20th century, the focus moved more toward locking yourself up in the domestic sphere, not just women who had no life outside the house, but also men who restricted the domain of manliness to the nuclear household -- being the patriarch or good dad, not a pillar of the broader community or a leader / conqueror of some kind.

Now that the Anglo empires have declined from their peak influence, the "leave me alone" strategy is moving back toward cosmopolitanism again, though still mostly about the cult of domesticity, again for males and females alike.

In contrast, it looks like most periods of rising crime had people who were more tightly integrated into a large community, while still burning to belong to an even richer network, whether mundane or supernatural. Shakespeare's sonnets and John Donne's poetry show that from the Elizabethan-Jacobean wave of violence, and the explosion of mystical nationalism across Europe from the Romantic-Gothic wave of violence.

The mechanism seems pretty clear: rising violence causes people to value mutual aid more, so they desire more and deeper social connections. The rise in their actual level follows from that greater desired level, but that's not enough because the violence rate is still going up. During a wave of violence, every year blows a colder wind than the last year, so you always need more people than last year to huddle around with to keep warm.

I don't think people back then always felt lonely, though. It was probably a transient phase for just part of the year. First, raise your desired level of interaction, then feel lonelier as a result, and finally go out and develop those deeper connections you want, alleviating your loneliness. My guess is that people raised their desired level in the late spring or early summer, so that they'd be out and about during summer, when the weather is more conducive for making new friends. Plus if the connection is romantic, you want to raise your goals in time for the start of mating season. I couldn't find out during what month "Dancing with Myself" caught on, but all the other songs I mentioned above were released as singles between May and July.

* The question is called NUMGIVEN.

December 10, 2011

Hover hands, mid-century and today

One of the more striking signs of how disconnected people are today, especially in the boy-girl context, is the hover hand (click for endless hilarious examples):




In a situation where hand-on-body contact should be fine, even called for, the guy wimps out and doesn't touch her. There are degrees of hover-handedness: he might drape his hand over her shoulder, leaving it dangling in the air, or stretch his arm out behind her while not turning his hand in to grip her arm or shoulder at all.

It clearly shows how neutered the average young male is today, but let's not forget the boy-phobia among young females either. If they wanted to be touched, few boys would go against those wishes. But as cocooners, girls get weirded out when touched, particularly by a boy. You see this in the context of dancing too: even if she's giving a guy a standing lapdance, he usually can't touch her with his hands. If he does, she'll either scurry away, or stay but pick his hands off her.

Letting someone touch your body with their hands shows that you trust them enough to make yourself vulnerable around them, and let them into your personal space bubble. Only letting the other person go as far as hover-handing is still keeping your guard up and treating them with suspicion. The commonness of the hover hand therefore tells us how little friendliness there is among people these days, even between boyfriend and girlfriend. It may not be confrontational hostility, but it is still keeping everyone else literally at a distance.

I remember when girls wanted their boyfriends to grab their ass, no matter if it was in public, and when the average person (young or middle-aged) was easy-going enough to put their arm around someone else without worrying whether or not they'd set off an alarm. That was the norm in the '80s (I was too young to have a girlfriend but still saw it among the teenagers), and died off gradually during the '90s. By the 2000s we had a full-blown epidemic of hover hands.

Poking around Google Images for prom pictures from the '70s and '80s, I could only find one or maybe two showing hover hands. And the one case was with the geekiest guy in his school. So back then, it affected maybe the nerdiest 1% of guys, whereas now it's more like 40% who would pussy out if given the opportunity.

Since this seems like just another cocooning behavior, we'd expect to find it during the falling-crime era of the mid-'30s through the late '50s. I didn't do an exhaustive search of the earlier part, when the culture would be in transition, plus they didn't have very frequent or popular proms that far back. But they did in the 1950s. I didn't even search specifically for "hover hand vintage" or "hover hand 50s" -- just "prom 195_" for each year in the decade. As now, it was not exactly the norm, but still I was amazed by how easy it was to find examples.

And remember that these people have no excuse -- they're prom dates. If the guy or girl isn't comfortable with him holding her shoulder, it isn't because it would be inappropriate. It's because they are just plain weirded out by normal physical contact.


Busted! I cannot believe how eerily contemporary that pose looks. along with the frigid and impatient expression on the brunette's face, during what is supposed to be a fun night out.


It's a little hard to see this one, but he's clearly holding his hand away from her skin. His ring and pinky fingers may not be touching at all.


Along with the drive-in culture, the non-trivial level of hover-handing should make us revise our picture of the mid-century. Obviously the people pictured in that post and this one are not at each other's throats, but that's a low standard to set. When you go out to eat, you should be near (even if not right next to) other people. And when you head off to the prom, you should just relax and get close. These hover hand pictures provide further detail of the isolation, unspoken suspicion, and self-consciousness of a period that our revisionist mythology portrays as community-minded and carefree.

December 8, 2011

Uplifting or weepy songs in memory of the dead

After John Lennon was shot, the other former Beatles released two memorial songs, "All Those Years Ago" and "Here Today". Given how close they were to him, how widely worshiped he was across Western societies, and how abruptly and senselessly his life was cut short, you might expect to hear something somber or even grief-stricken. Yet they don't go there. The emotional coloring is mellow, cooling down rather than stoking the fires of their grief, and cheery enough for a celebration of their shared experiences.

By 1997 that approach had evaporated. The rapper Puff Daddy made "I'll Be Missing You" in memory of the Notorious B.I.G., whose murder, along with that of Tupac Shakur, had come to symbolize the west coast / east coast rap feud. The tone has turned toward the morose and nihilistic. Although there are references to heaven and life after death, he doesn't sound convinced at all, and this lack of comforting beliefs probably only amplified his depression. In 2005, Eminem made a similar song called "Like Toy Soldiers" with a similar brooding and fatalistic message.

Lying on separate sides of the rising vs. falling-crime divide, these examples show how effectively people cope with death, even senseless murder. When violence is more familiar, our coping strategies get more practice. That may sound callous -- yay death, for giving our moral fiber more exercise. But we must always ask what the alternative is. Here it is getting little or no such practice during falling-crime times, so that when we ultimately are confronted with the death of a loved one -- which may happen less frequently, but still will happen -- we are blown apart and have trouble moving on with life.

The tendency away from supernatural thinking in falling-crime times only compounds this weakening of our ability to cope. One of the most basic and universal functions of religion is to help us deal with death, both materially (what to do with the body?) and supernaturally (what should we do for the deceased person's spirit?). If we come to not even believe in the persistence of a person's spirit after death, we clearly cannot be comforted with the belief that they're in a better place, and that by doing the right things we can even help them get there and stay happy when they arrive.

In the limbo period of 1991-'92, right as the crime rate is peaking, Eric Clapton composed "Tears In Heaven" in memory of his son who had fallen out of a window. Lying right on the divide between the two eras, it feels a bit like both. It sounds like he really believes in spirits meeting in heaven, although he also sounds drowned in melancholy.

Just after the crime wave began circa 1960, the song "Last Kiss" dealt with the (fictional) pointless death of the singer's girlfriend in a car wreck. As with the songs about John Lennon, the mood is almost upbeat, and the singer pulls himself together so that he can meet up with her again: "She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world." Tellingly, the 1999 cover version by Pearl Jam sounds more tortured, as though he might not be able to get things together to prepare for their would-be reunion.

Probably the greatest memorial song is "Nightshift" by The Commodores (from 1985), about the legendary singers Jackie Wilson, who had died after nine years in a coma, and Marvin Gaye, who had been shot by his own father. Unless they are paying close attention to the lyrics, most people would not even suspect it was a song about two deaths. The tone is not mournful at all, but cool, cheerful, and celebratory. They're certain that Marvin and Jackie are enjoying themselves up in the spirit world, and that by making the song in their honor, they can sustain the bonds of friendship even after one of them has died.



I reject the view that by emphasizing the value or importance of the afterlife, we cheapen the lives of others here and now, like "Well as long as they wind up in a better place, we don't have to worry so much about what happens to them in this world." When during falling-crime times people lose touch with a supernatural worldview, they are also cocooning themselves away from their neighbors, heaping scorn on the rituals that bind a community together (a brainless mob, in their view), and outsourcing the care of people in their social circle to private enterprise or a state bureaucracy, rather than attend to them first-hand (inefficient!). That's the rough picture of the past 20 years, during the mid-20th century, the Victorian era (the world of Ebenezer Scrooge), and the Age of Reason.

In contrast, when during rising-crime times people's minds are moved toward a more supernatural worldview, they are also socializing more with their friends and neighbors, yearning for a brotherhood of folks-like-us, and reaching out to take care of others on their own (e.g., by giving rides to hitch-hikers, passing out candy on Halloween, having schoolchildren visit the elderly at the senior center, and so on).

If anything a world of rising violence teaches people how precious life is, and to get straight to living it while it lasts. The ever safer environment of a falling-crime world tells people to put off living their life because it'll still all be here tomorrow, and just as orderly as it is today. It is they who come to devalue present life compared to some distant future life, albeit not a supernatural one, since a steadily safer world leads them to not discount the future so steeply. We need only look at the brain-in-a-vat Millennials who would rather wither away playing video games than be out around their fellow man, or the Silent Generation who wasted much their youth indoors listening to radio programs, and whose mild misanthropy led to the explosion of drive-in businesses where they wouldn't have to interact with other people.

December 6, 2011

The culture experience -- getting absorbed vs. finding out information

The Western world has become obsessed with NO SPOILERS since sometime in the 1990s.

When exactly? Hard to tell, but there was a 1991 episode of the Simpsons where, in a flashback to 1980, Homer is leaving the theater after seeing The Empire Strikes Back and blabs that Darth Vader is Luke's father, angering the people in line who haven't seen it yet. I'm almost certain that was projecting the mindset of 1991 back onto 1980, since you didn't see any comedy sketches, movies, TV shows, etc., from the 1980s that assumed a NO SPOILERS attitude among the audience.

Then in 1992, The Crying Game derived its popularity from its spoiler-able ending, where a chick is revealed to be a dude. Again you didn't see that in the '80s. In the slasher movie Sleepaway Camp, the killer is a female character who turns out to be a boy. A more popular thriller, Dressed to Kill, also had a transvestite slasher whose identity is revealed in a shocker style ending.

Yet as far as I know, people who liked horror and thriller movies -- basically everyone back then -- didn't throw a temper-tantrum if somehow the ending were leaked to them before seeing or finishing the movie. If that mindset existed at all, it was so uncommon that no one else in the culture referred to it, as The Simpsons did in 1991.

Even video games have become infected by NO SPOILERS. I only rarely play them anymore, but I do keep up roughly on the state of the video game world, and it amazes me how psychotic people are about not learning any plot details.

This is a radical change from even 20 years ago. In Metroid, an incredibly popular game from the late 1980s, you controlled a space hero character hidden under a suit of armor. If you beat the game, the armor came off to reveal a woman, unlike what you'd expected. Most kids did not beat the game, so when they found out, it should have triggered their NO SPOILERS alarm. But back then people were not as autistic as now, so none of the millions of kids who played Metroid curled their toes when they learned what the shocker ending was before finishing the game for themselves.

What is the best way to view this shift? Before, consuming a work of culture was about getting absorbed in some other world -- connecting emotionally with the doomed crew of Alien, feeling transported out of your body at a New Wave dance club, or visually exploring the sublime far-off worlds of Star Wars. Because it was a personal, visceral, and emotional reaction to watching the movie or hearing the song, only the movie or the song itself could give you this desired experience. Others could try to tell you what it felt like, but it never came close to the real thing. Emotional responses cannot be spoiled.

Unlike emotions, communication through language is not an intensely personal experience. Indeed its impersonality and abstractness is what allows us to convey ideas so easily to scores of other people far removed from the topic of conversation. "Kimberly went out on a date with Joey" is not one of those you-had-to-be-there kind of things. It's not perfect, since the "game of telephone" effect will eventually distort the original information. Still, the signal degrades very slowly, unlike with an emotional reaction to a movie, which cannot be shared to even one other person -- they have to see it for themselves.

These days the point of consuming culture is to find out information, the "who did what to whom?" stuff that a journalist would write up for newspaper readers. Is some female character really a male? Does one character betray another? Or maybe sacrifice themselves for another? This propositional information can be effortlessly conveyed from one person to another through language, and so is very easily spoiled.

This shift toward an impersonal and logical relationship with cultural works reminds me of the abstract and conceptual art of the mid-century. That was not art that you had to see for yourself; someone else could tell you the punchline and save you the trouble. I don't mean that you could content yourself with seeing a color print, or a black-and-white copy in a book, vs. seeing the original. I mean you didn't have to see it in any form at all -- "there's a series of stainless steel rectangles sticking out of the wall" or "there's an entirely black canvas" or "there's three American flags stacked on each other".

That was a sharp break with figurative and expressive art from the first several decades of the 20th century, and unlike the return to such styles during the '70s and '80s. Staring at a stainless steel cube offers the spectator no potential to leave this world for some other; it was made instead so that people, whether they saw it or not, could convey propositions about it through language. I wonder then if there was a NO SPOILERS attitude about it.

"You just have to see the new exhibit of Davidovich's work! It's so avant-garde, he's taken these stainless steel cubes and -- "

"No! Don't tell me! I'm going to the Whitney tomorrow, so don't ruin it for me!"

These shifts look like another example of our mindsets moving more in the autistic direction during falling-crime periods, and more empathetic in rising-crime times. The impersonal relaying of propositions appeals more to the systematizers, whereas the direct emotional absorption into the world and lives of others needs a more empathizing brain.

This psychological change is also linked to a behavioral change, namely cocooning during falling-crime times and being out-and-about in rising-crime times. The biggest misconception about the Romantic movement is that they were inwardly focused because of their concern with personal emotion. In reality they were more concerned with experiencing life from another person's perspective, hence their obsession with the exotic and primitive.

Emphasizing the emotional while walling yourself off from the rest of the world is pulling your mind in two different directions, since the emotional lobes of the brain are designed for social interaction. So we generally do not see culture-makers taking that stance. But where it does occur, it is always in a falling-crime period, such as the emo and goth sub-cultures of the past 20 years -- not '80s goth, whose fans got out of the house, and whose bands reached out to and found success among normal people too. Or the way too self-conscious Symbolist literature of the Victorian era, such as Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil from 1857.

It's good that they're at least trying to pull the culture away from the nerdy extreme of the people-vs-things spectrum of interests, but their hermit-like behavior cripples their ability to create works that will resonate with others. Instead it comes off as self-indulgent navel-gazing. One more reason to look forward to the end of the current period of falling crime. It won't get very high on an absolute level (at least an order of magnitude safer than Early Modern England), but the fact that it's going up will switch our minds back into the other-oriented, "people person" direction.

November 28, 2011

South Korean uniqueness and its rising murder rate

From a bird's-eye-view the Northeast Asian peoples are all remarkably similar, lack of variation being a hallmark of intensive agriculture because taking risks does not pay off, only the same monotonous grind day-in and day-out. So a variety of types playing different strategies will not be maintained as they are in pastoralist or horticulturalist groups, where you can certainly do well by playing it safe, but where taking big risks is also a viable strategy.

Pastoralists can attempt raids for livestock to boost their material wealth, while horticulturalists can try raiding nearby groups for wives, not only boosting their wealth (since women do most food production in gardening societies) but their reproductive output too. Agriculturalists rely on land to settle and plant crops on, and that cannot be gotten so easily through a get rich quick scheme, unlike herd animals or women -- movable things that you can run off with. They also won't bother raiding for women because without more land in the first place, they'll have a hard time producing more food to feed another wife and set of children.

Still, there is variation among the Asians that's worth trying to explain. For example, why are South Koreans more out-and-about, pleasant, and likely to laugh around each other, compared to the Japanese or Chinese? I didn't get a very strong sense of that among the Korean-Americans I've known, but wherever there's a large concentration of foreign students from these three groups, the pattern is hard to miss. This particular set of differences would then seem to be related to something going on in South Korea, not to evolved differences shared between them and the diaspora.

A good idea continues to pay off no matter where or when you apply it. Given how much social change we can explain by whether the violence rate is steadily rising or falling, that's where we should turn first. I could only find data back to 1995, but what do you think the trend in South Korea's homicide rate looks like?


That's an increase of over 120% since 1995, and who knows how long it had been rising before then. China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore have all had falling murder rates over this time, and Japan's has been falling since at least the late 1920s. (Data not shown, but from here and here.) South Korea is truly unique among its neighbors in having a steadily rising violence rate.

So its people and culture should be taking a detour toward the kind of society that the West turns into when its murder rate begins rising. Koreans are more out-and-about and fun-loving, like Westerners during the Jazz Age and the New Wave Age. They've begun exporting movies based on revenge and the Culture of Honor (such as Oldboy), just like the vogue for such plays during the Elizabethan-Jacobean violence wave, or the vogue for dueling during the Romantic-Gothic violence wave, or all those vigilante movies from America in the '70s and '80s.

The flipside of a thirst for revenge is the Culture of Hospitality (re-paying kindness with kindness, and starting off kind). I'll write the whole thing up later, but I checked every country's entry in a Wiki for hitch-hiking around the world, and the South Koreans came off as the most hospitable to travelers among the East Asians (for example the people who pick you up might also invite you to rest for the night in their home).

And their religion in recent decades has steered more toward the supernatural, apocalyptic, and proselytizing strains of Christianity (after America, they have the most missionaries), plus the large New Age / cult movement of the Unification Church, still going strong. It's just like the fundamentalist and cult movements that sprung up in the West during the 1900s - 1920s, and then again during the '60s through the '80s.

I don't dig Asian girls, but the prediction from all the rest is that they should have more cool chicks than neighboring countries, like American girls were in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, in contrast to the colder, bossier, and more cocooning girls of the mid-century or the past 20 years. Anyone with yellow fever, chime in.

How do we know it's their rising violence rates and not something else special about them? Like maybe it's due to their cultural clash between them and North Korea -- but then Taiwan should look like them, and they don't. That follows from the murder rate idea, since Taiwan's has been falling like the rest of East Asia. The South Korean pattern fits in with the Western countries that saw rising homicide rates during the '60s through the '80s that were not, however, engaged in a clash of civilizations -- England, Italy, Australia, etc.

So what ties it all together is whether the violence rate is rising or falling. Not too surprising given everything I've written about over the past... two years or however long, but it's nice to have another case study, especially from outside of Western Europe and its off-shoots.

The anti-social mid-century and present day: Drive-in churches, restaurants, and theaters

One of the greatest misconceptions about periods of increasing safety, such as the 1950s, is the view that people are out and about, chatting up their neighbors, strolling down Main Street and socializing with fellow pedestrians, and so on. In reality, the falling-crime period of the mid-'30s through the late '50s was one of ever greater cocooning. The TV show Mad Men depicts this very well, almost as vividly as the paintings of the mid-century's greatest representational artist, Edward Hopper:


To many people I've talk to about this, it seems paradoxical that cocooning and falling crime rates go together -- what do they have to be afraid of? And why are people in rising-crime times more outgoing -- aren't they afraid of all that crime? But it is people's isolation in tiny, private, controlled spaces that sends down the crime rate -- criminals find it a lot harder to get at victims. Also, heat-of-the-moment fights will become less frequent when people stop going out in public, where accidents can escalate into fights. Similarly, when people start venturing out into larger, public, not-so-controlled spaces again, criminals have an easier time finding victims, and heat-of-the-moment fights will become more common.

So, the social isolation and community fragmentation that come from cocooning are the price we pay for enjoying falling crime rates. When we leave our cocoons, we make ourselves more vulnerable, so rising crime rates are the price we pay for enjoying a rich public and community life.

To illustrate how anti-social the mid-century was, consider one of the era's most iconic building types -- the drive-in. People were so mistrusting, suspicious, or just uneasy being around strangers in public that they didn't want to leave their cars for anything, even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the rest of the experience.

The best known example is the drive-in movie theater:

These became popular from the mid-'30s onward, after the wild culture of the Jazz Age ended and its sublime picture palaces were no longer popular with movie-goers. They started to die out themselves over the course of the '60s, when patrons once again wanted to be part of a crowd of real people inside a climate-controlled theater. Surprisingly, drive-in theaters have not made a comeback in the falling-crime period after 1992, perhaps because home video, Netflix delivery, and Redbox have already made it easy to see newish movies without having to be around other people.

Movies shown at the drive-in suffered from poor picture quality, contaminated as the space was by ambient light, which also meant movies could only be shown at night. The original sound, which came from little speakers attached to the car windows, was also poor, although it did improve when customers dialed it in on their car radio. Lacking an enclosed structure, people had only their cars to protect them from the elements. This is why most nostalgic portrayals of the drive-in take place during balmy summer nights, not when it is cold, windy, raining, snowing, or thundering.

What these theaters did offer was the ability to go out and see a movie without having to sit next to other people, hear their comments, smell their body odor, feel their legs brush against your knees as they squeezed down your aisle, and so on. Catering to cocooners, they did not spring up during the more violent but pro-social Jazz Age, when being absorbed into the crowd was all part of the fun of seeing movies.

By the '20s car ownership had begun to soar, so it's not as though there was no potential audience for drive-in theaters. It's just that few back then would have wanted to use their cars as an isolation chamber, except for young people who made out in the back seat away from prying eyes.

After the theater, the most iconic example is the drive-in restaurant:

Aside from the odd example during the '20s and early '30s, these restaurants really began taking off in the later '30s, becoming fixtures of the culture during the '40s (which tended to have a wheel-spoke shape) and the '50s (when the shape was more a long canopy with cars parked side-by-side underneath). As the crime rate and desire to interact with others took off again during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, they started dropping like flies, either being demolished outright or being converted into fast food joints like Burger King. There's a scene in Footloose that's set at a drive-in, although tellingly for 1984 all the kids are out of their cars, moving their bodies in time with loud dance music.

However, during the falling-crime period of the past 20 years, they have seen a rebirth with the Sonic Drive-In chain, and in a modified form with the Checkers chain.

As with theaters, the drive-in restaurant allowed you to park your car close to the restaurant, enter, order, find your car again, and peel out as fast as possible, minimizing the time you had to be around others in public. It's like how in the past 20 years no one sits down to eat in fast food places anymore, but either order their food to go or more likely hit up the drive-thru window so they don't have to leave their cars at all. I remember when the tables and boothes at popular fast food chains would be rather packed during busy hours, but now it's all shifted to the endless drive-thru lane.

Space to eat in the drive-in's dining room itself was minimal and usually featured only or mostly stools with no backs, so that you felt like leaving soon, instead of providing comfortable seats to encourage lingering. Before long they began offering curb service, where you park your car in their lot, an employee (called a car hop) walks out to take your order, re-enters the building to place it, and returns with your food, either in a to-go bag, or on a tray that rested on your open car window. You ate the meal entirely while seated in your car, sealed off from anyone who wasn't riding with you, limiting your interactions to family members or close friends.

Except for that pesky car hop -- sure she's young and pretty, but still she's a stranger, so wasn't there some way to cut out even her? You bet there was -- the motormat. This type was not widespread at all, but the mere fact that they even tried it out, let alone got enough customers to stay in business, just shows how antithetical it was to the mid-century mindset to be a people person. Here are some pictures:


You'll notice that the usual wheel-spoke shape is there, but the cars are parked quite a ways from the restaurant itself. Conveyor belts connected the kitchen to a covered space that hugged the car window, taking in orders, cash, and used trays, and sending out the food. Otherwise it's like a normal drive-in, where you eat from a tray in your car, but now all functions have been completely mechanized and you don't have to see a single human face to go out for a meal.

Finally there was the drive-in church:


These started popping up in the '40s and reached their zenith during the '50s, falling into gradual disuse once people came out of their cocoons during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However, just as with the Sonic Drive-In restaurants, drive-in churches have made a comeback in the falling-crime times we live in now. They go at least back to the 2000s, although I'm not sure if they were there in the '90s as well.

They don't represent a separate building type, as they were just drive-in theaters that had no better use on Sunday morning. A preacher stood on a central stage, and attendants listened through the little speakers or over the radio as usual. They still offered no protection from the elements and prevented the crowd-vibe from igniting. How did Sunday School work if the children didn't have cars of their own?

We tend to think that the spread of the car caused all sorts of trends that have only gotten stronger as cars have become more common. We see it as an exogenous technological change to which the main workings of society respond passively.

There's something to that, but I think it's over-rated. If people don't want to spend much time in their cars, then they won't. Cars were growing in popularity during the Jazz Age, but who would want to hang out in them all day? Aside from joyriding and making out, they used them to travel to a more carnivalesque space like a speakeasy, a movie palace, a cafeteria or automat, or grand-scale department store. Same thing happened in the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- all of this drive-in stuff disappeared because people felt like hanging out in a nightclub, shopping mall, indoors movie theater, or any other place allowing lots of strangers to pile in and enjoy the community feeling.

During the mid-century and for the past 15 to 20 years, tastes have gone the other way, and people have changed their use of cars accordingly, using them as protective bubbles during their as-short-as-possible trips away from home. The car is equally happy to take the passengers to a curb service drive-in restaurant or to a mall with a bustling food court.

In contrast to the idealized view we have of drive-ins, a look at the real culture shows something unsettling, like a bunch of drones plugging their portable cubicles into a cell within the hive. The cars all facing the same direction and with anonymity makes it look even more hive-like. With people in a movie theater, food court, or church pews, you can make out individual faces, notice unique mannerisms, etc., but not with cars.

It also reveals how socially distant rather than close people were back then, as well as these days. The most they were willing to risk was going to a diner, but those were still pretty small, quiet, and featuring lots of backless stools. That's another restaurant type that has seen a total rebirth over the past 20 years, most of them very self-consciously retro. But I'll get around to covering other changes later.

November 25, 2011

Black Friday, from community carnival to me-first melee

Examples of people cocooning themselves more over the past 20 years are too numerous to list. But one apparent counter-example is Black Friday -- even if only for a day, aren't people out-and-about, strengthening social bonds by buying gifts for others?

For awhile I didn't have too good of a feel for what this day has been about. I've avoided shopping on Black Friday for a very long time because I sensed that it was degenerate, totally unlike the mall during Christmastime in the '80s when it felt more like a carnival, everyone feeding and feeding off of each other's high spirits. After a little reflection and a look through newspaper articles from the '90s through today, it turns out not to be a counter-example at all.

The vague image we're given in the media, or that we invent ourselves, is of people who are so intent on buying so many presents for so many people, that they can't get in the doors early enough or behave themselves well enough. The competition to get the best gifts for others has just become too chaotic.

In reality, hardly anyone goes out on this day to buy gifts for other people; at best it's an after-thought or rationalization. Rather, buying a handful of things for others has become an excuse to buy stuff for themselves at deals that will never show up the rest of the year. Estimates from the 2000s were that anywhere between 50-75% of people were buying things for themselves while Christmas shopping, and that the average person's self-indulgence accounted for nearly one-quarter of all dollars they spent (around $150 out of $650 total).

The first references to this practice of Christmastime "self-gifting" (how's that for Newspeak?) appear in 1993. This is right as the crime rate is turning around, causing society to shift from the tragic-romantic side of the spectrum to the trivial-efficient side. Already by the early 2000s, this gradual change has moved far enough so that newspapers regularly comment on the self-centeredness of Black Friday shoppers.

An article from 2003 is headlined, "Looking out for no. 1; Survey: Consumers plan to shop for themselves this holiday season". Another from that year reads:

There is an increasing consumer-cultural emphasis on self-oriented spending - from Be Good to Yourself meals to a bespoke cable channel called Me TV. Buying baubles for yourself is just the decadent, high-end version of this. "Self-gifting is the new normal," declares Maria Salzman, global trend predictor and head strategist at Euro RSCG. "It's a real part of December. And Valentine's Day is a second self-gifting event. If there's no lover in your life, it's time to indulge yourself all the same."

By now, many of the people interviewed are so shameless in their egotism that you'd think the reporter made the quotes up. (Until you remember the "I'm-a get MINE" mentality of the 1992-and-after period.) From a 2010 NYT article which shows that this practice was not limited to the housing bubble euphoria:

Americans are shopping selfishly again.

On this year's Black Friday, retailers and analysts said they saw a surge in traffic at stores and malls over last year, and also were noticing that shoppers snapped up discretionary items for themselves rather than gifts or necessities. . . .

At an Oakland Best Buy, Jan Paolo Patena, a 19-year-old college student, was waiting to buy an external hard drive.

''Black Friday is all about me,'' he said. ''I'm not here for anyone else. This is not about Christmas presents. If somebody else wants something, they can stay out here in the cold all night.'' [Reminder: execute all Millennials.]

Rebecca Bolivar, 19, a college student who was shopping at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., said she came to buy shoes, jackets and gifts for her boyfriend, in that order.

''If I run out of money, I go first,'' she said.

At a Best Buy in Patchogue, N.Y., despite a chilly rain, the line for the 5 a.m. opening stretched about 350 yards down the street. Julio Jaber, 25, was there to buy a 55-inch TV. ''It's for myself,'' he said, shaking his head as rain fell on him. ''For somebody else? Forget it.''

Malls, like the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, Calif., reported similar sentiments. At Sears and Kmart, many shoppers bought on layaway, said a spokesman, Tom Aiello, indicating that the items were not gifts.

''You have more spontaneous shoppers buying things for themselves,'' said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the Mall of America.

And so on. Again these are just a representative handful from a stream of similar articles.

If people's mindset has changed from other-focused to self-focused, that also explains why there is such a war of all against all devastating retail stores during the Christmas shopping season. We naturally hold our own satisfaction above others', so if we see a rival shopper about to get a coffee-maker that we planned to give our friend, well our friend will be just as happy with some other coffee-maker, or maybe he won't mind getting something else entirely. But if that was the coffee-maker that I wanted for myself -- then get your fucking hands off of it!

We shop for ourselves all the time without this chaos, but this time there are DEALS DEALS DEALS, and they're only here once a year. Still, the main cause of the shift has been a change in people's mindset, because they had Christmas specials before the '90s and people did not kill each other over them. It's only when combined with a newly egocentric population of shoppers that all Black Friday hell breaks loose.

Turning to Wikipedia instead of doing another Lexis-Nexis search of newspapers, the first pop culture reference to violence or chaos during Christmas shopping is the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way. This doesn't depict the general melee of the 2000s, and the battle is over a gift for someone else, not for the shoppers themselves, but remember that this is only a few years into the shift. Regular reports of violence and hostility begin showing up in the 2000s.

As late as the 1989 movie Christmas Vacation, there was an atmosphere of excitement, even anxiety, during Christmas shopping, but the department store where Clark goes for his wife didn't look like a battlefield. The only time during the '80s when anything like that happened was when Cabbage Patch Kids came out, but that was only over one product and in one year only, not a retail-sector-wide brawl year after year.

The fact that these crazed shoppers are out there hunting for deals for themselves also fits in with another major change in Christmas gift-giving since 1992 -- the gift card. After all, if everyone out there on Black Friday were so busy scooping up real tangible things for others, then why the hell do we all wind up getting a pile of gift cards?

Gift certificates existed long before gift cards, so the technology was there if anyone wanted to make use of it. But because a gift card is a half-gift, no one bothered buying them except for recipients on the outskirts of their social circle. The first gift cards began with Blockbuster in 1994, right as the crime rate was dropping, and have only exploded since then.

It's even more bizarre because gift cards are one of the few items that are NOT included in the store-wide sales. If shoppers were making such a mad dash to Black Friday bonanzas in order to get deals on gifts, rather than on indulgences, then why do they end up buying so much of something that never goes on sale?

The only way to make sense of all these changes over the past 20 years is to view Black Friday and Christmas shopping in general as now a mostly egocentric shopping spree, not an other-regarding community carnival, and one that appeals to efficiency and convenience rather than romance and fantasy.

From a rough look through articles on Black Friday shopping from 1900 through 1960, I got the same impression that the rising-crime Jazz Age had a more sublime and community-focused Christmas shopping atmosphere, while the falling-crime mid-century felt more like today's bargain-hunters temporarily leaving their cocoons to shove others off of their epic find. But I'll have to poke around more before committing to that.

There is nothing like the superorganic feeling of belonging to a crowd, but the spirit of collective effervescence, or communitas, or whatever you want to call it, has totally evaporated from Christmas shopping. A crowd or a mob feels united, whereas today all that a Black Friday shopper can join is a melee. Cloaking this naked selfishness in the garb of the gift-giving spirit just makes the whole thing even more disgusting. Don't mean to end on such a bitter note, but I just can't stand how rotten the Christmas season has become, and so quickly.

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving parades, a Jazz Age invention

Many of our most visible and cherished "traditions" don't go back very far at all, showing that traditionalism isn't about maintaining whatever there was in ye olden days, but about preserving the good innovations of earlier eras (and weeding out the bad ones).

A good example are large-scale Thanksgiving parades, where all of the major ones were founded during the 1920s and early '30s. The Macy's parade began in '24 and introduced the balloons in '27, the America's Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit started in '24 too, the Gimbels parade in Philadelphia before either of those in '20, the Hollywood Christmas Parade in '28, and Chicago's Grand Holiday Tradition parades in '34. The newest parade I could find that has been going for any time is Pittsburgh's Celebrate the Season parade, which began in 1980.

Not surprisingly we see all of these popping up during rising-crime periods, and especially during the second apocalyptic half of such a period (except for the Chicago parade that began one year after the 1933 peak in the homicide rate, but close enough). They are yet another example of a visual spectacle whose creation seems possible only during such times of mounting danger in the environment. Others are Art Deco skyscrapers, movie palaces, the carnivalesque form of the department store and mall, the automat and food court, sublime golf course architecture, public Fourth of July fireworks events, massive Christmas displays, and many others.

In contrast, the falling-crime era of the mid-century (1934-1958) brought us Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a catalog of gentle and secular Christmas songs, and not much else in the way of holiday traditions.

By the way, I've never really felt possessed by any of those Christmas songs, so they seem over-rated to me, although I realize most people do feel warm when they come on. The only Christmas songs I've loved are "O Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night," which just so happen to have been composed during a period of rising homicide rates across Europe, in 1824 and 1818 respectively. That was during the apocalyptic second half of the Romantic-Gothic period of 1780-1830. Throw in "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson from the recent crime wave, which sounds like a Christmastime song.

In any case, even if you value a falling violence rate over cultural innovation, you should still be thankful that we have had periods of rising violence rates in the past that led to more inventions. Most experiments went nowhere, but some of them were great successes, and we're blessed to still enjoy them.

November 22, 2011

Why East Asians are so unconscientious and disagreeable: Is it agriculture?

Big thanks to commenter Miguel Madeira who linked to an article on global differences in personality by Schmitt et al. (2007). These kinds of papers pop up now and again, and it doesn't conflict with the gist that I got from earlier ones. This paper has much better graphs and tables, though.

There's a lot that could be covered, but I'll stick to clearing up a major misconception about East Asian personalities. Westerners think the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have a far stronger work ethic than we do, and are so much more agreeable -- they certainly don't seem as violent and confrontational as we are. Let's go straight to the data.

You can browse the free PDF linked above to see a clearer picture, but here is the Cliff's Notes version. The top graph shows Agreeableness scores by global region, with East Asia on the far right, and the bottom is Conscientiousness. For now don't try reading the other regions, just focus on how East Asia is in a league of its own.


Those are 95% confidence intervals, so there is almost no overlap between the East Asian distribution and the others for Agreeableness. For Conscientiousness, it is not even close -- they might as well come from Mars.

The countries in East Asia include Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Just about all countries are represented by college students. Given that college admissions is a proxy for IQ, and given that East Asians have the highest national IQs, the college student respondents there are closer to the average person, whereas in Africa they are totally unrepresentative (many of the African surveys weren't even given in the local language, suggesting they show what the educated elite is like). In the paper's Table 5 you can see scores by country rather than region, and all four East Asian countries are extremely low in both traits, so it's not like one of them is ruining it for the rest.

When I first saw results like these I was a bit puzzled too, but then I reflected on my extensive contact with East Asians over the years, and it didn't seem so odd. They aren't violent and don't get in your face, so we assume they're agreeable. In reality, they are autistic or misanthropic, they just don't let it show. But they have trouble making lots of friends in school, and the males either cannot relate to girls or have a bitter hatred of them, so that they remain virgins for life. I can't think of another group who showed such autism and misanthropy, and the graph above tells me I shouldn't bother looking.

As for their abysmal levels of conscientiousness, again we look at them and see them getting good grades and decent jobs, which you can't do without hard work. But that doesn't mean they have a solid work ethic or have learned the value of hard work. Those are values that you have internalized and that allow you to work independently toward achievement -- when tempted to cheat the rules or give up when the going gets tough, you feel compelled to play fair or keep slogging through it.

East Asians have evolved the opposite system -- they have outsourced all of that behavioral monitoring to some authority, such as their Tiger Mother parents, a council of elders, a bureaucracy, an emperor, or whatever. When they feel tempted to cheat or give up, they are not very capable of correcting themselves -- that authority monitor has to swoop in, shout in their face to play fair or persevere, and they do as they're told. They can still get things done, but not on their own, only by total deference to an authority with their interests in mind.

Here are some colorful real-world reminders of how lazy East Asians are when left to themselves:

There are millions of young Chinese boys that love video games and play them so much that the Chinese government enacted strict rules that limited playing time.

These rules impose penalties on players who spend more than three hours a day by reducing the abilities of their characters and any players that spend more than five hours simply are forced to take a five-hour break before they can return to a game.

Video gaming got so out of hand that the Chinese government opened video game addiction clinics and while it sounds extreme to me, these clinics used electro-shock treatments to zap players out of their addiction.

And

Asian countries, such as South Korea, are recognizing video game addiction as an urgent public health matter, with several deaths having occurred in internet cafes, apparently as a result of blood clots occurring during prolonged sitting at computers.

And

The IMRC found evidence that more than 27% of youth ages 12-18 in Japan were experiencing such medical problems as periodic headaches and fatigue, blurred vision, loss in appetite, and even clinical depression, all directly linked to extensive use of video games.

And

A South Korean couple who let their baby starve to death while raising a "virtual child" on the internet were given prison sentences on Friday.

The 41-year-old husband and his wife, 25, were arrested in March for leaving their daughter to die while they spent hours at internet cafes.

Not that Americans are immune to screwing around in pointless activities (like keeping a blog). Still, the total lack of personal drive in East Asians means they'll get sucked into zombifying activities to a far worse degree. Westerners will get restless sooner and feel like doing something more fun and productive.

It isn't just the lower tiers of Asian society that are like that. In his book Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray details and discusses how small of an impact East Asians have had in the arts, sciences, and applied fields like technology and medicine, compared to Western Eurasia. And remember they've got higher average IQs than other regions, so it is clearly more of a personality or temperament difference.

And not just openness or curiosity -- although that's bad enough there (see the paper, which shows East Asia in a league of its own in scoring low for Openness to Experience). To achieve something impressive, you can't rely on some external monitor to constantly browbeat you into thinking up new things, getting the small tasks done, and so on. You need an internal stick-to-it-iveness to blaze a trail.

All of this I see as an adaptation to intensive agriculture, the only thing that so strongly sets them apart from the rest of the world. According to the paper, the Ukraine actually resembles East Asia in personality. They were the breadbasket of Eastern Europe and had a heightened sense of themselves as agriculturalists, in stark contrast to the nomadic pastoralists from the Steppe who have regularly overrun their region.

Agriculture always leads to a hierarchical state, sometimes even a gigantic empire as in China. Part of this change is that there's now a stable class of bureaucrats who can monitor and enforce social norms. So people outsource morality -- that is, the regulation of social interactions -- to parents, experts, or whoever. This move toward amorality shows up in lowered Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. It doesn't mean they'll turn into violent hotheads, just that they've selected the moral lobe of their brain to shrink, since someone else will make them behave properly, not they themselves. That selects for an enlarged obedience lobe in the brain.

Pastoralists are the opposite, and indeed the Middle East and Balkans all score very highly on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. It's not as crazy as it sounds, once we remember that Agreeableness and non-violence aren't the same thing. Persians do not have a free-floating level of misanthropy -- in fact, they are very hospitable, people-loving people. But if you get on their bad side, they feel the need to settle the score. It is the Culture of Honor, not the Culture of Autism and Misanthropy.

Lacking large, stable, hierarchical states, pastoralists have to rely on the Culture of Honor to settle disputes and the Culture of Hospitality to provide mutual aid. It also prevents them from outsourcing morality to bureaucrats -- animal herders are the prototypical rugged individualists, although they also rely on the hospitality of strangers when they get stranded. They have to monitor and motivate themselves. It is no accident that the major moral systems that have spread across the globe came from pastoralists -- those of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their off-shoots (pagan Europe, Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Hinduism), and later and more successfully Christianity and Islam. Agriculturalists, whether the Northeast Asians, Ancient Egyptians, or Aztecs, never came close to exporting a moral system that broadly.

To wrap up with a thought from Nassim Taleb, I think this underscores how fragile a super-specialized system is, particularly one that involves so much outsourcing. It looks more stable and efficient in the short term, but it is much less robust to shocks. Again just look at video games -- people in the Balkans and Middle East have access to video games, internet cafes, and so on, just as the Chinese do, and the wealthier ones have at least as good access as the Koreans and Japanese do. Yet they aren't dropping like flies from video game addiction, porn addiction, etc.

Video games are like a new infectious disease that tests how truly robust the Asian system of behavioral monitoring is. If the Tiger Mother method were just as good as the self-motivating and self-monitoring method, then it should have resisted the infiltration of video games much better than it has. Instead it has unmasked the deplorable laziness of Asians when the Tiger Mother can't be breathing down their necks, or cut off their internet connection, etc. They sink into a mire of joyless addictions, whose depths the rest of the world cannot fathom.