June 29, 2011

Art music vs. popular music

After looking through the relevant Wikipedia pages and some cursory googling, I noticed that there isn't a common understanding among people who study music -- whether musicologists, sociologists, philosophers, or whoever -- about what the difference is between art music and popular music. (I'm viewing "folk / traditional music" as popular music that has survived a long time, become an ethnic marker, etc.)

I don't claim this is an original idea at all, because it's too common-sense not to have been put forward by someone (although you never know with the "thinking class"). The basic difference is that popular music makes you want to move your body along with it, whereas art music does not, appealing instead to the emotions only. A Bach fugue possesses your mind so much that you feel almost paralyzed.

Those are idealizations obviously -- some popular music like Bob Dylan does not try to take over your body, and there are some moments in Western classical music where you feel like you're at a pep rally, such as the Turkish style military march in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (And please don't labor to argue that the "dance" music from the Classical period is first-rate body-moving music. That was not its specialty.)

There is also variation among individuals -- some people are more overtaken emotionally by Schubert than are others, and some people are less able than others to sit still when "Another One Bites the Dust" starts playing.

And of course some music-makers are better at their craft than others -- Beethoven thunders more mind-possessing sounds through the listener than does Haydn, and Billy Idol gets your body pumping and jumping more than The Doors do. And certainly which emotions are targeted by the art composers, and in what way the pop musicians try to get your body to move, vary across artists and their works, but that split in the broad approach remains.

What are the components of this difference? Mostly it is how heavily the rhythm is emphasized, and not just how strongly the strong beats are heard but how prominently the entire rhythmic structure comes through, including syncopation. Following from that, popular music makes much more extensive use of percussion and plucked bass instruments, since the more voice-like durations of woodwinds, brass, and strings instruments (to pick from Western art music) are not brief and crisp enough to be heard as discrete pulses that establish a rhythm.

A good theory explains a lot with little. The emotional vs. motional focus accounts for all Western art vs. popular music, all the way from late Medieval polyphony through Bach through Terry Riley, and from Scott Joplin through Elvis through Madonna. Think of how much the various art music works differ among themselves -- and yet none of them make you want to get up and move. That reached its extreme limit in John Cage's silent 4'33" (well, maybe you wanted to get up and leave, but not rhythmically). Likewise, think of how different the popular music of just the 20th century sounds -- and yet it all is trying to get you to tap your foot, drum with your fingers, snap, and hopefully move your whole body while dancing.

Why haven't the famous thinkers on this topic noticed the obvious? And more importantly, why haven't their readers stopped them and pointed out how silly their attempts are? (For example, the mere restatement that art music appeals to an elite, while popular music appeals to the masses / working class.) It must be that professional thinkers, at least in the modern age, are drawn from the part of the population that has two left feet, that has a tin ear for dance music. Not that they haven't received formal dance instruction. Nobody dances like that to popular music most of the time anyway. Their bodies just do not respond with that sense of possession by the spirit of the sounds. That's why Serious Music Thinkers revile popular music that's specifically made for dancing the most, e.g. disco and synth pop.

In fact, this generalizes to their lack of kinesthetic "intelligence" more broadly, as intellectuals were also last to be picked in gym class as children, and today are in the worst shape within their socioeconomic class. And it's not some handicap of having above-average IQ -- if you got a bunch of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen together, they could probably come up with the right answer pretty quickly, assuming they had had a basic exposure to both approaches to music. These are the smart people who can keep their balance and lift things. It's always important to distinguish between smart people and nerds.

This might also explain why most dancing scenes in movies come off as hokey or forced. The writer and director are probably more of the thinking-and-feeling type than the moving-and-socializing type, so it's hard for them to know intuitively what the carnivalesque dance club experience should feel like. The verisimilitude of Last Days of Disco is the only exception that springs to mind (and I say that as someone who was an infant in "the very early 1980s"). In addition to his lack of caricature, which only an outsider who didn't get it would have employed, Whit Stillman must have provoked further toe-curling and sputtering among serious expert thinkers by speaking good words about synth pop as well (from here):

By the time I was really getting into [disco], I felt it was gonna go on and on. I didn't have to go that much because it'd still be around. By the time I got around to going more, it was all disappearing. And it went really quickly. I think that dance music came back in a nice way around '83 or '84. There was Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna. A lot of pop music that was fun. But the places weren't the same. There was no longer that mix that everyone went to.

If the lower classes get bored from art music's attempt to only tap into the emotional centers of their brain, the professional classes -- at least officially -- have a suspicious and even disdainful view of music that tries to engage and perhaps over-ride control of their body. Hence the elite respectability of popular genres such as folk, indie, and freer and less danceable jazz styles. (This is just about all they play in Starbucks, with the welcome interruption from reggae.) That explains why art music flourished during the Renaissance and after -- that's when the elite began to become characterized more by restraint and sobriety, a shift that has lasted through today. That is why body-moving music appeals more to a popular than an elite audience.

There has always been a strong teetotaler current within well-to-do American culture, regardless of political views. In fact, the liberal left is perhaps more puritanically scornful of body-moving music than the fundie right citizens who outlaw public dancing. They may not have tried to regulate it out of existence, but they go much farther in demonizing not just the music itself but the people who it appeals to -- escapist, apolitical, trivial, brainless, etc. (unlike the confrontational, grand, and genius Ubermenschen who dig The Beatles, Tori Amos, and Arcade Fire). At least the beat-banners acknowledge the listeners' basic humanity, if only to stress our susceptibility to music that will weaken our inhibitions and tend to lead us to sin.

It was not too hard for John Lithgow to give a humanizing portrayal of the dance-outlawing reverend in Footloose, but it would be impossible for anyone to give a sympathetic performance of some contemptuous indie dork from the Onion A.V. Club or an earnest left-liberal critic of this opiate of the masses.

June 28, 2011

Midgets in music videos

I won't pad this one out by detailing how it fits into the framework of violence levels affecting the culture. Briefly, rising violence rates cause people to be more curious about the dark parts of human life that they were unaware of during safer times, so that culture-makers will focus more on the grotesque in periods of rising crime. One of the most visible examples for them to notice and incorporate into their works are dwarves.

Near the end of the early 20th C. wave of violence, the 1932 movie Freaks popularized the sideshow midget to those audiences who'd never been to a freak show in real life before. During the last wave of violence, there were a good number of movies featuring dwarves as an example of a not-quite-human species -- Fellini movies, Time Bandits, Willow, Labyrinth, the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and many others. Once crime began falling after 1992, these portrayals of dwarves gave way to the view that they were just like everyone else, just much shorter -- the Mickey character on Seinfeld, Mini Me in the Austin Powers movies, and Wee-Man from the Jackass TV show and movies.

But in the medium of the music video, it looks like they're hardly there anymore. I couldn't find a "list of music videos with midgets" anywhere, so I figured I might as well start one here. If you're aware of any others, especially ones from after 1992 that would be counter-examples to the "part of the normal world" portrayal of the past 20 years, leave a comment. But only for groups who were at all popular, or else it doesn't tell us that it catered to a somewhat mainstream audience.

"Little Girls" by Oingo Boingo (1981)

"Sex Dwarf" by Soft Cell (1981)

"Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats (1982)

"(Oh) Pretty Woman" by Van Halen (1982)

"When the Lights Go Out" by Naked Eyes (1983)

"Stonehenge" by Spinal Tap (1984)

"All I Want is You" by U2 (1988)

"Preacher Man" by Bananarama (1990)

"I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" by A Tribe Called Quest (1990)

"The Bad Touch" by Bloodhound Gang (1999)

"Man Overboard" by Blink-182 (2000)

"From tha Chuuuch to da Palace" by Snoop Dogg (2002)

June 26, 2011

The gay mind as an addict's mind, sweet-tooth edition

The dangers of a state as influential as New York legalizing gay marriage are the primary effect of allowing a bunch of people with an addict's brain to indulge their addictions without shame, and a secondary effect of sending the signal to the broader non-gay society that abandoning yourself completely to your vices is A-OK. If consenting adults want to destroy themselves and the wider society, then who are we to infringe on their liberty?

In an earlier post I walked through some of the basic logic behind why homosexuals are so self-destructive, and how this can spill over into polluting the majority non-homo population too. The main point was that they do not benefit from the negative feedback loop that straight people do, where a man's and a woman's interests are often at odds with each other, which leads them to develop a sense of compromise, some degree of restraint (that is, in anticipation, before the indulgence could even escalate into a quarrel), and trust -- you wouldn't let just any old person dampen your desires. It has to be someone you trust, so that you feel they aren't just clamping down to enjoy a power trip, but because they care about you.

Rather, gays and lesbians are locked into a feedback loop that is, er, positive, so that their relationships are marred by stubbornness, libertinage, and suspicion. When one male (or female) desire reinforces and encourages another, these desires spiral out of control rather than heal back to a healthy moderate level. That alone is reason enough to discourage gays and lesbians from coming out, being proud, and having relationships with each other. It would be better for themselves and others if they had their tendency toward sin kept in check either by self-discipline or by socializing with people who would look on gay or lesbian behavior as shameful, and so around whom the homosexual would not even go there behaviorally, in order to avoid their discouraging looks in the first place.

You wouldn't let a drunk hang out with other shameless alcoholic enablers, so why would you want a gay or a lesbian to suffer the fate of having no one in their social circle who gave a shit about that person's well-being, who only felt like encouraging their destructive behavior?

This brings up the second reason to nudge homosexuals to keep a lid on their urges -- namely, that at least for gays, these baseline urges are far more in the direction of an addict's than a normal person's. So by sending the signal that gays can do whatever they want (the symbolic message behind legalizing gay marriage, as few will actually make use of their "right"), there is a multiplicative or compounding effect. The "it's OK" to letting themselves get trapped on the positive feedback loop interacts with an already dangerously addict-like level of destructive urges.

This is why when society gives license to straights to do as they want sexually, the outcome is not so dire -- straight people do not have those addict-like urges to begin with, whereas gays do. Of course, most of the coalition of The Preachy and The Gushy, lacking curiosity about how the world works, have never spent any time inside the world of homos to be aware of this uniquely gay danger.

Rather than re-hash all of the well-documented examples of how gays are more prone to harmful addictions, I thought I'd try to sketch out a new one -- are they more sugar-holic than straight men? Empty carbohydrates, being mostly unavailable in even moderate amounts throughout our species' history, were used only as an emergency food until real food could be found. So you might wake up and eat a handful of berries before someone brought down a giraffe or made butter out of cow's milk.

Fat is satiating because that's what our body needs, so eating it provides negative feedback to your hunger centers -- hey, that's a pound of bacon and four eggs, you can stop eating now. Digestible carbs (starches and sugars) are not the goal for our body, just a stop-gap solution to hunger, so they provide a positive feedback -- well, that jelly on toast was OK, but now that glucose is all burned through and we still haven't taken in any fat yet, so go out there and try again to get real food. This is why eating anything but a low-carb diet causes you frequent hunger pangs throughout the day, and makes you feel like snacking, whereas someone eating mostly fat and little carbs can easily live on two or two-and-a-half meals a day with no snacking and no hunger.

Unfortunately there are no studies bearing directly on this topic, but there are some findings from peer-reviewed journals, plus some qualitative fieldwork, which suggest that gays are in fact more prone to carb cravings and sugar addiction in particular.

First, here is a review article on diabetes in the homosexual population, noting that there are no studies that have attempted to estimate its prevalence, but drawing up a long list of risk-factors for diabetes that are particularly prevalent among gays and/or lesbians. Scroll down to "Unique LGBT Risk Factors." Most of the list recapitulates the various addictions that gays indulge in far more so than straights do, such as cigarette smoking and illegal drug use. Note that these destructive behaviors cannot be blamed on an "extreme male mind," as though straight men would use hard drugs just as frequently if only they didn't have to deal with women. Even without the harmful, compounding effect of the gays' lack of a negative feedback loop, they would already start with much more addict-like desires.

The list does mention, though, that lesbians are more likely than straight women to be overweight and obese, to drink heavily (and most drink beer, which is full of empty carbs that give you a beer belly), and to have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (these women usually have other metabolic disorders). This is not the strongest evidence that lesbians have more addiction-prone brains, since the lack-of-negative-feedback story suffices here. That is, without having to please the male desire for a slim figure, lesbians don't mind letting their looks go to hell as the result of eating two pizzas, a six-pack of beer, and a couple pints of ice cream while they watch the WNBA game instead of making out or having sex.

However, it also says that "Diabetes rates among men receiving HIV treatment are four times that of HIV-negative men." Since HIV is mostly a gay disease, this tells us indirectly about the greater prevalence of diabetes among gay compared to straight men. Still, because it's in the context of already having HIV plus taking who knows how many medicines for it, it's not clear that the greater tendency toward diabetes stems from a greater indulgence in carbs among gays. It is at least consistent with that idea, though.

I also could not find any academic studies on how diets differ between gays, lesbians, and straights. Luckily the General Social Survey asked a question about whether the respondent was a vegetarian to varying degrees (NOMEAT). There are three different questions that split men into gays and straights (SEXSEX, SEXSEX5, and NUMMEN). No matter which of the three we use, straights are less likely to be vegetarian to any degree: 22% vs. 34%, 24% vs. 40%, or 23% vs. 33%. Lacking the fat that comes from animal products, vegetarians end up relying more on carbs to give them energy, and not by eating a cellar full of celery but by scarfing down heaps of grains, pulses, legumes, and fruit, all of which are loaded with starch and sugar. Admittedly this doesn't show that gays crave the stuff more to begin with; perhaps their social circles are more susceptible to silly fads like vegetarianism.

Now we turn to a more raw look at the food-related cravings straight from the queer's own mind, without the filter of some bureaucratic agency not funding a study that wanted to see whether gays and straights ate the same things in the same proportions, and without the whitewashing that straight blowhards use to prevent curious people from seeing anything that might be there -- "there are no gay foods, only gay people who eat food."

On the first page of a google search for "gay men" and "food," I found a very NSFW tumblr account called "fuck yeah gay men & food". It's six pages of homoerotic pictures with food photoshopped in. Interestingly, there's only one meat-filled picture, which features burlier looking guys. Just ballparking it, I'd say about 30% of the food items are savory starches like pasta, and 70% are sugar-dripping sweets. They don't have carrots, cucumbers, sausages, beefcakes, or other ironic foods that a straight guy would have chosen for yucks. Rather, the food that possesses a gay man's mind when thinking about indulging his other vices is sugar, sugar, and more sugar.

And it's not the kind of sweets that feature in hetero food-and-chicks pictures, where it's more utilitarian. For example, there might be a dollop of whipped cream meant to be licked off of her nipple, as part of the entire single experience you're imagining. The pictures at the tumblr page are more of an association of two things that are equally orgasmic -- Lucky Charms cereal, say, and naked dudes -- but that are not supposed to be taken as part of a single experience. If straight guys were to associate orgasmic food with naked girls, they wouldn't focus so much on sweets but Brazilian barbeque, steaks dripping with butter, triple bacon cheeseburgers, etc. The minority of carby foods would all be savory and still have lots of animal fat, like potato skins. So I think that collection of pictures really does say something about the greater sweet tooth that gays have compared to straights.

Moving on to drinks, here is a lengthy gab session from a gay fitness forum on what they order at Starbucks. It's all the fruitier stuff like mochas and lattes, or going further by adding syrup, sugar, or other sweeteners. I only counted one who would even go for a cappuccino, although there are a few who like their espresso...straight. Considering that these are gays who are supposed to be health-conscious, you can imagine how much of a sweet-tooth the non-gym-rat gays must have. Great quote from the one sane gay of the bunch:

I find it astonishing how so many supposedly health-conscious men have deluded themselves into believing that they aren't sugar-phobic candy addicts with obviously little-or-no liking for the flavour of coffee.

How is it possible to have a taste for blended cake-mixes and still think that its not so bad just because the sweeteners have snazzy trademarked names? – like the calories in one teaspoon of sugar were ever the real enemy.

Why not just swear off sweets then and shrug off such "effeminacies"? – as my father would say.

Contrast that to this one trying to defend his preference for sissy drinks:

Also, I am not in the least embarrassed to say that I don't like pure, unadulterated coffee. I want hazelnut, cream and some sweetener even if it means calories. There's a snobbery attached to this as though liking black coffee is an accomplishment deserving of a badge. Liking black coffee, just like smoking and drinking straight whiskey, doesn't make you deeper, smarter, more sophisticated or more worldly. It's just a different taste.

Sounds like it's too late for you to get deeper or smarter, but it would put some hair back on your waxed faglet chest. Observe what the lack-of-shame culture leads to -- they aren't going to indulge themselves more just within the realm of sexual behavior. Rather, that mindset will generalize to include sucking down sugar all day because, hey, it's just a different taste, like the taste for buttsex.

Speaking of girly drinks, how about booze? The stereotype is that women and gays dig the ones with lots of sugar to mask the taste of alcohol, just as the sweeteners mask the taste of coffee. Two groups of journalists visited local bars to see what the consensus was about gay drinks, and they confirm the greater sweet tooth of gays when it comes time to get drunk. Here is one from gothamist, who hit up New York bars, and here is a similar report from Halifax, which shows that it isn't some uniquely American aspect of gay culture. It's not as though they ignore beer entirely in favor of mango-tinis, but the fact that such a larger fraction of gays prefer girly drinks tells us that on average they have a more powerful craving for sugar than straight men do.

None of these examples are best explained by the lack of negative feedback that characterizes gay life -- as though straight men, when shielded from the influence of women, would be as likely as gays to eat vegetarian meals, orgasm while dreaming of parfaits, take swigs from a gingerbread latte, or nurse a cocktail charmingly called a Rim Job. Instead it looks like gay men really do have a stronger compulsion to suck down addictive sugar, rather than fill up on ewwww icky animal fat.

Placing this in the larger list of gay impulsiveness, it seems like their minds are more addict-like to begin with, even without the harmful positive feedback loop that they trap themselves into by coming out and socializing with and banging other gays. Thus, sending the signal that it's OK to indulge your every fantasy is especially dangerous for gays. These quasi-addicts need more than straights to be discouraged from surrendering to desire. For us, the urge to indulge is less frequent, and giving in even less frequent. We won't be so degraded if someone tells us "Oh just go for it!" because we take that to mean occasionally. Gays, however, will be destroyed by following that call. Only a bunch of morons insulated from the reality of gay life would cheer such self-destruction along so credulously and merrily.

It took the plague of AIDS to peel open the dazed eyes of the gay community and made them take fewer sex partners. And yet condom use is down by 6% among New York City gays from 2007 to 2009. So this broad support for letting them do whatever they want could not have come at a worse time, when the memory of AIDS has apparently just begun to fade, and its hard lessons along with it.

June 24, 2011

When phone calls could be trance-inducing

Via Steve Sailer, here's an article from last year by Virginia Heffernan, mourning the analog phone call. She explores how the changes in engineering have disrupted the intimacy of the phone calling culture, for example the more frequent dropped calls, the chewed-up sound quality, and with tiny handsets the vanishing of "the awesomely strange sensation, via the mouth- and earpieces, of being inside someone else's accent, intonations and sighs, ear canal and larynx and lungs."

What was it about analog phones that allowed a conversation to last "hours upon dazed hours," that's missing in the digital age? It's not just the fact that people don't call each other anymore, or that the dazed feeling had simply beeen transferred to the realm of texting. No one gets mentally lost for hours in texting -- it is the choppiest and most attention-requiring form of communication ever invented. There's something about cell phones that won't let you lose your self-consciousness.

For all the reasons she goes over in the article, digital voice calling breaks the feeling of intimacy needed in order to shut off your mental spotlight and just go with the flow in a conversation with someone you trust. On top of that, though, is a basic ergonomic factor -- namely, how damn uncomfortable it is to hold a cell phone next to your head for more than ten minutes. The pinnacle of common phones, the Conair Phone, offered a handset designed to be cradled by the human hand, that could be supported between the ear and shoulder if you needed your hands free for a moment, and that could still fit snugly next to your mouth and ear when you were laying down and not even holding it at all, only letting it rest on the bed or pillow.

Other analog phone handsets, like the barbell-shaped ones, let you grip them, but that is still tenser than cradling. And because of the barbell shape, they wanted to flop with the mouth and earpiece pointing down, so you had to apply a little extra pressure to hold it the right way. But that's just hairsplitting.

Cell phones, however, hurt the hand if you talk for awhile. The rounder-shaped and larger-sized smart phones can be cradled more so than the earlier microscopic and razor-slim cell phones, where you had to squeeze its sides with your fingertips, an incredibly tense pose for the hand. But they still don't take up enough space to be supported only by cradling; squeezing and gripping is still necessary. And because of how thin they are, you find yourself flexing out the palm-side of your lowest knuckles to prop it up better. You also tire from having to hold it higher up than the analog handset, which most people held near the mouthpiece, and you can't support it on your shoulder or when lying down. It's not painful, but these many little inconveniences make it harder to just blank out your mind when talking.

Texting is even less suitable. The utter irregularity of exchanges prevents a rhythmic alternation between partners, or even of a steady stream from one of them while the other listens for awhile. It is like trying to dance along to the on-again / off-again racket of construction on the street outside. And texting allows everyone to indulge their inner upper-hand-gainer and leave a text unanswered for awhile, in order to appear like you have more to do in that instant than just check your Facebook again. This adversarial striving for dominance may have its place in the beginning of a relationship, to determine at the outset who is less desperate to reply to texts than the other. But once a relationship has been cemented, constantly playing petty games like this erodes trust.

During analog phone calls, there was no contest to see who could wait the longest before responding to what the other said, since you couldn't pretend to be occupied with something else -- you were giving them more or less all of that span of time. When you're texting with someone, though, you assume that they're doing all sorts of other things in between responses, which totally kills the vibe of two people trying to connect, whatever wonders it may work for making plans, getting information, etc.

Not being a girl, I never used to walk around the house with a phone attached to the side of my face. But I still miss the analog phone culture. Long phone calls were still needed to maintain the bonds of friendship between guys, although there wasn't a whole lot of yakking -- it was like hanging out on their couch, not really gossiping or having to say much, but just making a costly display of your commitment to the friendship. Sometimes my friends and I would just tune into the same TV show and watch it together over the phone, only speaking here and there if something was funny, painfully stupid, and so on. And occasionally there are times when you need to help one of your buddies through something, or they have to help you, and how could you let go and lay it all out there without a sense of trust and turning off your self-consciousness?

Then there were phone calls with girls. I don't remember making a habit of talking for long stretches over the phone with my girlfriends -- why not just meet and talk face-to-face? But sometimes it was impossible or inconvenient to see them, and a nice long phone call could still allow you two to drift out of conscious awareness together. You don't enter (or exit?) that mental state with just any old person -- sharing that experience proves to the other that you trust them enough to dial down your self-monitoring, and they prove the same to you. Only in adversarial or at-arm's-length interactions do you really police what you say.

And of course what better practice was there for the test of calling the girlfriend than talking to your chick friends over the phone? I only had about three who I called at all, but one was pretty close, and we could easily leave the rest of the world behind for a couple hours talking about who cares what. This experience through phone calls is more important in guy-girl friendships because hanging out in-person is less common there than if it's two guys or two girls. And the trust created is especially needed when the friends are boy and girl, given the justified suspicion girls have that their guy friends may be trying to get them in bed.

On a side note, one of a teenage girl's most important ways of establishing trust and warmth on her side is to giggle and laugh, and those sounds just do not come through in digital. If pieces of speech go missing through poor sound quality, we can reliably go back and fill them in to recover the meaning. But a giggle does not have some specific meaning like a word does -- it's more like the reflex girls have where they reach out and touch your arm to heighten your closeness. Having her variety of non-speech sounds garbled by cell phones is like being touched by some phantom hand of hers that was only partly there.

Although its role is minor, the disappearance of analog phones probably contributes to the very lukewarm emotions and even suspicions that Millennial boys and girls have toward each other, whether in the area of dating or just friendship.

This raises an interesting question -- if the cell phone technology as it exists today and at today's real prices had existed back in 1984 when Virginia Heffernan was lost in the phone culture, would anyone have bothered with them to the extent they do today? I'm sure they would've kept them for emergencies, and used texting for making concrete plans and asking specific pressing questions. But people were more social, trusting, and uninhibited back then, so I doubt they would've allowed cell phones to replace analog phones. (The same goes for internet usage.) Perhaps only once people's mindsets had already shifted in a more sheltered, suspicious, and self-conscious direction could cell phones have taken over rather than complemented analog phones.

June 22, 2011

The three classes of conservatives, their origins, and their futures

Nassim Taleb has a uniquely helpful way of categorizing people and institutions based on how they are affected by shocks, whether in some physical sense (like if they take a fall, do they break a bone or get stronger) or in an epistemic sense (like if some piece of their worldview is wrong, do they collapse or grow). See his easily readable presentation here, and check out his blog for more detailed examples.

His three classes are "fragile," "robust," and "anti-fragile." When given an unexpected shock, fragile things tend to break, robust things tend to heal back to where they were before, while anti-fragile things actually grow stronger from the shock.

We can use this lens to distinguish between groups who all call themselves "conservative" but in fact differ fundamentally.

The fragile conservative is the helicopter parent type: they prefer a system that is so shielded from risk that it becomes weak and unable to withstand life's inevitable shocks. That creates a positive feedback loop, as the mother of an incredibly frail and sickly child instinctively tries to shield it even further, until the kid is incapable of performing basic life functions on its own, and is hooked up to a clutter of machines. Their motto is, "You can never be too worried."

The robust conservative is the traditionalist type: they prefer a system that has withstood the test of time, or more specifically it has passed a survival test among rival systems. As long as you don't really whack it over the head, it'll heal itself. The aversion to blind trial-and-error limits the amount of further progress that could be made, but they are fine with that because the system can only heal itself up to a certain level of injury before breaking, and discovering exactly where that threshold lies is not worth the risk of blowing up society. Their motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (though they would never use those exact words).

The anti-fragile conservative is the hillbilly (not redneck) type: they prefer a system, never explicitly detailed, that not only withstands shocks but benefits from a good deal of rambunctiousness. They are too restless to sit through yet another generation of the same ol', same ol' and want to tinker around with things to see if something better can be done. It is not radically experimental, which would be like a genetic mutation rate that was so high it prevented parents from faithfully passing on fitter genes to their offspring. Nor is it experimental for its own sake -- only to discover better adaptations. Their motto is, "It may taste like shit, but it'll put hair on your chest."

Taleb already applied the taxonomy to modes of subsistence, but there's more to add. The fragile conservative is a product of single-crop agriculture or modern market economies, and their prototypical ethnic group today is the Ashkenazi Jews, forced into and adapted to a managerial niche in Central and Eastern Europe.

The robust conservative is a product of diversified agriculture -- not that there might not be a dominant, staple crop, but there is still a web of other crops to fall back on if one gets struck. Being more robust, these tend to be larger and more enduring farming societies, and their prototypical ethnic groups are the Han Chinese in Asia and a good deal of the French and Germans in Europe. The hunter-gatherers would probably have produced these kinds of conservatives, but their way of life was not robust enough to withstand the incursions of horticulturalists, agriculturalists, and pastoralists.

The anti-fragile conservative is not a hunter-gatherer, as their way of earning a living does not have the risk/reward set-up that allows for really huge pay-offs. Instead, they are a product of nomadic pastoralism, and also of groups with mixed agriculture and pastoralism. In such societies, after a string of unsuccessful raids, a herdsman may run off with dozens or hundreds of a rival's livestock, increasing by orders of magnitude his pre-existing stock. (The large amount of meat brought down by a hunter who kills a giraffe cannot be stored as flocks of animals can be.) Their prototypical ethnic groups are the Near Eastern Semites (for purer pastoralism), along with the races from the hilly and mountainous parts of Europe such as the Scottish and Italians (for agro-pastoralism).

Taleb points out that the fragile systems are doomed, and indeed the long history of monoculture farming and the brief but disturbing history of hyper-specialized capitalism seem to confirm that. Entire ways of living that were robust have nevertheless nearly vanished, such as hunting and gathering.

Most of history has been a contest between larger and more diversified, though more static, farming societies vs. smaller and even more diversified, and far more dynamic, herding societies. Depending on exactly what window you choose, either one could be seen as having the upper hand. However, the most genetically prolific man in history was Genghiz Khan from the pastoralist Mongols. Niall of the Nine Hostages in agro-pastoralist Ireland ranks among the most prolific too. Genes for digesting lactose have spread across much of the globe thanks to milk-drinking pastoralists. And culturally, by far the most dominant language family is Indo-European, which was spread by an initially tiny group of agro-pastoralists, while the dominant religions are the three monotheisms originating from pastoralist tribes of the Ancient and Medieval Middle East, perhaps with a mixture of pagan Proto-Indo-European mythology. Rock music took the world by storm, and it was cooked up by Scotch-Irish hillbillies and Britons with noticeably non-Anglo surnames like McCartney, Lennon, McCulloch, Jones, etc.

So while large and diversified agriculture has not disappeared, it does look like the future lies with a society that is more pastoralist in character -- smaller in scale, less crowded in density, diversified, offering rare but fantastically high pay-offs, stewardship of the environment, treating animals with dignity instead of as beasts of burden, frequent social interaction, lively music and dancing, a culture of honor and hospitality, warmhearted and good-looking girls... and you get the idea. Again I ask, is Australia the country of the future?

June 21, 2011

How hard do you have to strike back to restore order?

During the Vancouver riots, some skater faggots were beating up on a car, when a community defender walked in and started getting in the way, lecturing them about how they shouldn't treat "our" city that way, and so on. Within a minute or so, the whole group of them, including some onlooker friends who made empty threats with their skateboards, walked off.

Even this tiny display of "you won't get away with this" sent them away because the cost to the vandals had been zero -- the cops were doing nothing, and all pedestrians either walked right by without trying to shame them, or took pictures that made the vandals get a rush from feeling famous. The guy who stepped in imposed a small cost, and boom -- they weren't willing to pay even that much to pretend to be badasses.

Obviously a gang of bank-robbers is highly committed and prepared to pay pretty dearly in order to run off with so much money. But disturbances like that are so rare compared to the low-level, everyday stunts that losers and sociopaths try to pull, and these can be shut down by imposing small costs on those who are only misbehaving because they believe that they can do so for free. Because these are so much more common, standing up in these ordinary situations goes a long way to making the community more enjoyable, if enough people chip in.

Three personal examples from the past month. Please add your own in the comments.

- At '80s night I saw a fat, gray-haired man in his 50s or 60s who I recognized from three years ago, when he was standing on the dance floor just looking the college girls up and down, totally creeping them out. He was incredibly tense, clearly aware that he shouldn't be there but hoping he wouldn't suffer any embarrassment. Back then, there were some college guys on the stage behind him who started rubbing his hair and doing pelvis thrusts behind his head, and that made him nervous enough that he left. I hadn't seen him again until last week.

I only caught sight of him as he was leaving the dance floor for the outside patio, but that gave me enough time to stop my dance on stage, crouch down and give him some good strong pats on the shoulder, look him dead in the eye, and wave while saying "Hi." This makes the person feel compelled to wave and say "Hi" back, so now he had acknowledged that someone was watching him and was onto him. He must've left or hidden somewhere else in the club (maybe the bar where adults go), because I didn't see him for the rest of the night. It only takes one sicko like that to ruin everybody's fun.

- I'm walking toward the supermarket entrance, about 15 feet away, when some young punk comes out of the doors, makes eye contact with me for a second, then walks full speed right at me with his head down, pretending to futz around with his pack of cigarettes. He's very on-edge (he looks like he's on drugs) and almost running. No one else is around, so it's not like he's heading toward me to avoid foot traffic -- he is targeting me. I have no idea what made him want to run into me -- maybe to run some kind of scam ("hey, that guy knocked into me!"), maybe just for kicks. Most people would just step aside and either mutter under their breath or at most shout back at him "watch where you're going!" after he'd already passed.

I picked up the pace myself and braced for impact, turning my left shoulder into his chest and using my left upper arm to shove him away to my left side -- and goddamn if the little shit didn't take a hard fall onto the pavement. Like all sociopaths, he then tried to blame the victim -- "duuude, what was that for?" and "duuude, why the hell did you do that?" -- while kneeling to pick up the pack of cigarettes that I'd sent flying.

I can't remember the last time I collided with someone -- or something -- so hard, but I steeled myself and wasn't even thrown off-balance (though my leg muscles began shaking like crazy to prepare me to chase him down). I just gave him a cold stare, told him to "come here then" and made that motion with my hand, but he kept at his crocodile tears act.

When I went inside, one of the cashiers (a middle-aged woman) walked up to me and said jokingly, "Gee, why did you run into him like that?" I said, "yeah, probably trying to hit me up for something." She said, "Haha, no, I saw him, he was trying to knock you over." I wonder how many times he's pulled that stunt on other people and gotten away with it because they didn't want to make a scene? I don't even want to imagine what sick things he's tried to do to girls walking alone. Now that little meth-mouth will think twice.

- Then there was one of those annoying Critical Mass type of bike rides where the police block off traffic on two busy streets just so a bunch of sanctimonious pedal-pansies can hog the road -- er, "reclaim the streets." I was on foot, and the cops were only redirecting cars, not pedestrians. So when I got the walk signal, I began into the crosswalk, with the bike riders coming in my direction but then turning onto the street that I am crossing.

Since the cops are doing nothing, and since I have the walk signal, I figure some of them will stop, the way that a lane of right-turning cars will stop to let the pedestrian through. No chance -- even as I came to within 10 feet of their stream, no one stopped. OK, fuck this, I'm just going to barge through these selfish assholes and if someone hits me, I'll get in however many punches and kicks before the cops come over to break it up. Only when I'm within 5 feet do they start to slow down and go around me, six entire seconds of their trip stolen.

One whines, "Way to care about other people!" -- the hypocrisy of that almost sent me after him. Jesus Christ, car drivers are a hundred times more courteous to pedestrians -- at least they stop. It's clear that the bike riders only care about themselves, not walkers too. A second guy complains, "Um, you're kind of a dipshit" in that flaccid "seriously, guys? seriously?" way. Without screaming, I bellowed out "Fuck off, retard." He turned his head back and had one of those "omigod, i mean did he like just say that?" puzzled smiles. I told him to "come over here then" and made that hand motion. He resumed his course, I bellowed out "Pussyyyyyyy!", he still did nothing, and that was that.

None of the three cops at the intersection approached me, so I certainly was not in the wrong. It's just that these fake rebels have obviously not been challenged for ruining traffic for all of the walkers out that day. Next time there's one of those, I'll have to bring a dowel rod to throw into their spokes if they keep up their blind disregard for pedestrian safety. Or I could always take the black VW Golf out for a spin and hold my own re-claim the streets protest. And I'll have this blaring out the windows as my getaway music:


The Primitives -- Crash

Al | Myspace Video

June 20, 2011

Internet radio

There's something wrong about not having the radio on during the summer, but ever since new music became unlistenable around the mid-'90s (and it was only tolerable in the early '90s), I haven't bothered with it. But over the past week I've tried out internet radio again, having found it lacking before, and discovered a great station.

Radio cannot be replaced by listening to CDs or putzing around an mp3 playlist. An album allows you to sit back and enjoy music without having to plan what song will come next, but the variety is limited to the sound of that group or at most the range of groups already in your collection. An mp3 playlist opens up a wider variety of sounds to hear (though still limited to what you already have), but there is either too much planning involved as you choose one song after the next, or there is a lack of coherence due to the completely random way that the shuffle feature works.

Tuning into a good radio station frees you of decision-making, letting you more easily drift out of self-consciousness, while also taking you on a ride through a variety of soundscapes. The trend of technology that tries to help you find new things has been toward narrowing the range of what you're exposed to, so it's a real pleasure to have something like a radio station that puts more of the blind trial-and-error back into the cultural exploration experience.

My ideal radio station would play music from 1974 through 1990, across all genres except for country (although crossover acts like Emmylou Harris are fine -- especially in video when you get to see her face). However, that doesn't cohere enough for most listeners for there to be a station that does that. But the '80s themed stations are close enough, and they along with '80s nights at dance clubs are always happy to include songs that belong with the rest but technically lie outside of that decade, such as all of the hits from Depeche Mode's 1990 album Violator, "Heart of Glass," "Rock Lobster," and so on.

The major downside of internet radio is the sheer volume of stations to browse until you find a good one, but luckily I hit upon a great one early on -- Star 107.9 from Columbus, Ohio, where coincidentally I grew up from 1985 to 1992, which is nostalgic icing on the cake. First, they run very few ads and have good sound quality. And it's not like most of the others I found, which just replay the same 10 stereotypical "Best of the '80s" compilations over and over. It does play mega-hits, but is mostly focused on recreating the full spectrum of sounds. Hearing a few songs that you think are only OK heightens your appreciation when a great one comes on; they don't overdo this either, where it drags on and on until you find a fun song.

They cover the tail end of disco and the '70s hard rock sound from the early '80s, the New Wave heyday from '82 to '84, the softer rock middle years, and the return to a harder rock sound and heavily syncopated dance music by the end. There's less R&B, but it is also spread across the decade. The only music that they don't play as much of is the college rock, post-punk, and other less mainstream rock genres. I did find a good station at Live365 called "Alternative '80s" -- a misnomer, as alternative music is from the mid-'90s -- that played a lot of Camper Van Beethoven, Echo & The Bunnymen, etc., but it looks like you only get to listen to so many minutes before they make you register an account, sign in, bla bla bla. Their sound quality is noticeably worse, and they run frequent ads too, so I've junked that station.

I don't want to exaggerate the greatness of internet radio like some technophile spazz, as it is no improvement over what was widely available 20 years ago. But at least it can counteract the downward trend of pop music quality, the narrowness of what people are exposed to, and the need to plan out what you're going to listen to.

Have there been any pro-family movies during the family values revolution?

Feeling like a movie about family for Father's Day, I watched Uncle Buck, a later John Hughes movie that while not great is still a nice experience. This one, along with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, came after he finally dropped the preachy and angsty tone of his earlier teen comedies.

What makes it a good family flick? First, the surrogate father puts the whiny spoiled brat of a daughter in her place rather than try to play the Cool Dad or resign himself to the kids-what-are-ya-gonna-do role of the Disgruntled Dad. Eventually she figures out that he was right to get on her case about dating her loser boyfriend, Bug. At the end, she even apologizes to her mother for being such a terrible daughter. Buck also gives Bug the good old "touch her and you're dead" speech, complete with the threat of taking a hatchet to him if he does. During the course of the movie, he goes through a rite of passage from layabout to as much of a patriarch as he's capable of, and this civilizing transformation came about by being thrust into family life.

Plus there's that great scene where he deflates the ego of the authoritarian cunt of a principal at his niece's school.

This movie came out in 1989, so when helicopter parents started raising a stink about "family values" in the early-mid-1990s, you might have expected to see more like Uncle Buck. Instead what they paid to go see were top-10 box office hits like Hook, where the message is that the father should stop being a dad and become a kid again; Forrest Gump, where by the end one child must raise another, and by himself no less; and American Beauty, where married life is a nauseating hell (see Family Guy for a less emo but more kabuki version). After that, "family-friendly" movies didn't even treat family dynamics at all. Rather, parents only paid to see the kiddie movies that have dominated the box office, which keep children entertained but don't try to remind them to be more grateful.

The shallowness, as well as cynicism, of family-oriented pop culture also marked the previous era of falling crime, the mid-'30s through the late '50s, as exemplified by Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and of course that generation's American Beauty -- Arthur Miller plays and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. When the outside world presents few challenges to the security of the household, family members take each other more for granted and undergo fewer rites of passage, in coping with problems, that would cement the bonds of kinship more strongly.

Uncle Buck came near the end of rising-crime times, where we see the opposite pattern, particularly after the halfway point, when people stop believing that some simple change will fix everything and start shifting their mindset to one of "let's figure out how we can help each other through this." Mostly this was shown on TV shows instead of movies, with All in the Family being the first truly memorable pro-family show, followed by Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Who's the Boss?, the early pre-snarky Simpsons, along with scores of less popular shows. Back to the Future was a notable exception to the tendency for these to be TV shows.

Beset by greater problems, these family members incurred a higher cost in helping out one another, making them more altruistic, and they were far more appreciative of their kin after having been helped out so much. Although they only had to deal with infrequent obstacles, they were common and daunting enough that the solidarity forged during their common attack lasted through their ordinary lives as well. It's hard to look back at family life during the Reagan era, whether stylized or from personal memories, and not be struck by how joyful and chummy most people were when interacting with their folks -- and during a time when the parents did not have the explicit goal of Trying to Be Your Friend. The lack of pettiness, and of bearing pointless passive-aggressive grudges, is another feature that seems to have vanished from family life, at least compared to before.

With family feelings having become more alienated or at best lukewarm over the past 20 years, it's understandable that pop culture will reflect these changes, as consumers choose the portrayals that resonate with them. Still, we shouldn't try to dignify this trend by calling it family-friendly or an example of family values, lacking as it does a spirit of camaraderie among kin. Only after recognizing that might parents encourage a greater degree of risk-taking in family activities -- for example camping (without $50,000 worth of "gear") -- that would do as much to strengthen their bonds until a more dangerous world compels them to really band together.

June 18, 2011

Sports rioting, a disease of sick societies

The most pathetic thing about the recent riots in Vancouver is not the packs of video game addicts finally emerging from hibernation to smash windows, loot, and set things on fire -- which, by the way, proves what pussies they are, as they'll only lash out when there is zero risk of detection or punishment, when they can slink like cowards into a vast crowd.

No, what's more disgusting is everyone else sitting on their fat ass -- or in some cases walking right by the vandalism, perhaps even taking pictures for their Facebook updates. Why aren't old ladies pouring out into the streets to smack these punks around with brooms and frying pans? Why aren't neighborhood kids forming block patrols to keep the loser brigades from screwing with their hang-outs? And why aren't military veterans organizing a posse? Shoot, the Vancouver police should have booked a flight for Epic Beard Man if their local residents are just going to sit around and watch their city burn.

Given how few are causing real trouble, and given how cowardly and uncommitted they are, it would hardly take an army of people from the community to shut down most of this senseless destruction. It would not even have to get very violent: it would go a long way to just have a large crowd glaring at them, like "God, you're pathetic, it's no wonder you'll always be a failure." A good deal of their motivation is to boost their non-existent status by having a mob cheer on their (imaginary) badassery. So if their kicking in a store window was only met with stares of contempt, they would stop, scream "Well screw you guys for judging me, then!" and shuffle home crying to tell their mommies how mean the crowd was, and to "leave me alone while I play Grand Theft Auto -- I mean it this time, Mom!"

That the residents of Vancouver could not manage even a fraction of this low necessary level of response shows how thoroughly wasted away the city is on the inside. It has abandoned community defense and outsourced the clean-up job to even more apathetic mercenaries, i.e. the police. It is as though the social body had shut off its own immune system -- "too much hassle to protect something we don't care about" -- and began relying on emergency room visits and cocktails of antibiotics after the inevitable invasion by pathogens. Their will to survive has dwindled so much that they are just a couple steps away from telling the doc to just pull the plug and get it over with already.

Perhaps if the rioting served some larger purpose -- whether justified or not -- things would not look so bleak. If, for example, the rioting were about politics, economics, race relations, and so on. When there are two sides in a battle-with-a-purpose, onlookers might not be able to tell right away which side was right, or if both had legitimate grievances. They might also have a greater fear of reprisal by the group who they sided against, since in these situations -- but not where it's just a bunch of uncommitted losers wreaking havoc -- the other side feels strongly enough about their side winning that they will try to retaliate. This senselessness is what makes sports rioting such a telling sign of how weakly held together a society is.

But such shockingly low levels of social cohesion are hardly unique to Canada, which has never really had a strong national identity. Even in America, over the past 20 years as our solidarity has plateaued or started to fall, sports rioting has become far more common, at least judging from Wikipedia's list of riots, which does have pretty extensive coverage of the past half-century. They were not entirely absent during our peak as a society from roughly 1950 to 1990, but in comparison they have exploded since 1992.

However, 1950 to 1990 was not a period free of sports riots in England; in fact, that was when soccer hooliganism became a regular feature of the culture. This was just one symptom of the widespread fraying of the social fabric during that time, which would lead to losing its first-place status among nations to America. Similar hooliganism pervades the rest of Europe, and of course they haven't been strong countries for over 100 years.

Turning to the good news, where don't we find sports rioting in Western countries? You shouldn't be surprised if you read the post below predicting that Australia is the best bet in the medium-long-term for upholding civilization. The list of riots mentioned earlier doesn't have any entries that are sports riots within Australia, or New Zealand for that matter, aside from protests against visiting teams from Apartheid South Africa in 1971 and 1981, respectively. The small handful of riots in Australia are the occasional garden-variety race riots that erupt whenever highly dissimilar groups live within the same nation. Even those don't appear to have involved more than a couple hundred people.

The 2005 Cronulla riots were larger, but they still were nothing like the scale and damage done during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. And those riots were more of a community-defense response against some Middle Eastern troublemakers -- a sign of a functioning immune system, then, unlike the sports rioting of other Western countries.

And it's not as though there's no culture of sports and drinking there to provide the pretext for senseless rioting, if that's what people wanted to do. I've never been there, but I do remember that the Australians in Barcelona went carousing like other Anglo groups on the weekend. Evidently, this only goes as far as chummy drunken revelry, and not wantonly trashing the community while everyone else looks on in apathy.

June 16, 2011

Otherwordly bells as the sound of end-times

Sometimes the zeitgeist expresses itself in a characteristic sound within popular music, which is not to say that it is found everywhere or even that it is clear at the time what it is. Still, you can look back and say that the sound captures as much of the feel of the times as possible. For example: the Byrds' 12-string guitar during the carefree days of cruising or hitching a ride on the open road, or the sleepy-weepy singing of John Mayer and Norah Jones in a period of resignation and social hibernation.

As the era of soaring violence reached its peak in the later 1980s, the so-called turbulent Sixties looked like a walk in the park compared to the more apocalyptic signs that had burst out into view of the mainstream around the mid-'70s and after -- runaway prostitutes, serial killers, child molesters, countless cults, terrorism, drug wars, gangs, armies of crazy homeless people, VD epidemics... well shit man, what're we gonna be tested with next?

This background turns people's minds toward the eternal, the sublime, and the supernatural, a feature common to other periods of soaring violence, which I've detailed elsewhere. It also strengthens social bonds between friends, family, lovers, and even neighborhood strangers, as people get tighter in order to overcome life's greater challenges. Despite the daunting odds, people remain sanguine because they feel that a broader community has got their back. At the same time, they long for a place where the obstacles weren't this intimidating, and a wistfulness flits around just below the surface of their mind, although never gushing over to drown their thoughts in sentimentality.

So what was the timbre for twilight times? Others can take a crack at it, but to my ear it is the synthesizer bell, for reasons I'll explain after walking through some examples first. I know I'm not the only one who thinks so either -- in looking for a list of songs to include here, I came across this discussion among musicians about "That mid/late 80's bell synth sound." Not so obscure after all. Let's start with one of the most memorable, from "Hungry Eyes" by Eric Carmen:



Belinda Carlisle's song "I Get Weak" is another slow-dance song that uses a synth bell to set the mood. A somewhat heavier ballad by Bon Jovi, "Without Love", deploys the sound to get the male audience to let down their guard a little around their girlfriend and not always be so stoic. (Of course most of Slippery When Wet is hard-edged, so in context this is just a moment of vulnerability, not the wallowing in watch-me-bare-my-soul-itude that has characterized the past 20 years.)

It wasn't restricted to slower songs, however, where it calls to mind the clock bells that keep time, or perhaps wedding bells. Even more up-tempo songs like "Open Your Heart" by Madonna made prominent use of them, working them more into the cheery melody itself. And so did just about every song by Bananarama during this time, such as "I Want You Back". As I said, this sound was quite common, and these are just a handful of examples. (It even found its way into a massively popular video game of 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog, as the background music for Star Light Zone.)

Natural bells had been used before in popular music, mostly in heavy metal songs to suggest "memento mori," but also in slower disco hits like Chic's "I Want Your Love" to announce that it was time to take a rest from the more frenetic body-moving songs. In their more chime-y form, natural bells showed up in horror movie soundtracks, such as the themes for Suspiria and Child's Play, where they heightened the creepiness of the score by stealing the innocent sounds of children's music boxes and wind chimes.

And yet there's nothing like a synthesizer to evoke the not-of-this-world feeling that was needed for apocalyptic times. It's natural enough to convince us that it's a real musical sound (unlike computer noise music), but it's artificial enough to sound like it came from some other plane of existence. In particular, the synth bell can be programmed to have a breath that lasts much longer than the natural bell. Combined with the glassier and less metallic timbre of the synth bell when it is "struck," this enduring breathiness allows the mundane radio listener to hear a small piece of the eternal music of the heavenly spheres.

Like the piano, the bell synth has both an initial resounding percussion followed by a lingering voice. It is therefore perfectly designed to tug at the heart-strings, although again the effect is never overdone within a given stretch of time, and throughout the song the bell is only sounded sparingly. This is what suits it to the wistful and nearly sentimental, though still composed mood that listeners were in as they were coming together to turn back the forces of social chaos.

June 15, 2011

Will Australia succeed America as the world's leading society?

I've never been to England, but by all accounts the level to which it has sunken would have appalled the Victorians, who saw the country at its most influential politically and culturally. Although they don't appear to be destined for the gutter, they are never going to recover those glory days. In this they join the post-Roman Italians, the modern-era French, the Turks, Celts, Mongols, Persians, Arabs, and other once-powerful cultures.

America held things up pretty well after the English could no longer hold themselves so strongly together, but for at least the past 20 years the signs of our plateau-ing or perhaps decline have been there for anyone with eyes to see. There's no one else in sight behind us for now, so we'll probably ride out a decadent phase for maybe another half-century. It might still be a nice place to live, but it will never regain the influence that it had from roughly the Kennedy through Reagan eras.

So then, who's going to take our place? We can rule out any pre-industrial society, including China and India.

The Chinese have been designed by natural selection for intensive agriculture, which has no high risk / high reward opportunities that would fit them for even a proto form of capitalism. That's why their so-called progress is only being kept afloat by a gigantic state-funded bubble. (The Japanese only settled down from a nomadic way of life a couple thousand years ago, unlike the Chinese who were one of the first groups to enslave themselves with agriculture.)

Pastoralism and nomadism are proto-capitalist ways of life, since unlike farmland their livestock multiply just as an investment earns compound interest. Also unlike farmland, it is possible for a pastoralist to raid the livestock of another, run off with them quickly, and get rich quick. This selects for greater risk-taking among herders. However, the livestock, the guard animals, and most importantly the rival herder himself are not going to just sit there and take it. So, the expected push-back selects for a more cautious, not reckless, form of risk-taking.

Related to this is the greater religiosity among pastoralists, especially a strong emphasis on upholding morality personally: there is no central state to police the would-be rustlers, so herders do not outsource the enforcement of morality to distant third parties. An obsession with trusting and being trustworthy also pervades herder religion, again because trust plays a larger role when there are no neutral third parties to settle squabbles. The canonical examples here are the three major monotheistic religions, each founded by groups of Near Eastern pastoralists, and the off-shoots of the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, another highly nomadic herder group.

Lacking these elements of morality, the Chinese cannot hope to attain global influence. Others can tell when someone doesn't try to live a personally moral life, which makes the person seem shady. (Chinese morality is mostly about filial piety.) And the absence of trustworthiness will keep others from being drawn to them. One other central aspect of pastoralist life is the focus on proper guest/host relations, in which the host offers a lot and the guest does not refuse very much. This culture of hospitality is a great way to make more friends and gain greater influence. But type in to google, "why are chinese..." or "why are the chinese..." and it will auto-suggest that they are "so rude."

India is too much of a sprawling mess, and like China it has already had its day in the sun as a major civilization. There is enough of a history of pastoralism that if they along with some farmers broke off into their own country, and waited several hundred years for the society to cohere, they could do all right. But for the next century or two, they aren't going anywhere near the top.

Having cleared up some confusion about the two countries that everyone has their eyes on, what about within the developed world? That is the obvious place to look. All of Europe has reached whatever maximum potential it had, so it won't be them. America will be done for as the first-place country before too long, and that means our dorky little brother Canada too. The first-world pockets in Latin America are still a couple hundred years away from being at a European level.

Funny as it sounds, I think Australia has a good shot at taking the torch from us. They're an Anglo society, and we have hundreds of years of proof that those work. They've got lots of open land to develop. They've got the mix of pastoralist cautious risk-taking combined with the farmers' penchant for slaving away, just like other European-descended groups. They're moral, pragmatic, suspicious of silly fads (relative to other Western countries anyway), they're rambunctious rather than wimpy, they're more informal and not authoritarian, they contributed a good amount to rock music, and they export Celtic super-babes. In other words, they're not so different from our own Scotch-Irish. And since they've never reigned at the global level, they haven't been retired yet.

All they need is a strong and very alien enemy to make them pull together. This is Peter Turchin's idea of ethnogenesis along a meta-ethnic frontier, where the two peoples on either side look different, talk different, believe different, and act different. The American settlers, pioneers, frontiersmen, and so on, had the various Indian tribes to unite against. Even though the middle strip of the country does have greater solidarity than the west coast or eastern half of the country, still it is not so high and is declining for want of a common enemy.

Who would the Australians' Indians be? Not the Aborigines, as they pose no threat. But Australia is surrounded by all sorts of non-European countries where the appearance, speech, beliefs, and customs are all radically different. If one of them should try to unite and prove hostile, that might just do the job to rally Australians to the cause of upholding civilization. My guess is that the Chinese would be the ones to try this, as they are already strongly nationalistic and have the military to try it.

Right now Australia is heavily invested in the Chinese bubble, which is why they have been spared the worst effects of the recession that we've seen elsewhere in the West. But sooner or later that house of cards will fall down, and it could be the first in a series of sour relations between the two countries.

Since this is all at least 50 to 100 years off, who knows even roughly how things will unfold? (Maybe it will be New Zealand instead of China that tries to take over the region.) Still, looking around the world I don't see a stronger contender.

June 13, 2011

I love my dead gay she-blogger

As Jim Goad details over at Taki's Magazine, the Syrian lesbian martyr-blogger put-on is just the latest in an ongoing series of homosexual hoaxes that the elite have eagerly eaten up and swallowed whole. (Even as I write this entry, news breaks that another member of the Lesbian Blogger Hall of Fame is actually a middle-aged guy as well.) And of course it doesn't end with the gays, as there's been a string of race-based hoaxes as well, most notably the elite witch hunt of white lacrosse players at Duke after a crazy black stripper accused them of rape.

Conservatives with no memory will attribute these shenanigans to the legacy of the '60s, but in fact they are entirely a product of the past 15-20 years, the era of political correctness, identity politics, and so on. Earlier I explained what The Sixties was about and was not about, and identity politics played little role. It was only in the early '90s that it broke through into the mainstream. See the footnote for a summary. * The reason there was no series of hoaxes like this back in the '60s is that they had real problems to point to -- the War in Vietnam, the Kent State shootings, assassinations of public figures, and so on.

Not that rising-crime times did not produce its own warnings and panics about imminent demise, preached by its own brand of false Messiahs. However, at least it was largely religious in character, it did focus on a real problem -- what seemed to be a more and more chaotic world -- and when the hucksters were found out (such as when Jim Jones lead a mass murder / suicide in Jonestown), the rest of society learned to not be so naive toward such movements.

In falling-crime times, though, the moral panics are about as profane and trivial as you can get -- omg someone left HATE SPEECH on my dorm room whiteboard!!! -- the signs that are supposed to trouble us turn out to be fake, and the whole of society keeps turning a blind eye to each case of fraud, never remembering for next time. If in fact the average person had a memory for this stuff and a healthy dose of skepticism, the media could not continue parroting each round of ridiculous claims. Hogwash can only be sold wholesale to a public that has so sheltered itself from reality that it cannot immediately tell that the story must be bogus.

Most conservatives would like to portray the people as helpless victims, dupes of the media-with-an-agenda age that has landed from outer space to colonize the outclassed Earthlings. Sorry, but the elite media can only brainwash a mind that has grown weak from a lack of engagement with the real world, just as a tiny army can only conquer a large nation whose bonds of cohesion have already dissolved and where apathy already reigns.

So we see yet another class of examples where falling-crime times turn people more hopelessly naive, for want of exposure to real life as they hide in safety, unaware of how sick people can be. Rising-crime times make people lead more risky lives but with a more cautious and alert mindset. It sounds paradoxical -- riskier and more cautious -- but our minds become more alert in response to a riskier way of life, excepting the truly pathological junkie cases.

Folks in the era of helicopter parents should not pride themselves on being wise and cautious, unlike those clueless and reckless people from the good ol' days, because a person can only be said to exercise caution when they either are or are tempted to act in a somewhat risky way. "Be cautious when walking alone at night," or "Be cautious when crossing a busy street in the dark" -- not "Be cautious when taking a nap," or "Be cautious when leveling up your Pokemon characters."

* The culture war of The Sixties was mostly about ending the Vietnam War -- do they even teach that in school anymore, or is there no time left after studying the Stonewall Riots? -- stopping imperialist foreign policy in general, smashing capitalism, and forcing the rulers to uphold the civil rights of the citizens. In the protesters' view, these rights were being denied on the basis of race, sex, and age (again, the youth/student rights movement seems to have vanished down the memory hole, impossible as it is to believe, but then they're not a protected minority). Still, it was all about the elite rulers and the ruled masses.

In total contrast, the culture war that erupted in the early-mid 1990s was not about a corrupt government, but a more pervasive and insidious fog of racism, sexism, and homophobia that had knocked out the brains of the ordinary people at the grassroots level. The "politics of race" was not about some handful of government employees with firehoses trained on blacks, but about white privilege and the racist consciousness of the vast majority of everyday white people. The "politics of gender" was not about a small number of executives paying women however-many cents to the dollar they paid men, or a cabal of politicians trying to prevent legal access to abortion, but about male privilege and the sexist consciousness of just about every guy you run into in daily life -- given the right opportunity, none would hesitate to date-rape you. And the same goes for the gay agenda, whose action was not directed just at the powerful but at the masses in need of re-education.

So, the '60s culture war saw the power structure as concentrated at the top of society, which emphasizes cohesion among the bulk of the population below -- The Establishment is out to screw us all. The '90s culture war saw the power structure as broadly and deeply distributed across all individuals, which leads to social disintegration as the anxious groups split off from the suspect groups (blacks from whites, women from men, etc.).

June 12, 2011

The attention-whoring face distilled, and where the trend may lead

Awhile ago I discussed the ubiquitous kabuki faces in our culture as an example of the decline in sincerity, and how difficult they make it to sympathize with anyone these days -- including people you know in real life, who post them on Facebook.

Looking over the pictures in that post again, recalling music videos, and observing the faces that college kids make when some of them lip-sync at '80s night, it seems like one type of kabuki face predominates -- the help me I'm in pain! face. The main identifiers are the eyebrows raised up and scrunched in above the nose, a universal expression of pain. It usually includes a direct stare at the audience as though to implore their help, unless the face-maker is an actor trying not to break the fourth wall.

(The earliest example that came to mind is the 1993 video for "Heart Shaped Box" by Nirvana. The 2005 video for "Helena" by My Chemical Romance shows that even in an age where no one watches MTV for videos anymore, the pained face remains. In contrast, the early '80s video for "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" does not feature a pained face, and the singer is a queer. How sad that even they were more stoic back then than straights are today.)

Why is this the prototypical attention-whoring face? A look that says help me I'm in pain! is sure to get the audience's attention: the normal unconscious reflex is to feel like, "Drop everything, what's wrong with them?!" Someone who is in pain right here and now requires more attention than someone who looks merely miffed, let alone someone who looks happy.

However, our conscious mind soon realizes that our reflexes have been toyed with -- we see that the person is in no situation that would cause them pain. They're just posing for the camera, singing along to a song, etc. We feel like we've been suckered by the boy who cried wolf. Any particular instance of this may not feel like such a heavy con job, but accumulated over all of the times we experience it, the effect is reinforce the plummeting levels of social trust.

And apart from lowering our trust of others, we get the sense that people don't want us to get close to them -- they must realize how off-putting that face is (or any of the others in the kabuki repertoire), so clearly they intended to set up a wide psychological distance between themselves and others. So we also develop a keener feeling of "I'd like to, but why bother being more social?" in a world of grotesque mask-wearers.

The second-most common type of attention-whoring face is the omigod, I'm so surprised! face, signaled by the universal expression of surprise, raised eyebrows and large googly eyes. This is sure to get the audience's attention because we look to others for information about what's going on, and if we see someone looking so damned surprised, well, probably the cause of that expression is something we should turn our attention to as well. It's like how we pay more attention to hearing a gasp than small talk among a group of strangers within earshot.

As with the pained face, though, we soon realize that there's nothing shocking. They're just taking a random picture for Facebook, dancing in place to music, or some other activity that is not being punctuated by a surprise. Once again the face-maker reliably gets a lot of easy attention, and the onlookers get none of the benefit of attending to the facial expressions of others, feeling only that they've been had. The cumulative effects are the same as with the pained face, and for the same reasons.

I don't consider the surprised face the nadir of social degradation because seeing someone in pain is more serious and stressful than someone in surprise. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of sociopaths is their attempts to con well-meaning people into believing they're in distress, and could you please help? True, the sociopath exploits his victims for a lot more than just a bunch of attention, but it is still a sign of how anti-social the culture is becoming, along with the popularity of video games where guys fantasize about being the exploiters rather than the vigilantes who do whatever it takes to flush the scum down the sewer where it belongs.

Obviously that's not translating into higher rates of murder, rape, etc., but those are always committed by a small number of prolific and highly sociopathic people. That end of the distribution seems to have been curtailed, but the remaining majority are more likely to indulge in petty, not-so-destructive anti-social behavior. There is the problem of a slippery slope, but I think there's an even greater problem than what these people might do themselves after awhile -- namely, develop greater sympathy for inveterate and truly destructive sociopaths.

However incremental and small the change may be, the average attention whore, community-disdainer, and just leave me alone loser will narrow the gap between themselves and the bad guys, and so be more likely to include them under the umbrella of the in-group. This increased sympathy hardly needs to get to 100% thunderous applause for sociopaths before all hell breaks loose. The 1950s were not what most people would consider a super-liberal era, but they were liberal enough, especially in the centers of power (the government, big business, and social science). They had been heading in that naive liberal direction since the New Deal, and it did not even need to reach the shameful levels of the Great Society, given that the crime rate began its long rise in 1959. Unlike Reagan, Eisenhower was a Republican that liberals could like.

Based on the last period of falling crime, 1934 through 1958, we are now in the part of the cycle that corresponds to the 1950s, since crime has been falling since 1993. Like the '50s, this decade will seem safer than ever, but things will get interesting not too long after its end, and we'll have to learn the lessons of the '60s, '70s, and '80s all over again.

June 9, 2011

Mowing her lawn, or not, 1985 to 2010

Sometime in the recent past it became against the law to have natural pubic hair. I don't mean some piece of legislation passed by Congress that no one would obey, but the tacit social law that people live by. Many have been curious to find out roughly when this happened. After all, the change was not trivial, like abandoning yellow shirts for blue ones. I don't mess around with my hair down there, but from what I've heard, read, and can easily imagine, it must be at least a great inconvenience -- yet another grooming chore -- and perhaps downright painful.

Since the change has been most pronounced among females, and because someone else can study changing fashions in men's habits, I restricted my study to women. Because individual women may be slow to respond to changing demand among men for more or less hair, I figured it was better to look at something that reflects mainstream tastes and behavior, and that would provide easy data. So I found an online archive of every Playboy Playmate of the Month from 1985 through 2010, subjectively graded how much hair she had on a 0 to 3 scale, and averaged the ratings for each year. For a little more detail about the method, see the footnote. *

Here is what the change looks like over time:


The years 1985 to 1991 more or less overlap each other, and they are all somewhere between 2 and 3 (or slightly shapened and natural). It's not until 1992 that there is a clearly visible downward trend. Rounding to the nearest whole number, it's not until 2001 that the average is more or less 0, i.e. completely gone or with only a minimal token amount. It has stayed at that low level ever since -- in fact, in 2009 and 2010 every single woman had a value of 0.

Focusing on individual women instead of the overall average, the first 0 appears in 1993, and the last 3 showed up in 1995. The shift is not one where everyone used to have natural hair, and then more and more women began to remove it all, although that was part of it (and now of course that is the norm). But the women who left hair at all began clipping it shorter and shorter, if not all the way down, and bringing in the edges more and more, if not all the way.

This picture shows several things. First, we can put the rest the silly idea that getting rid of more and more hair began in the porno movie industry and somehow went mainstream. Even without looking at data like this, we should wonder why people would imitate every trivial detail they saw in a dirty movie. Did the broader availability of these movies cause an epidemic of guys who pulled out before they finished? And have these theorizers ever seen a dirty movie from the 1980s? -- they tend to be natural or close enough. Once again pop sociology proves even stupider than academic sociology.

According to the internet, the first Brazilian waxing service came to America in 1994, basically the same time that the first Playmate has a value of 0. There was thus a common trend that affected everyday women, pin-up girls, and porno actresses. This is also clear if you look at the hair on their head -- all those groups of women sport similar hairstyles within a given time period. Aside from weird fetish movies, the women are chosen to look like real-life chicks, not serious deviants (in appearance anyway).

Second, we should probably view the removal of pubic hair as part of a larger trend of reducing the volume of hair on the body -- including head hair and eyebrow hair. The average girl has adopted much shorter hair, and has kept it nearly plastered to the scalp with straighteners, over the same time that she started messing with her other hair. She's also started to pluck, tweeze, and re-paint her eyebrows to an extent that would have been unbelievable before. As recently as the late '80s and very early '90s, women kept their pubic hair more or less natural, they wore their head hair longer, and they really made it stand away from the head. It's as though there's a general impulse to cover up, reduce, or eliminate signs of hair growth.

Third, the timing should make us think of how the prominence of body hair responds to whether the violence level in society is rising or falling. In this case, women began minimizing their hair as the world got safer. In contrast, during the rising-crime times of the '60s through the '80s, hair only got more prominent. As far as I can tell, it's not the state of pubic hair specifically that responds to the violence level, since there don't appear to be cycles up and down in shaving it or leaving it alone. In earlier waves of violence, the evidence isn't crystal clear but is suggestive. Since that would take us too far afield, I might return to a longer but shallower historical look later on.

Finally, what's the link? We've seen before that people become more sexual when violence levels rise, and more prudish when they fall. Then it shouldn't be surprising if people chose to sexualize their appearance more during rising-crime times, and to asexualize it in falling-crime times. Hair is one of the most strongly sexual parts of the body -- that's why married women cover it up around the world, and why in other parts even unmarried girls must cover it up to maintain their honor and reputation for chastity. So it is only fitting that they would try to minimize their hair in safer times. A flowing mane of hair and a full bush might give men the idea that she's more of a wild animal than her otherwise hairless skin had let on. That's the last thought you want to give men in safer-prudish times, although you might well choose to play it up in dangerous-wilder times.

The topic for future research (not by me) is what's been going on with guys, and when. The fact that guys now trim, shave, or "manscape" their junk is one of the clearest signals that the culture has turned completely homosexual. "But it makes my you-know-what look bigger in comparison!" Sorry, but if you're resorting to shaving your hair down there, you're going to need more help than that. The same trend of shorter hair worn closer to the scalp applies to men too, of course. We're back to the 1950s when crew-cuts were the only length allowed, and I can't remember the last time I saw a black guy with an afro in real life.

* "How much" hair, I take to mean how much volume or space it takes up. Since this volume is a base area times a height, it is affected by how much she has completely shaved or waxed (which shrinks the base area) and how tightly she has cropped the existing hair (which shortens the height). Taking all of that into account, I used a scale of 0 for bald or minimal (e.g., bald except for a token patch that was tiny in area and trimmed very close to the skin), 1 for low (e.g., a "landing strip" that was wider, longer, and that went farther up toward the belly button), 2 for medium (e.g., pulled in here and there at the sides and nearer the waist, and no trimming), and 3 for more or less natural (perhaps with the sides pulled in at the bikini line).

There are usually more than one shooting sessions per woman, so if there was any doubt, I went with what she looked like in the majority of shoots. When it was close to call, I would find another woman from that year who was also a close call, and rounded one down and one up.

June 8, 2011

Larger scale of online shopping prevents evolution of tastes

Do you remember when stores used to sell things? If you wanted some thing, you went to a store that carried things like that, browsed around, and either found the thing you wanted or moved on to another store. Now stores don't carry anything because everything must be sold online to reduce the costs of bla bla bla, but don't worry because those savings are passed along to the consumer.

The one good thing about online shopping is that if you already know more or less what you want, you can find it. With all the junk that the innumerable online sellers offer, it's there somewhere.

But what about the things you want but don't know about yet because they're outside of what you normally look at? You can't find those online because you can't type them into Google or the search bar of eBay or any online seller. You have to have them presented to you while you're browsing around, you inspect this or that thing, one might strike your fancy, and you decide to gamble on it. Sometimes it turns out to be a dud, but other times you strike gold by serendipity.

The online shopping world does the exact opposite of laying out a wide variety of things to browse: it either asks you for a specific target, or suggests things that are similar to your target, similar to previous items you've bought, or that people with similar tastes to yours have bought. This just narrows the range of products that you see into tinier and tinier slices. Pretty soon your Amazon and Netflix suggestions are all stuck in the region of the book and movie world where you started, and your music suggestions from Pandora are running circles around a handful of proto-post-psycho-core-adelic bands.

What's missing is the process of random mutation that fuels the working of adaptation by natural selection. Yes, most of these deviations from your existing store of songs or books or whatever will turn out to be failures (from your point of view). However, all it takes is a few successful mutations to take your appreciation of music, books, coffees, etc., in exciting new directions.

Previously these random suggestions were made by radio stations or MTV playing a variety of music instead of taking requests from you personally, by record stores and book stores stocking a wide range of albums and books, and so on. Also back when people were more social, your friends, acquaintances, or even the workers at these stores would randomly suggest things to you -- "Hey kid, have you seen Taxi Driver yet? May not be totally your kind of movie, but you should still try it out."

Why can't online sellers do this? Well, there's just too much damn stuff on offer. In a video rental store, or the movie section of a larger retailer, there might be at most a couple hundred movies to choose from. That's not so hard to browse. Netflix offers over 100,000 titles -- impossible to browse. And because of diminishing marginal returns, a lot of those extra movies that Netflix carries are unwatchable (for you anyway), whereas the video store will stock better movies on average if they have a lot more limited space to hold them in. The same goes for iTunes, Amazon, and the others, compared to Tower Records, Barnes & Noble, etc. With their selections too bloated to allow browsing, they have all converged on the idea of tunneling based on the customer's initial tastes.

The industry that's really getting slammed here is the booksellers. Most people go to Barnes & Noble for the browsing experience that reveals to them books that they want but would never have thought of, lying as they do outside their normal tastes. But then they turn around and leave the store without buying anything, only to go on Amazon and get them there. There is no clearer demonstration of what brick-and-mortar and online sellers are good at. Unfortunately if people keep that up, the stores will go out of business and they will have no more source of random mutations to take their cultural experiences somewhere unfamiliar yet rewarding.

We're supposed to live in an era of broader appreciation of what the world has to offer because economies of scale make it easier to offer millions of books online than in stores. But the result has been just the opposite, where the tunneling algorithms designed to cope with the bewildering array of titles trim the customer's tastes into an ever-narrowing band of the spectrum.

Obviously the solution is to rely mostly on brick-and-mortar stores whose smaller selection you can fruitfully browse, turning to online sellers only for rare things that you know you'll never find in stores. Even those can usually be ordered by the record store, book store, etc., and more cheaply because they have connections with mass distributors. I never have and probably never will buy a CD online because it'll work its way into my local used record store, or they can have it transferred from another site that does have it, or special-order it for me at no extra cost (no shipping either) because they can aggregate all customers' special orders into a bulk shipment and save a ton on shipping charges per customer or per item.

Few people do this, though, either because they just don't realize how stultified they're setting their experiences up to be, or because they do get it but are just too cheap to buy from a store rather than use them as a source for ideas and then have the online sellers compete over price. And when the stores are no longer there to provide new ideas? "Well, I'll have enough books and whatever by then, so I'll make out OK."

As for the former group who don't realize what they're setting in motion, I don't believe in the power of the free market, consumer choice, etc etc to correct these moves in the wrong direction -- not anytime soon, that is. Genetic selection has not made human beings good at relying on a carby, starchy, sugary diet, even though we've been practicing agriculture for nearly 10,000 years in some places. When we confront challenges that we are not at all adapted to, whether sugar in every one of our food items (even bread has corn syrup now) or online sellers with millions of items to rummage through, we can persist in maladaptive behavior for quite awhile.

I wouldn't be averse to some kind of protectionism for stores -- not particular stores, which would still compete amongst themselves as they did before, but just stores rather than online sellers. Or perhaps a heavier sales tax on mass-market or other common things sold online, to move it more in the direction of rare and niche things not available in real life. Ideally this would be done locally, at the city or state level, so that a variety of approaches could be tried out. Then the country could sort itself into places where the residents place less value on trial-and-error learning, and those where they place more value. In the former, people's tastes will never broaden, but what they do buy will be cheaper. In the latter, people are willing to pay the higher prices caused by protectionism in order to live richer lives.