September 30, 2011

Greater candy innovation in rising-crime times, 2

Same point as the post below, only now looking at 1960 to present. I let in more non-candy-bars this time since chocolate/nut/etc. candies were mostly perfected during the early 20th C. There were still some improvements to make, but most of the inventiveness in the past 50 years was in more sugar-based candies, not to mention snack cakes, cookies, and fruit snacks.

We don't know what will be popular 80 years from now, so my rough call on what was a "major" introduction is based on how great it was at the time and compared to new products since then. So there are several discontinued brands, including some of the greatest I tasted as a kid, Bar None and PB Max (a hit seller, but cancelled because the Mars brothers were afraid of peanut butter products).

Here is a chart showing these major national candy releases over time, where each chunk of time is the first or second half of a decade, marked by the mid-year:

Twix Reese's Pieces

Caramello Skor Symphony

Whatchamacallit Nestle Alpine Bar None Hershey C&C

100 Grand Rolo Gobstoppers Skittles Kudos Nutrageous

Lemonheads Starburst Special Dark Pop Rocks Gummi bears Airheads Dove bar

Now & Later Swedish Fish Blow Pops Bubble Yum Nerds Sour Patch PB Max
Take 5
1962 1967 1972 1977 1982 1987 1992 1997 2002

It's the same picture as before, where innovation tracks the violence rate. Creativity gets off to a start in the '60s and early '70s, though Rolo and Starburst are the only huge hits. There's a peak from the later '70s through the first half of the '80s, and still a good showing through the later '80s and early '90s, including the PB Max (1990) and Dove chocolate bar (1992).

After the crime rate starts falling after 1992, there are only three candy bars worth noting, two very soon after from 1994 (Nutrageous and Hershey's Cookies n Creme), and one from 2004 (Take 5). We saw that in the earlier 20th C, where after the homicide rate peaked in 1933, there were a few major candy bars that came out shortly after in the mid-late '30s, but only one more during the entire 1940s.

Again the use of candy as an example seems silly, but it goes to show that cultural creativity tends not to be confined to just one domain. There's a wider zeitgeist of inventiveness or stagnation. The peak from roughly 1976 through '84, plus a lower but still highish point in the late '80s and early '90s, showed up for instance in popular music, movies, and cars. And that episode appears to be part of a broader pattern where the second half of a rising-crime period is the most creative phase of the cycle.

September 29, 2011

Greater candy innovation in rising-crime times, 1

I went to the supermarket to look for stuff I might buy later for trick-or-treaters and send to my nephew, and noticed there haven't been too many new candies from the past 15 to 20 years. We see greater cultural invention during periods of rising crime for all sorts of reasons, which I won't explore / review here. Is even candy included in this pattern?

Thankfully there were two crime waves during the 20th C, so we can tell whether it really was related to rising violence levels or was just a spurious correlation from the past couple decades. If I'm right, there should've been a lot of candy innovation from 1900 to 1933, and particularly during the second half of that period (just as the later '70s through early '90s were more creative than the '60s and early '70s). The further into falling-crime times of 1934 through 1958, the lower the innovation should drop. Later I'll look at the 1960 and after period.

There may be some more systematic, quantitative way to show that the hunch is right, but for now I'll just go through the major candy brands introductions by year. I'm leaving out pre-1900 brands since we don't have homicide rate data to put them in rising or falling-crime times. What's "major" is just my call for now; one rule of thumb is to exclude candy that you would only buy on special occasions, like at the movies. I'm focusing less on gum and pure sugar candies, more on main category of products with chocolate, nuts, etc.

Here's a chart showing the introductions in 5-year chunks, the first and second half of a decade, with the mid-year across the bottom:

Dum Dum Pops


Milky Way Heath bar

Butterfinger Reese's PB Cups

Charleston Chew Dubble Bubble PayDay Nestle Crunch

Baby Ruth Raisinets 3 Musketeers 5th Avenue

Mounds Milk Duds Tootsie Pops Sugar Babies

Oh Henry! Sugar Daddy Zagnut Kit Kat M&M's Almond Joy
Clark bar Turtles Mr. Goodbar Snickers Life Savers Pep. Pattie Bazooka Peanut M&M's
1917 1922 1927 1932 1937 1942 1947 1952

The first Hershey bars were introduced before 1900, so that's why they're not shown. Sure enough, though, there isn't too much going on until the later half of the rising-crime period. The peak is clearly the Roaring Twenties, not only by number of brands released but also weighting them by how influential they would become in American candy culture. Even the early '30s did well, if for no other reason than that Snickers has been the dominant candy bar in America and many other countries.

Already by the later '30s, there's a noticeable drop-off. The Nestle Crunch and Kit Kat bars came out then, but they still aren't as popular as Snickers and 3 Musketeers, from the earlier '30s. The '40s were even less inventive except for M&M's, and maybe Whoppers. Even less creative were the '50s, saved only by an extension of an existing brand, Peanut M&M's. The later '50s saw the Pez dispensers with the famous heads on them, although the candy and basic dispenser were invented long before, so I left that off the chart.

So far the idea checks out -- creativity tracks the trend in the crime rate for another domain, where we might not have even expected it, and however silly the example may seem. Next time I'll look at 1960 through today.

September 26, 2011

Trick-or-treating as a measure of community cohesion

Those of us who grew up in trick-or-treating times took for granted how much trust and hospitality it took at the community level for the ritual to thrive.

On the kids' side, both they and their parents had to have enough good faith in their neighbors to venture out in the first place. I don't mean that otherwise they might suspect their neighbors of slipping them poisoned candy, apples with razor blades inside, etc. I mean they had to trust that their neighbors would be hospitable enough to buy bags of candy and be on-call that night to hand them out. When people get more cynical (probably the parents here more than the kids), they'll just assume, "Well our neighbors don't give a shit about hospitality anymore, so why bother sending the kids out?"

That creates a positive feedback loop that makes the remaining neighbors drop out too. As fewer kids are sent out each year, a participating neighbor sees that there's less and less of a point to buying candy and waiting near the door, dressing up themselves, and so on. At some point they just keep the front lights off and don't get up to answer the rare knock at the door.

What do the candy-givers get out of the exchange, by the way? It's not a parasitic relationship. They receive the joy from knowing that they belong to a cohesive community -- proven by the fact that all the parents nearby have trusted them to host their kids for a night. The parents back home receive the same joy; obviously they don't get any candy themselves. This is why people participate in any "rite of intensification," i.e. one that confirms and strengthens the feeling of group membership.

However, with fewer neighbors participating, the kids and especially parents are more likely to feel it would be pointless to go out, so they stay home instead. Before long, there are no more trick-or-treaters or candy-givers, everyone believing that everyone else is just too anti-social for the reciprocity to work.

That's more or less what took place from the mid-'90s through today, not coincidentally when all forms of togetherness began dying off. Google Ngrams shows that "trick or treat" shows up in books starting in the 1950s, and really got going during the '60s, when the phrase "trick or treating" also caught on. The golden age of trick-or-treating was of course the later '70s through the early '90s, when we enjoyed two related but independent sources of cohesion -- the peak of our national eminence that lasted from the '50s through the '80s, and the more local protective bonds caused by the rising crime rates from the '60s through the '80s.

I don't know what it felt like on the kids' side (or their parents) as trick-or-treating died off, since the last time I went out was '91 or '92. It must've felt disappointing to hear "Oh, sorry, we didn't buy any candy this year" with each passing Halloween.

But I sure do remember how demoralizing it was on the candy-givers' side. I started passing out candy when I was in 8th or 9th grade in the mid-'90s, and kept at it through high school. The number of kids just plummeted during that time. When I gave it another go last year, there was exactly one kid who stopped by, and I was outside and would've seen anyone else who walked on by.

I somewhat miss the fun you get from scaring little kids before lighting up their faces with a big stash of candy. The really depressing thing, though, was the awareness that no one in my so-called community trusted me or anyone else in the neighborhood to host their kids for a couple hours. Naturally as a thin-skinned high schooler I took that personally, but now I see that it's just part of the larger dissolving of community bonds, along with the disappearance of babysitters, not going to church, and home-schooling.

September 18, 2011

When old people hung out at the mall

Stumbled on this collection of pictures from malls across America, around 1989-'90. Look how many old people there are. And I don't mean old compared to the teenagers -- like, the early bird special crowd. Couples, groups of friends, even some loners sitting near each other.

I've never forgotten that aspect of going to the mall during their heyday. It was just one sign of their carnivalesque atmosphere. Old and young, male and female, preppy and metalhead -- everyone was mixing it up at the mall. In the video for "I Think We're Alone Now," both Tiffany and a man from the senior citizen crew cut a little rug together inside a mall.

As people have withdrawn from public spaces over the past 15-20 years, different age groups have had hardly any contact with each other. Young people aren't reminded of their immaturity and the need to get moving before time's up, and old people no longer get to join the broader community during play time.

The 70 year-olds who hung out at the mall during the '80s golden age were born roughly during the 1910s -- the Flaming Youth. As detailed below, 60 years separates similar generations, so their younger counterparts were born during the '70s -- i.e., Generation X. It was no accident that malls especially attracted people who came of age during the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties. The old people must've been sighing a breath of relief: "Finally a new wave of fun-loving and unpretentious youngsters!" I'm sure I'll find myself saying the same thing when malls eventually come back during the '40s.

September 13, 2011

Real wrath-of-God type stuff

Scrolling through your Facebook feed is more boring than wading through emails back in the day, which at least had some point. So imagine the joy when I saw this hidden in there:

Thank Jesus it's not another remake, and it looks like they aren't cluttering it with lame CGI like Lucas did when the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in theaters.

If I saw Ghostbusters when it first came out, I was too young to remember it, although I clearly recall going to see the sequel. Watching it millions of times on home video or DVD has been great fun, but it has so much action and spectacle that it needs to be seen on the big screen. Not to mention the carnival-crowd feeling you get in a packed theater -- a PKE surge of incredible, even dangerous proportions.

I hope they do this with more classics. Against the new norm of one horrible movie after another, this would be guaranteed to lure me back into regular attendance. Here's to hoping next year sees a re-release of RoboCop for its 25th anniversary.

September 12, 2011

Moving back and forth between eras of the past 100 years

What makes one zeitgeist different from another is mostly due to where each society was in the violence cycle. Was the violence rate at its peak, falling halfway to the nadir, etc.? So from a bird's-eye view, a snapshot of the nation during two peaks (or other matched points) will look similar.

Then we can use the length between peaks to tell us how far back we should look to find a zeitgeist similar to our own. Or if we are reading about some hazy era farther back, how far forward should we look to find a more familiar setting. In America the early 20th-C. homicide wave peaked in 1933, while the recent wave peaked in 1992, or roughly 60 years apart. Thus, subtract 60 from a recent year to go back, or add 60 to an earlier year to go forward.

All Americans, including the educated, are mostly blind to our history before 1950 -- I mean a sense of the broad zeitgeist. So let's say you want a rough picture of what the Roaring 1920s were like. Adding 60, we get the Go-Go 1980s. How about the 1900s? Add 60 to get the 1960s, the second Progressive Era. Like the 1970s, which are split between the counter-cultural first half and the New Wave second half, so were the 1910s divided into an earlier half still in the earnest 1900's and a later half that marked the start of the Jazz Age. Each of those comparisons would require a post to flesh out how similar they were, but they were.

Where does that put us now? Back in the 1950s. Like I said, the similarities are only bird's-eye level. Separate from the violence cycle, the national eminence cycle also influences the zeitgeist. In the '50s, we were near our peak for national eminence but in a trough for crime rates. Now we're in another trough for crime rates, but declining in eminence.

What most people remember fondly about the 1950s was related to our national eminence, like feeling part a single great country. They forget the parts that reflected its insulation from the threat of violence, such as living isolated or connected only shallowly to our neighbors in real life, and having faith in a managerial technocracy to fix whatever harms may come our way. Now we've returned to that way of life, only without the patriotism to provide a back-up source of community-feeling.

We can also apply this to move from one generation to its counterpart. The Silent Generation was born between 1925 and 1945, and their modern-day relatives are of course the Millennials, born around 1985 and after. If Generation X was born between 1965 and later '70s, then that makes their ancestors the carefree and apolitical Flaming Youth born from 1905 (like Clara Bow) through the later 1910s.

So looking only at the influence your social and cultural milieu have on your development, and sticking with the contemporary West, you're more likely to turn out like your grandparents than your mother and father.

September 10, 2011

Getting over Pearl Harbor vs. 9/11

Here's the trend over time for the percent of books in Google's digital library (American English) that have the phrase "Pearl Harbor" or "September 11" --

Within 7 years of Pearl Harbor, the attention that writers paid it had settled down to its long-term level, far lower than in the immediate aftermath of the attack. I assume the blip in 1991 is just a 50th anniversary thing.

With 9/11, the print culture can't seem to shut up about it, even if most people aren't as afraid of terrorism as they were. Part of that is due to the attack hitting the home town of American publishing. Not to mention that the attackers were Muslims, who are more frightening than the Japanese to the disproportionately Jewish make-up of the media power centers.

Still I think the other, larger part is that Americans in general are just a lot more weepy than they were 70 years ago. And we're far more into the victimhood paraphilia, as shown by the sharp rise over the past decade or two in "torture porn" movies, not just horror but blockbuster dramas like Saving Private Ryan. We're supposed to identify with the suffering of totally helpless victims, rather than the courageous stand taken by the would-be targets of the enemy.

September 6, 2011

Income inequality doesn't affect rates of violence

One of those things that Everyone Knows Causes Violence is income equality, a slightly more highbrow version of the "poverty causes crime" canard. According to the theory, as the lower tiers of society see a greater gap between themselves and the upper tiers, they're more likely to feel envious, to feel like life's contests are more winner-take-all, etc., which makes them more willing to use violence in daily life.

Time to see what the data say. Cross-sectional data -- comparing one area to another during the same time -- tells us nothing about cause and effect, since there are always scores of variables we haven't accounted for. So we look at time-series data instead.

The red line shows the American homicide rate, and the blue line shows one measure of income inequality (they all look basically the same), namely the ratio of average incomes of the top 1% compared to the bottom 99%.

If inequality drives crime, then changes in inequality should be linked to changes in crime. It's clear from the graph that there's no relationship. The apparent relationship from the late 1910s through the mid-1950s vanishes from then until now, and indeed we can see several periods in the past 50 years when they went in opposite directions for awhile.

A plot of yearly changes in inequality against yearly changes in the homicide rate (not shown) looks like a snowstorm -- no correlation one way or the other. Again just by eyeballing it, we can tell it won't make a difference if we look at the change in crime some years after a change in inequality. It's not as though the red line looked like the blue line, only delayed by several years.

As our society grows more obsessed with social science, most people who warn against some trend frame it as "It will increase the quantity of Negative Social Indicators." That leaves it open to simple empirical attack. Just by downloading some data from the internet and dorking around with Excel, someone like me can yank the carpet right from under them.

What ever happened to "We don't want greater inequality because it feels rotten to live in that society?" No empirical claim, other than the obvious one that people prefer not to live in more pyramid-shaped nations. It's akin to the wisdom of our disgust instinct: you don't have to justify it in other terms, you just don't want some things to be served to you.