December 30, 2006

Overdoing "titles with gerunds"

Enough already!

On a related note, what Madison Avenue ad company came up with the idea for that computerized direction system for your car... Doug Doug? Sue Sue? Tell you the truth, I can't remember, since these commercials repeat the joke names many times and the real name just once.

December 25, 2006

Review of Mean Girls: are teenagers corrupted Noble Savages?

Last weekend when I was writing up a should-be-unnecessary post showing that sci-fi geeks are disproportionately male, I had trouble staying on task because the trend is so clear that I felt it a waste of time to demonstrate the obvious at length. So I turned on the TV just when the movie Mean Girls had begun -- I'd heard it was OK from the high schoolers I tutor, and one of the main characters is Cajun super-hottie Lacey Chabert, so I figured it would provide adequate diversion while I typed. The script was written by former SNL head writer Tina Fey, who also plays a math teacher in the movie.

In brief, the movie details how civilization is incapable of restraining the primeval instincts of adolescent females to gossip, spread lies and rumors, and occasionally sabotage their closest friends in order to rise in status. The protagonist Cady (Lindsay Lohan) has recently moved to suburban Chicago from somewhere in sub-Saharn Africa, where she was raised and where her professor parents had been conducting fieldwork. Much of the plot focuses on her navigating the unfamiliar waters of post-pubertal life in a modern society -- there are evidently no cliques or coalitions in Africa, which might seem puzzling to anyone who's picked up a newspaper or seen the news even once in the past 30 years. She is thus surprised to learn from her Good Samaritan guides Janis and Damian that her fellow high school juniors are fractionated into exclusive groups such as the Varsity Jocks, Girls Who Don't Eat Anything, and the Plastics, the last of which are what I used to call the "pretty, popular girls." As an attractive girl, Cady is invited to join the Plastics, which her social outcast friends Janis and Damian encourage her to do so that she may serve as a Trojan Horse. The rest of the movie follows the conflict she faces in her dual roles as infiltrator and comrade within the Plastics.

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, you're not having an early senior moment, since there has already been a movie wherein a pretty, popular girl teams up with an outcast to destroy a Plasticky clique from inside. The earlier incarnation, however, was dark, cynical, and though more absurdist in its plot, proved more realistic in its appraisal of human nature. I'm referring of course to the movie that featured such lines as: "Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count." Mean Girls, by contrast, presents a stupefying naive view of the causes of adolescent misery. At one point, the internecine backstabbing amongst the female juniors erupts into a full-scale riot, prompting an intervention by the administration. That I could believe, and I could even believe that the intervention would be some woollyheaded nonsense prepackaged in a Graduate School of Education somewhere. Surely enough, the entire junior class of females comes to understand that they have all hurt and been hurt by each other, after which they apologize for their past sins and fall from a raised platform into a sea of supporting arms. What an achingly girly solution: just increase communication and understanding of common suffering, and they won't harm each other ever again! Veronica Sawyer knew better -- nothing short of killing the bitches off one-by-one would put an end to the popular girls' tyrrany.

Although neither Heathers nor Mean Girls dwells on the reasons why this is so, it's easy enough to understand by comparing movies about the problems of teenage girls to those about the trials of male adolescence. The latter feature average teenage guys, whose only real problem is losing their virginity. That's certainly not because males are less predisposed toward destroying each other -- quite the opposite -- but because male competitive instincts are to pummel another guy's face in, and in civilized societies the State has a monopoly on the allowed use of force. On a smaller scale, security guards and other adult authority figures patrol the hallways of a high school, not to mention the crowd of people who can be immediately summoned should a fist fight break out. This serves as a deterrent against physical attacks, so it's very rare (although not impossible) for a typical teenage male to have to fend for himself, form a coalition for mutual protection, and so on.

Females, though, cannot rely on the inventions of civilization, such as neutral third parties who are charged with watching everyone, to protect them from the verbal attacks that are more likely to befall them. No iron fist will come down on their heads if they spread a rumor, nor will authority figures rush to break up a gaggle of girls gossiping. Even if there were such deterrents in place, a crackdown would be difficult to execute in practice, since females typically meet in secret when they want to concoct a rumor. More, once the rumor spreads, it takes on a life of its own -- much like the one in Mean Girls, according to which Janis is a lesbian (she is not), which has followed her from 8th grade to 11th -- so that eliminating the rumor would require changing the beliefs and suspicions of a large number of individuals. Rumors are typically the kind of thing one can't disprove (e.g., X is a lesbian, X confessed she has a crush on Y, etc.), and which the believers are likely to suspect are true even more strongly if there were a massive effort to wipe out the rumor. Thus, unlike the broken nose a male may have to deal with for several weeks after a rare fight, the entire collection of rumors about oneself persist indefinitely -- right up through one's 25th high school reunion, I would guess.

As a source of accurate data, then, Mean Girls does an excellent job at portraying the depressingly commonplace savagery that teenage girls must suffer, for want of a deterrent. There is a good scene in which the "Queen Bee" of the Plastics, Regina, calls Cady and stages an ambush by passive-aggressively goading her into maligning another member of the clique, who happens to be listening in silently, just to test her loyalty. And Janis' rage over the lesbian rumor that won't die poignantly portrays the struggle an "innocent" individual must mount to clear her reputation in the face of an overly credulous mob bamboozled by an expert social manipulator. True, even the inventions of civilization that combat mob suspicion, such as a trial with rules of evidence and defense by advocates, don't always prevent an unthinking horde from going with its gut; but the lack of such bulwarks allows natural-born pettifoggers like Regina to run roughshod over the accused.

However, as far as explanations go, the script reads like a mishmash of half-baked ideas from an introductory Women's Studies textbook. To reiterate, a major theme of the movie is the culture shock Cady experiences after leaving existence as a Noble Savage for the corrupted modern world. At times this nicely highlights the beastly nature of adolescence, such as when Cady is watching the goings-on at the local mall and daydreams that the teenagers are hopping around like chimpanzees chasing after each other at a lek. But the notion that she could be so innocent of the tendency to form in-group vs. out-group distinctions, after being raised in one of the most tumultuous areas of the globe, is utter balderdash. And in our days as hunter-gatherers we were even more murderous; those who believe in the Noble Savage would do well to read War before Civilization. So, short of genetic engineering, the best we can do in the meantime is to apply some tough-nosed thinking to the problem of creating deterrents against adolescent female barbarity.

This is another area where script-writer Tina Fey let her emotions get the better of her by slipping into the Moralistic Fallacy -- that is, "It would be so great if X were true; therefore, X is true!" In our case, it would be so great if this problem could be solved by increasing communication about and understanding of common suffering (a la the movie's finale); therefore, this solution would work! Think again. The underlying causes would remain: the instinct to form exclusive groups, the motivation to increase one's status (for girls, access to higher quality boyfriends), the lack of neutral third parties that might protect them, and so on. Even assuming we weren't ingenious enough to think up feasible solutions to the rumor / clique problem, I still wouldn't advocate using one of these "let's understand each other's pain" interventions. It just underscores how vicious one is toward others and vice versa. Once the girls figured out that the one-day love-in hadn't changed anything, the end result would just be a greater appreciation of how awful it hurts to be mired indefinitely in depravity. If I ever had to live in hell, without escape, you can bet I'd want to be as unaware of the pain as possible.

Finally, no review of this movie would be complete without a few words about Cady's talent at mathematics. In short, although she's able to get straight A's in math class, she feigns confusion so that hunky, popular boys won't be intimidated by her brains, and may even feel compelled to assist the damsel in distress. And despite joining the Mathletes club, she hides this from the hunky, popular boy whom she's enamored of. This is all apropos of the recent hulabaloo about hot girls who are also geeks, for several reasons. First, the fact that Lindsay Lohan is playing a math geek -- someone not merely adept at math, but who joins the Mathletes -- shows how difficult it is to find a female who is both incredibly attractive and math-geeky to play the part. Really, what's next -- Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist?

There are several young actresses whose smarts and looks aren't in question -- Natalie Portman and Eden Riegel attended Harvard -- but their dispositions and interests don't incline them toward life as math / science geeks. Still, I felt such an actress would have been a better choice since the message is supposed to be, "Look how hard life is for smart, pretty girls," and with Lohan assuming the role, we are only forced to consider how hard life is for pretty girls. As an aside, Winona Ryder's character in Heathers is also high-IQ and attractive, but she uses her brains to write rather than derive formulas, again making this movie more believable. As a second aside, this is why Dick Wolf hasn't had trouble finding fashion models and Bond girls to convincingly play Manhattanite Assistant District Attorneys on Law & Order.

Here Tina Fey, who attended the elite state school the University of Virginia, is using Mean Girls more to complain about her own idiosyncratic high school experience rather than portray high school life as it really is. Fey is certainly attractive and intelligent, as well as a proud nerd, and yet she majored in drama in college and became a performing artist, rather than study math and work as an engineer. If we are to take seriously the movie's innuendo that smart females aren't becoming mathematicians because they feel discouraged or care more about impressing boys -- rather than the finding in personnel psychology that girls are more likely to prefer the subject matter of drama and politics than that of math and engineering -- then Fey herself must be seen as a let-down, a sell-out, in the stern eyes of the sisterhood of radical feminist scientists.

Moreover, in real life she married a popular musician, not a computer programmer; and in the movie her character confesses to trying to steer her husband into a career in law, not physics. We can't honestly entertain the notion that Fey chose a career in show business over the sciences because the latter domain is more sexist, and the same would be true if she took a position at a Manhattan law office. Showbiz bigshots and law partners are of course more likely to be testosterone-crazed, macho pricks when compared to the grown-up geeks who head science departments. This all makes the "hot math geek" sub-plot rather difficult to swallow, and because it repeatedly interrupts the main storyline, it leaves you feeling like a hapless dinner guest whose deranged host won't stop trying to shove moldy asparagus down your gullet.

In the end, Mean Girls is an entertaining movie with plenty of delicious one-liners and sight gags that pepper a more disturbing reminder of how primitive the existence of modern-day adolescents is, especially for females, and is definitely worth watching. However, the point-of-view regarding the causes of teenage savagery is too naive: well-educated, right-thinking adults may be gullible enough to buy the bull about the power of a few cumbayas to transform human nature, but teenage girls themselves are unlikely to so foolishly let their guard down. The last thing we should do is lie to them about the causes of and feasible solutions to their worst problems, but we can also do better than simply shrugging and saying, "Well, human nature sucks, so things aren't likely to get much better." Hardheaded individuals should be able to think up deterrents against rumor-spreading and social sabotage. But because no one's attempted this project, the problem may well prove intractable, in which case adolescence will have to remain a time whose shittiness one must simply get used to and wait for it to end.

December 19, 2006

Kids these days: Dancing and sex

Half-Sigma comments on a recent NYT article regarding the crackdown some high school principals have initiated to curb "pornographic dancing styles" at school dances. There are two distinct but related reactions from adults in the NYT article and in the comments at HS' post:

1a) A Bayesian shock to the effect that, "I never would've expected to see kids dancing this way!"

1b) A moral argument that kids shouldn't be allowed to dance in such suggestive ways.

The kids have, in turn, responded with:

2a) If you opened your eyes and thought clearly, you wouldn't be so shocked!

2b) No one's being harmed. More, trying to stop us is futile.

I don't want to dwell long on the moral debate, but in brief, I find nothing objectionable about teenagers bumping & grinding. No one will get pregnant, get an STD, or become psychologically scarred from gyrating their body in close contact with that of another while fully clothed. Since most of the force of the moral argument hinges on the assumption that pornographic dancing will lead to sex, even if only probabilistically, the onus is on the proponents of cracking down on "freak dancing" to demonstrate that such dancing increases the risk of having sex among teenagers. Predictably, no evidence is presented to this effect, and there is good a priori reason to believe that suggestive dancing doesn't increase the risk of having sex -- which is that sexually suggestive dancing, combined with loud music, gabbing excitedly with one's friends, and perhaps some french kissing, may be enough to satiate teenagers' desire for some degree of debauchery, such that the thrill of having sex wouldn't add much more to the overall thrill value (diminishing returns). Teenagers may not be perfect rational agents, but they're smart enough to figure out that choosing a potentially high-cost activity that's expected to add little value is a dumb decision. To be more accurate, it's only the girls who need to think this way / be satiated by dancing, music, gabbing, and kissing, since their desires are the limiting factor on how much sex will take place. As many a club-hopping guy has lamented: would that risque dancing led even probabilistically toward intercourse! I'll get to whether teens actually are having more sex or not in a moment.

Playing devil's advocate for a second, though, let's say there was convincing evidence that freak dancing increased the risk for having sex. Does it follow that cracking down on such dancing would decrease the rate of sex among teens? Nope: it would remain to be shown that school dance raciness wouldn't just be displaced to some other location / activity that would lead to sex. For example, they might just meet up at the house of a kid whose parents were out of town that weekend, or behind the bleachers at school, or in the woods next to their house, or in the bathroom at Chipotle, or wherever else. Similarly, if someone weaned themselves from smoking daily by taking up a daily drink instead, the effect on their health of quitting cigarettes could well be a wash. Indeed, only adults who don't have children of their own, or who haven't reared someone else's children (e.g., by being a teacher), would honestly believe that hotheaded teenagers wouldn't find a way around a proscription against X; typically they opt for Y, a substitute for X that isn't forbidden. A plan that targeted all likely outlets of teenage sexual exploration might achieve good results, though implementing it in practice might prove difficult, and it would need to be shown that all the time, money, and effort expended in this chore wouldn't be used better in some other way. Don't think that teenagers are stupid on this matter, by the way:

“If you tell a kid to do something, they do what they want to anyway and probably do it 10 times more,” said Emily Bragdon, 16, a junior who was at the dance.

This observation could've come from the mouth of any headstrong adolescent (though the "10 times more" is surely an exaggeration).

Moving on to the empirical issue of whether or not teenagers are behaving more wantonly regarding sex, which is the basis for the Bayesian shock, a huge global survey on sexual behavior was published in The Lancet last month. Among other data, it contains longitudinal data on the prevalence of "early" sexual intercourse (defined as having intercourse before age 15). This seems an apt statistic to look at for our purposes. Here is their Figure 1, which shows what percentage of females (above) and males (below) had had sexual intercourse before age 15, examining those who were born from 1960-64 (lavender bars) vs. those born from 1980-84 (red bars). The 7 developed countries surveyed are at the far right.

Lest there be any confusion, these bars do not represent a mean or median -- we know that a small change in the mean can have pronounced effects at the tails, but these bars are the tails, i.e. those who've had sex before 15. Going backward through the "tail effect" argument, a change in the tails of size X implies a change in the mean of size much less than X (since the probability of tail values falls off proportional to the squared distance from the mean), or no change in the mean but a slight change in variance. No matter how you slice it, whatever purportedly earth-shaking shift has occurred in teenage dancing styles has evidently had little effect on having sex. "Kids these days" are not markedly more lascivious than in days of yore.

However, all this talk about kids from one generation or another during the 20th C is, in the end, a bunch of idle chatter. The most convincing evidence that adolescent homo sapiens have been engaging in sexual exploration for far longer is that adolescence is, by most definitions, the time when a person is prepared and motivated to mate and reproduce. If teenagers behaving sexually were a recent invention -- caused, no doubt, by the rising popularity of MTV -- then how to resolve the damning counterevidence that humans mature sexually at around age 13-15 (or perhaps somewhat earlier when nutrition is better)? It would be as if humans were fully capable of understanding the speech of others and of producing their own meaningful utterances by roughly age 4, but covered their ears anytime someone spoke, and refused to speak themselves, until age 10. The fact that humans are on average able to put their linguistic capacity to good use by age 4 is all the evidence one needs that this is the age at which humans have begun communicating, stretching back into our evolutionary history. Again, this empirical matter should not be confused with the moral one -- just because a bird is fully fledged at age X has no bearing pro or con on whether or not it should or ought to fly / leave the nest / etc. at age X. I only mention the evolutionary angle since some adults are apparently shocked to behold teenagers behaving the way teenagers will behave.

A further cause for debunking this example of a "kids these days" myth is that it is closely related to another such myth, a perennial favorite at 2blowhards (no offense; just an observation), that the youths of today are more exhibitionistic and/or salacious. The usual evidence is the way young people act on MySpace, YouTube, and similar websites. Apropos of the teeange dirty dancing theme, here is a (probably NSFW) video that ranks 7 of 186 in the YouTube search results for "bump grind," showing a pack of 16 year-old girls dancing provocatively (though fully clothed) in front of a mirror. If I were so inclined, I could find hundreds of similar YouTube videos, and thousands of such pictures scattered throughout the MySpace galaxy. I don't find anything about it shocking, not just because I'm 26 rather than 66 -- I will not be shocked by teenage exhibitionism then either. The only thing that has changed is the technology: it is just easier to detect who is and isn't an exhibitionist in the internet age.

I find this development promising, as it means that, although levels of attention-seeking and acting-out are unlikely to change in the near future, at least the outlets into which these impulses are channeled will be more cyber than real. If I had an attention-seeking daughter, I'd rather she dance provocatively for her YouTube clips and get an ego boost that way, as opposed to kissing lots of boys and/or sleeping around at school. Given how large the potential pool of fawners is online -- basically all teenage boys who are connected to the internet, rather than only the boys at her school -- and given how much safer online exhibitionism is (no danger of being groped), she'd have to be silly not to prefer attention-whoring via YouTube or MySpace over the real-world alternative. And obviously, if my daughter didn't have an exhibitionistic disposition, I wouldn't have cause to worry in the first place.

To conclude, I'm sympathetic to the concern that adults have over teenagers behaving sexually; I just require that they state their arguments openly and that they be based on some degree of factual evidence and logical reasoning, the way they were supposed to learn how to write a persuasive essay back in sixth grade. By "stating their arguments openly," I mean come right out and say that they want to check the adolescents' primal urges -- no rationalizations that nature didn't intend it, that they can't appreciate the consequences of bumping & grinding, and so on. I realize that the rhetorical effect is more disarming when the adult assumes the role of a shepherd preventing the ignorant, helpless sheep from straying into harm's way -- the way a parent yanks a toddler away from a busy street -- but the reality is that the adult in this case is like a governor or prison warden who is doing their best to tame the bestial instincts of his self-aware, strong-willed charges.

Similarly, after the rhetoric has been removed, there must lie a solid core of fact and logic. Crucial assumptions must be shown to be at least on the right track. Should there be no convincing evidence that X leads to Y, or that cracking down on X would lead to a decrease in Y, then the proponent must admit that there is "no good reason" for his stance, except that "You'll do as I say." Moreover, if one wants to express shock, the evidence that something exceptional has occurred had better be obvious; or if not, then evidence should be presented. Now if parents view their role as, in certain occasions, reining in beasts and commanding them to obey regardless of "good reasons," that's nobody's business but their own, assuming they're not harming their children. But obfuscation is irritating, and combined with condescension, even more so. And I take it for granted that authority figures who want to prevent their wards from doing as they choose should provide justification, so that any assumptions may be challenged by those who don't agree, not least of all their powerless wards.

December 14, 2006

Hot chick geeks

Oh boy, here we go again! Some of the bloggers at the excellent ScienceBlogs site have fired off posts in high dudgeon over a perfectly innocuous post that Razib wrote, noting his surprise that a hot girl was blathering on about science fiction and fantasy books in a wine bar. This event is obviously noteworthy for at least two reasons:

1) You would have to randomly sample, what, millions -- tens of millions? -- of females to find a single member of the intersection of the "hot" and "hardcore sci-fi nerd" sets. Any clearheaded person would take notice due to the sheer statistical rarity of the event.

2) Assuming you uncovered such an individual, you would expect to have gotten that information by large-scale confidential polling, rather than by the individual offering up the information not only in public, but in a public space where people are supposed to act suave and sophisticated (a wine bar). Any clearheaded person would take notice due to the boldness, bravery, or whatever, belonging to the person in question.

There then followed three responses that completely missed the point (one, two, three). At the core, the complaints were about unfair stereotyping of the sexes regarding what interests they tend to have. But as I read Razib's post, his point generalizes to both sexes -- you would be surprised if you caught a hot person of either sex nattering in a wine bar about sci-fi / fantasy books. Let me emphasize that the girl in question was described as "Reese Witherspoon's more attractive brown-haired cousin." So, she looks like this, only more attractive and brunette? Yowza! If a straight girl beheld a male model-ish bartender prattling on about sci-fi / fantasy books in a wine bar, I bet she'd be just as surprised, and no one would upbraid her publicly if she posted a note on her blog saying, "You'll never guess what I just saw!" Remember, we're not talking "merely" pretty girls or handsome guys but blood-stirringly beautiful people.

Moreover, Razib's post is completely agnostic as regards the cause behind the evident pattern of negligible overlap between the "hot" and "hardcore sci-fi nerd" sets. A simple answer is that hot people have a lot going for them and don't want to jeopardize their status by indulging in things that society views as belonging to losers, while the latter, having nothing left to lose, are not put off by the prospect of low status. This sets up a feeback loop, obviously. Thus do we return to our two points above: observing a hot chick (or stud) who was also geeky would arouse our curiosity enough to post about it because 1) it's damn rare, and 2) a person of high status is risking ruin by flouting social conventions, also rare.

I'm sympathetic, though, to those who would object to point 2 by noting that the risk may not be sufficiently high to make us take notice, since hot girls could disrupt a primetime Presidential address by devouring an aborted baby on camera and still get away with a slap on the wrist as far as social shaming went. Still, we would be left with the sense of wonder that Charlie must have felt when he sampled only a handful of chocolate bars and found an extremely rare golden ticket. Even if we were in Veruca Salt's extraordinary position and had sampled n chocolate bars where the probability of finding the golden ticket was 1/n, we might not be shocked to find our treasure, but we might feel warm enough inside, now that the hunt was officially over and we could take a nap with our golden ticket safe in our hands, that we might still shout the good news from the rooftops.

NB: I don't read sci-fi or fantasy, even if some of my favorite movies or TV shows are dystopian science fiction, so don't read anything more into the "golden ticket" reference other than the statistical argument. Now, if this bartending babe had been suggesting which Edward Gorey books to start off with...

UPDATE: SB blogger Zuska hemorrhages vitriol like a hyperalart skunk spraying indiscriminately in all directions after hearing the wind blow.

A novelist over a policy wonk anyday

In the comments to the post below, I explained why I'd gulp if a girl I was interested in told me that her favorite writer was a novelist. I didn't mean to suggest that I would've held a low opinion of her forever -- maybe she'd turn out to be an exception -- but her answer would be a red flag. However, after reading two related posts of Razib's at Gene Expression (one, two), I should like to ammend my original statement: I would breathe a sigh of relief if a girl counted a novelist as her favorite writer, considering the even more deplorable dreck she could be reading, such as bestselling books on public or foreign policy. Hackneyed novels never hurt anyone in the way that cheerleading policy books will contribute to the harm and ruin of others.

Now that State and Church are separate, bestselling policy wonks fill the void left by the defunct office of "spiritual advisor" to the leader: amass as many factoids as possible in support of the belief that the leader is wise and benevolent. The more baroque the constellation of factoids, the better: for it requires real engineering skill to keep all the holes in the argument, where other less convenient facts would appear, from throwing the entire contraption off-balance like a poorly constructed mobile. This sorcery also secures the spiritual advisor's permanent place at the leader's side, since master bullshit artists are not easily replaced.

It's no wonder, then, that people rarely bother to read history and policy books in their free time as opposed to books on science, math, music, art, etc. Sure, there's some bullshit and obfuscation in the science & math section of the bookstore (Stephen Jay Gould's anti-"Darwinian fundamentalist" blather comes to mind). But overall the authors are reliably good at trying to understand and communicate the truth of their subject matter. And regardless of what the critics like, you can flip through the books in the art section and find stuff whose excellence you easily recognize and enjoy. Most of the history / policy section, though, is a graveyard of miscarried attempts at understanding; and what's not hokum isn't easily distinguished without reading everything and comparing. You'd have to have a friend "in the know" to recommend history books if you wanted to navigate your way through all the sewage.*

In the end, it's probably too idealistic to expect a girl to answer John Donne or Richard Dawkins as her preferred author (to hint at how broad of a variety of answers would make me happy). Therefore -- and this is particularly true in the DC metro area -- I actually wouldn't mind it if a girl I liked mentioned that her favorite book was Their Eyes Were Watching God, considering that she could've easily responded with Thomas Friedman's latest disquisition, Volume XVI of the collected Op-Eds of Maureen Dowd, or some self-help tractatus on giving yourself permission.

*I have found the popular works of William McNeill to be a helpful guide in attaining a rough picture of human history.

December 13, 2006

The Craven Iconoclast

To contain the malignance of bygone Boogeymen,
Their relics the Craven Iconoclast curses,
Ignoring abuses of flesh-and-blood villains
Whose slaying requires no conjuring verses.

December 9, 2006

Spanish national character

When Immanuel Kant was 40 years old -- before he developed the hyper-regulated lifestyle for which he is now famous, and before his later philosophy turned to the Platonic divorce of sensory pleasure from our conception of beauty -- he wrote a work on aesthetics that was brief, lively, and little libidinous. That is, not the Kant you read in Philosophy 101. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime contains in it his perception of the aesthetic preferences and national characters of various ethnic groups, unified by the idea that Galenic personality types would tend to prefer certain types of art over others. In particular, those who were Introverted and Emotionally Stable are thought not to have preferences one way or another; Emotionally Stable Extraverts prefer the Beautiful; Emotionally Unstable Extraverts prefer the Noble Sublime; while Emotionally Unstable Introverts prefer the Terrifying Sublime. Personality traits have unfortunate names: though "extraversion" and "emotionally stable" are easily understood, "introversion" doesn't imply shyness but a preference to keep to oneself, and "emotionally unstable" or "neurotic" doesn't imply being bipolar but simply having a short fuse or being easily disturbed or upset.

(As an aside, a recent study to test this idea among Spanish and English university students somewhat supported the hypotheses that preferences were related to Sensation Seeking and Openness to Experience, but this area appears to be little researched. Another article from Poland.)

In my post on global variation in personality, there's a succint graphic summarizing the findings of Lynn & Martin (1995), which shows that on average the Spanish are noticeably more Introverted than other Mediterranean populations, although all of the Mediterranean averages are on the Emotionally Unstable side of the spectrum:

Hindsight is 20/20: I initially felt the Spanish were pretty Extraverted, but I made the classic error of actor-observer bias by basing this belief on my observations of Spaniards interacting with their friends & family members, the kind of thing you typically see walking about or sitting in restaurants. However, you expect any type of person to be sociable and cheery among friends and family! A better test of Introversion vs Extraversion would thus be how gregarious a person is with strangers, and that's not something you can easily discern when observing others. Even if you tried to study this by interacting with them, they may simply present a more Extraverted persona to you as a rule of social ettiquette, much like a Japanese person must appear very agreeable in person even if their inclination is to be uncooperative. Private questionnaires are the most reliable method. One other personal observation that many female friends & acquaintances of mine mentioned was that Spanish men were unlikely to accost and pursue female strangers relentlessly, in contrast to Italian men. For anyone who's visited these countries, this is a pretty stark contrast and reflects in part the higher Extraversion of Italians.

Based on their mean personality, then, Kant predicted that Spaniards would enjoy the Terrifying Sublime (which is just what it sounds like). He cited as evidence the practice of the auto da fe -- he was grasping at straws, perhaps, but he wrote this in 1764, when Goya was still busy applying to art school. Clearly, average personality can change quickly over time, due to population genetic factors such as selection and migration that alter allele frequencies that are relevant to personality traits, as well as changes in relevant aspects of the environment (for example, the presence of pathogens, changes in social institutions, and so on). Therefore, we shouldn't project current Spanish mean personality too far back into the past.

But if we look at the roughly 250 years that have passed since Kant published Observations, Spanish high art has tended to focus more on the Terrifying Sublime than on the Noble Sublime or the Beautiful, beginning with the obsessions with the grotesque and macabre from the deaf madman himself (e.g., the Black Paintings) and continuing into the work of Dali, and most of Picasso as well. Before Goya, Velazquez did not focus on the Terrifying Sublime, and though El Greco did, he was an ethnic Greek. As for architecture, I don't know how to classify Gaudi's work since it's both unsettling yet playful, like Lewis Carroll's writing. If forced to choose, I'd put it in the Terrifying Sublime direction but with very low magnitude. Spanish filmmakers also nearly exclusively specialize in horror, the grotesque, the bizarre, kitsch, and dark comedy (e.g., Buñuel, Amenabar, Almodovar). Of course, these trends were prevalent elsewhere in Europe, but among populations that are close to the center of the graphic above, the output was more varied -- France produced both the Symbolists and the Impressionists, for instance. But if it's well known and comes from Spain, it is likely of the Terrifying Sublime type.

Aside from what they themselves have produced, Spaniards more than most other European groups tend to prefer the sort of cultural products that you'd expect an Emotionally Unstable Introvert to enjoy: droll, bizarre humor of the Monty Python variety; Woody Allen films, whose premises always spring from their director's status as the arch-Neurotic Introvert; music by groups like The Cure, who are easily one of the most popular among young people; and the adorable grotesque that Tim Burton has become famous for -- Edward Scissorhands is particularly popular. When I was in Rome, I noticed zero sex shops; if there were any, they were vanilla enough not to stand out. Barcelona and Madrid, however, are pretty well known for their non-trivial sub-cultures of bondage & discipline and the like, with window dressings of some stores featuring PVC bodysuits even in neighborhoods that aren't seedy. One of Almodovar's hit movies is titled Atame! (lit. "tie me up!"), and indeed there is even a restaurant or bar or somesuch in an upscale neighborhood in Barcelona called "Atame!"

Perhaps part of the reason is that Introverts, not preferring to mingle with large groups of real people, are more likely to turn to inner fantasy lands instead. In any event, note also that the preferences detailed in the previous paragraph (both the normal and out-there) are also quite prevalent among the Japanese, whose mean also lies in the Emotionally Unstable Introvert quadrant. So does that of Russia, but I don't know enough about Russian culture to comment on their cultural output and preferences. My guess from what little I've sampled is that they would group with the Spanish and Japanese, but I don't know.

For all of these reasons, I think people who happen upon Spanish culture from a distance (during their university days, browsing through books in their public library, etc.), or who happen to visit the country for more than a day or two, end up surprised -- they were expecting something like Latin America or Italy, and though that may be true for the climate, with respect to everything else, it's more like what they'd expect France to be like. Much of this shock must be due to basing one's a priori expectations on groups that are more Extraverted than the Spanish, as well as basing it on the Spaniards' well deserved reputation as the most hardcore partiers of Europe and most of the world. But basing expectations on rare events like Saturday night parties or national holidays can easily lead you astray: people are supposed to engage in debauchery on such occasions. Japanese businessmen have a reputation for getting piss drunk and going wild, though such behavior is belied by their day-to-day carryings-on. Moreover, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it has the opposite effect of stimulants. That is, alcohol puts you in a good mood, loosens your inhibitions, compels you to mingle and become chatty -- in short, alcohol turns Introverts into temporary Extraverts. (Stimulants like Ritalin do the reverse by turning uber-Extraverts into temporary bookish Introverts.) So, don't judge whether someone is gregarious or not when they're drunk.

After these people discover the unexpected, one of two things happens: either 1) they admire the spirit of revelry that Spaniards show on Saturday night, but find the rest of the culture and the population a bit boring; or 2) they drift closer, pleasantly intrigued that such beautiful people who inhabit such an enviable climate could nevertheless produce so many curmudgeons, bookworms, and weirdos who prefer The Cure and Edward Scissorhands. Returning to a recurrent theme here at this blog, Spain is the one place (maybe along with Paris) where I felt my proclivities would not prevent me from attaining an attractive girlfriend or wife. It's the only place where genuinely hot girls have hit on me, a subject I touched on here. And I don't mean "attractive" as in, "Yeah, she's attractive." I mean as in, "I want to slowly savor the flesh of her ambrosial lips while her eyes drizzle their nectarous gaze into my parched pupils."

Sure, personality, intelligence, interests not mutually exclusive to my own -- these are all essential qualities to look for in a mate, and though I could easily find someone who fit the bill on these traits in the US, I would have to sacrifice good looks. (Note: not because good looks don't overlap with the other traits, but because such a person would have more stringent requirements of her suitors, given her greater rarity here as compared to in Spain.) If possible, I'd prefer if I didn't have to make the trade-off. Also, given that it would be easier to find someone in Spain who met my preferences for the non-superficial criteria -- for example, finding someone who has a favorite writer, even if it were, gulp, a novelist -- I feel much more in good spirits around Spanish girls. You generally feel that way around the conspecifics that you have respect for, after all; and it's hard to hold a high opinion of females who by and large have chosen to join men instead of beating them, by turning courtship into an interview process to hire their trophy husband. It wouldn't be difficult either to find a cultured, attractive wife in Italy or the well-to-do areas of Lebanon, but trying to find one who also preferred a little nuttiness in her husband might be a bit more difficult in the Mediterranean. The exception being the land that produced Penelope Cruz: "Spain," its tourism industry used to boast, "is different!"

December 7, 2006

All the cool curmudgeons are doing it!

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December 6, 2006

More brown girls breakin' it down

A month ago Razib from Gene Expression took a few lighthearted swipes at white rappers, using Snow as an example, to which I responded by posting a link to a video of an Indo-Iranian remake of "Informer," called "Chori Chori" by Aneela (feat. Arash). I just found two more of her videos on YouTube, one of which ("Jande") doesn't have the greatest video quality, though you can still appreciate the contrast of the jewel toned costume against the dancers' tawny flesh. The other is a live performance of "Chori Chori," which unlike the music video showcases her South Asian suppleness of sacrum:

True, many can hoola-hoop their hips like that -- but those eyes! I've seen a few girls like that in real life: within a moment's glance, she's already transfixed you with her eye-skewers, and after the instant's over and her attention returns to its previous course, you're still caught, being dragged along by the eyeballs as though by an indifferent fisherman. Imagine having to go through your daily routine towing behind you the tonnage of the trail of bodies you'd accidentally hooked!