June 30, 2009

My new all about diet blog

To allow myself to write more about diet, nutrition, and food in general, I've started a new blog called Low Carb Art and Science. All posts on these topics will now appear over there. I won't necessarily post a link to them here each time, but I will for the first one. It's about the changing American diet and poorer health -- except that the graphs show that the changing American diet has been one that's rigidly adhered to what the health experts tell us to eat.

The data weren't hard to find, analyze, and present, but I've never seen them before, let alone in a clear-to-see visual format. If you doubted whether the anti-meat, pro-grain message was being followed or not, and if so, whether it was making us healthier -- this will be a real eye-opener. Take-home lesson: eat more saturated fat and cholesterol, and less carbohydrates.

Comments closed here; comment over there.

June 26, 2009

What a contrast

I'm trying to think back to the last death of a major music star that I can remember, and that was Kurt Cobain in 1994. Everyone in my middle school was all weepy and depressed, and the footage that MTV showed of people gathering around some place in Seattle was the same. If his fans did anything that night to memorialize him, it was to light a bunch of candles and cry in the dark. I wasn't old enough to remember it, but from the footage I've seen, the death of John Lennon seems to have been the same (though I'm not so sure).

Last night at '80s night, they played a full fucking hour of Michael Jackson, and not just his 1980s stuff -- just awesome. I've never heard "Black or White" in a nightclub, and it's actually pretty danceable and uplifting. One of the few songs from the early '90s that has aged incredibly well -- and not a trace of the identity politics that was epidemic at the time (in fact, just the opposite).

The DJ said that Michael Jackson has been the most requested artist at '80s night for the past 10 years, so you'd expect the people there to have been downcast after hearing about his death. But nope -- everyone was getting into the groove, had a smile on their face, and cheered every song. No crying, moodiness, or anything like that. How can you to "I Want You Back"?

Basically, if you want people to enjoy themselves when they're memorializing you, don't make depressing music.

Black people are right about whites being too weepy. Get a grip and enjoy the good memories you have.

June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson is dead: Vegetarianism and high-energy concerts don't mix

I know the news has only just broke that Michael Jackson is dead, and that some might think this is in bad taste, but it's worth pointing out how endurance-type activities -- like preparing for and putting on a dramatic rock concert, complete with lots of dancing leading up to and during the performance -- don't mix with a vegetarian diet. That's right: since about the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson was a vegetarian, occasionally starving himself as well.

(Some think he had anorexia nervosa. If so, it would corroborate what I noticed here about anorexic girls eating almost exclusively carbs and no sort of animal products, other than the odd container of sugar-loaded yoghurt.)

Heart disease is caused by inflammation, and certain types of cholesterol transporters -- low-density lipoproteins -- are more easily damaged and can get lodged into the arterial walls more easily than other types. There are basically two shapes that an LDL particle comes in (there's a spectrum in between, but it's mostly one side or the other): a small, dense BB shape, and a large, fluffy cotton ball shape.

Having high total cholesterol, or even having high LDL cholesterol (so-called "bad" cholesterol), doesn't predict whether you'll get heart disease. It is the shape of these LDL particles -- the transporters that cholesterol rides on -- that matters. The BB-shaped ones are more likely to cause heart disease, probably because they're small and dense size allows them to get embedded in the arterial walls more easily, and because they are more easily oxidized (turning into the kind of thing that anti-oxidants go after) and cause an inflammatory response. This just sends more of these LDL particles to the site of inflammation, and they begin to get stuck and get oxidized, eventually forming a plaque. To reiterate, it's not cholesterol that is the culprit -- it's the shoddy construction of the its transporter that is to blame.

Well, what causes you to have the atherogenic BB-shaped LDL particles rather than the protective cotton ball-shaped ones? Carbs in the diet. I'll try to explain the mechanism later on, but for now I'll just quote one of the pioneering researchers in the study of HDL, LDL, heart disease, diet, etc., Ronald Krauss (from Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, p. 176):

"I am now convinced it is the carbohydrate inducing this atherogenic [profile] in a reasonable percentage of the population," says Krauss. "...we see a quite striking benefit of carbohydrate restriction."

Both Taubes and Krauss appeared on this Talk of the Nation show, which was very good, and they at some point discuss the relationship between how rich your diet is in carbs and how likely you are to have an atherogenic -- i.e., heart disease-causing -- LDL shape.

LDL particle size is not something that is routinely tested, by the way, so just because your LDL is low doesn't mean anything. You have to request the doctor to test your particle size. You could have low LDL but have most of it in the harmful BB shape. We can be pretty sure that Michael Jackson did after 25 years of a vegetarian diet. Switching to such a diet is unlikely to make you drop dead at age 50, but if you compound it with a high-endurance activity level, which puts more stress on the body than brief interval-burst activities, you're asking for trouble.

Just to emphasize how little the standard blood lipid tests tell you about your heart's health, ignoring as they always do the LDL particle size test, here's a brief news item on Jackson's health and performance from only 3 months ago:

Chief executive [of promoter AEG Live] Randy Phillips said he isn't worried.

"The insurance brokers sent doctors and they spend five hours with him, taking blood tests. He's a vegetarian, he's in great shape," he said.

"We would be prepared to self-insure to make up the dates. It's a risk we're willing to take to bring the King of Pop to his fans."

When a rock star dies of a drug overdose, everyone holds him at least partially responsible, as much as they may sympathize with his addiction. But when a pop star dies from heart disease after being anorexic and vegetarian -- knowing pretty well that human beings aren't designed to be that way -- everyone treats it like he was struck by lightning. Don't get me wrong, I love the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson's own work (at least up through the "Smooth Criminal" days), so I'm not going on about his diet to trash someone I don't like. I'm just pissed that the guy who sang "I Want You Back" and "Billie Jean" decided to destroy his health the way he did.

In the same way that kids should learn not to try drugs when their favorite rock star dies with a needle in his arm, everyone who ever got down to "Beat It" should take note and view vegetarianism as the cooky and harmful diet that it is.

Duck, duck, duck... goose!

The principle of feigning disapproval is something that all pickup artists emphasize, but with younger girls you have to make it more clear that you're just teasing and not so serious. They're more neurotic, and so more easily shut down by disapproval. As long as they're pretty sure that you're not seriously scolding them, girls love being teased.

Sure, they'll respond with, stoooooop! you're meeeeeean! But they'll have a smile on their face, a giggle below their voice, and a longing look in their eye. A guy who's desperate would never risk insulting her, so they infer your status from the apparent risk you're taking.

It's even more true when they are too physically forward, and you pretend they're moving too fast or haven't won you over enough to be that aggressive. Again, the desperate loser will act like he's just won the lottery -- "dude, that chick just touched my arm!" -- and once she picks up on this, it's game over.

One of the greatest tests is when, in a public venue, a girl puts her hands where you imagine a therapist might say, "Now show me where the bad girl touched you..." It's not as easy to deliver the standard line, "Hey, that's five dollars for every time you touch me, you know..." in a collected manner.

For some reason, I'm quite prone to getting my butt grabbed by girls in a nightclub. It's like approaching a girl cold -- no matter how many times it happens, there's still an initial shock as your mind races about how to respond. Actually, the first time, the girl gave me a nice open-palm smack. (It was this girl at the teen dance club, in fact.) The next several times, it was again a couple of high school girls who attacked me drive-by style at the club. They looked over their shoulder mischievously as they passed me, wanting to be caught so that I could give them that stern "why is your hand in the cookie jar?" look.

I can only imagine what a trip to Barnes & Noble would be like if the mall were darkly lit and packed with people.

It may be hard for guys to grasp how pent up with sexual tension the average teenage girl is. But if you remember being in their room when you were a teenager, or if you've seen any of them in their room on a YouTube video or something, you can't help but notice how covered their walls are with pictures and posters of hot boys. It isn't so different from the guy's room with all the swimsuit models on the walls. Fast-forward to when she's 25, and those posters are nearly all gone. By 30, for sure. For the social scientists, this would be an interesting way to measure female libido across the lifespan, aside from hormone levels or whatever -- what percent of their walls' area is devoted to pictures of boys?

Last week at '80s night, I decided to add something in addition to the mock-stern look and/or words to follow it up. I heard a group of girls screaming behind me -- all roughly 18 and just out of high school, probably there to have some good memories of their last summer before college. Or hell, they could've talked their way in and only been 17.

Figuring that they were just yelling to signal their fun level, and knowing not to spin around anyway, I paid them no mind. And then -- did one of them just grab my ass? It wasn't bold enough for me to tell. After all, I was in a really packed area where people are walking by all the time. Pinch! Grab, grab! Now there was no mistaking it. I could feel hands coming in from at least two different girls, a couple times each.

Without turning around, I twisted my upper body a bit toward them, and looked over my shoulder to give them the usual fake disapproval look. That's usually enough to satisfy their thrill -- they got caught. But this time I added the "shame, shame" gesture by shaving one forefinger with the other.

omigod, it like totally wasn't me! one said with an anxious smile. no, i mean, like omigod i'm serious... I couldn't have cared less whether it was her or her friends, as they were all pretty young, full of energy, and half-naked.

Unlike all other instances, this time after my mock disapproval they started going at it even harder -- grab, grab, grab! pinch pinch! (Seriously girls, I'm not just an object. I mean, at least be polite and ask my name before you goose me.) There's something in that "shame, shame" gesture that pushed them over the clitoral boner threshold. I'll have to remember that for the next time.

Aside from this lesson, you can also take away from this a pretty good opener, used in the right venue. It has to be a darkish bar or nightclub, somewhere where it's conceivable that a girl might grab your ass stealthily as she passed behind you. After walking near her, act like you just recognized where you saw her before -- "Hey, are you the girl who just grabbed my butt (ass) back there?" You're demonstrating value -- even if you don't have a sculpted butt, she'll still infer that you have something about you that makes other women want to make a bold move on you. She'll say it wasn't her, of course, but you reply simply with, "I didn't catch who it was, but she looked kinda like you." Make a cocky/funny segue about how awful it is that women treat you as a mere sex object, that they don't value you for your brains and charm instead, bla bla bla, and then you're into the conversation.

June 23, 2009

Social class and opposing sex between teenagers

About a half a year ago, I showed how opposition to teenage sex varies across the lifespan: not surprisingly, a majority of 18 year-olds didn't strongly object to it, while majorities at every other point did, and increasingly so with age.

I said I'd post a follow-up at GNXP.com about how opposition varies with social class, and here it is. I've actually been sitting on the data, the graphs, and even most of the post since then. You probably wouldn't understand, but after all the fun stuff is done, I just can't finish it up. I blew my wad in the problem, and that's it -- I won't be staying the night, and I won't be calling you tomorrow. Then six months pass, I bump into the problem again, squint to think where I've seen it before, and figure, yeah, what the hell, I can spend a little more time to round things out. But this time it's good-bye for real. I've got too many other problems lined up outside my door.

June 22, 2009

Macs -- almost as popular as the Atari 7800

What, you've never heard of the Atari 7800? It was an 8-bit video game system that nobody cared about because Nintendo's NES was unquestionably superior. If you were playing video games in North America during the 8-bit era, you were only playing Nintendo -- almost no one owned an Atari 7800, and even fewer owned a Sega Master System. Indeed, Atari sued Nintendo for monopolizing the market (and lost).

At the time, Nintendo commanded a roughly 80% market share compared to Atari's 12% share. And given how invisible the 7800 was, that 12% must have been concentrated in about 1% of the market's audience, likely obese geeks with one in every room to obviate the need to walk 20 paces to play it.

Compare this to the Macintosh computers today -- they're so ubiquitous that they account for a little less than 8% of the market. Again considering the tendency of Mac zombies to place one in front of each window of their house so that no one will miss the Apple logo when they drive by, it's probably only 5% of the audience who owns one. So there you have it -- they're not quite as popular as a shitty video game system.

The reason for this misperception is the availability bias, whereby we think something is more common than it truly is if we can more easily think of examples of it. People who think at all about technology tend to be of higher status, and this makes their social circle much more likely to own an expensive Mac. Not so for the larger public, whose own tacky ethnic markers are more affordable things like sports team jerseys and Jesus fish bumper stickers.

June 17, 2009

Because it's a cloudy Wednesday

Nothing's worse than persistent cloudiness during the summer, so here's a little shot in the arm of good energy. It's impossible not to smile when you hear this song.

Sprawl, 1

I have no idea when suburban sprawl is supposed to have begun -- it's a catch phrase that encompasses lots of changes, so let's focus on just one of them and see when the shift occurred.

Going through many versions of the Statistical Abstract, which collects the data from the Federal Highway Administration, I made several graphs of the average number of miles traveled per vehicle. The longer the distance that you typically drive, the more sprawling your environment is, right? The car and bus data go back to 1940, and although it's spotty during the '40s, it's complete from 1949 to 2006. The van / pickup / SUV data, and the "all types" data (with the van / pickup / SUV included), only go back to 1970. Here they are (click to enlarge):

Aside from a sharp dip during WWII, the average distance traveled by cars remains remarkably constant from 1940 to 1980. Afterward, though, there is a steady increase, so that we now drive 3,000 more miles per year than we did in 1980. Again excepting the WWII period, distance traveled by buses has declined fairly steadily, although there was a slight rebound during the '80s and '90s. I don't know if this is because there are simply more buses, so that each one needs to travel less in order to serve the customer base. There are also data on total vehicle-miles traveled by vehicle type, but I'm not going to schlep through all those PDFs again just to find out. Er, what I meant to say was that the resolution of this open question is left as an exercise to the reader.

As for vans and pickups, the distance they travel increased from at least 1970 through the early '90s, but then decreased after. Accounting for all types of vehicles, we see again that it looks pretty flat before 1980 and increases steadily afterward.

There are many ways to measure "suburban sprawl," and I'll look at some others sometime soon. But at least for "having to drive longer distances," it looks like sprawl hit all of a sudden around 1980. I don't know what happened beforehand that would've caused the shift. It's not a cyclical pattern like crime, where we don't need to point to causes right before crime started going up or down (it does that because it's cyclical). It's pretty clearly stable for 40 years, and then turns steadily upward.

If you have an idea, include references or links to data that support what you say. I could list 500 potential causes, but without anything to back it up, why would anyone care? For example, if fuel prices are supposed to be the cause, dig up some data or provide a link to someone else's graph of fuel prices (adjusted for inflation) over the past 50 to 70 years.

June 15, 2009

Fewer young people bothering to get driver's licenses

Continuing the series on how kids today have no life, let's take a very brief look at the teenage rite of passage of getting your driver's license. I have lots more data and graphs, as well as commentary, that I'll probably put up at GNXP.com sometime soon. (What caught my eye was this 2004 L.A. Times article. I've dug up all the data and made graphs.)

For now, consider only 19 year-olds (although the pattern is basically the same for under-16, 16, 17, and 18 y.o.s as well). They've had plenty of time to learn how to drive, they've been legal adults for 1 to 2 years, and they are unaffected by changes over time in their state's driving age, since no state has raised it to 20 or something. Here is the percent of the 19 y.o. population that are licensed drivers, from 1978 (when I could first find data) to 2007:

Even today, around 75% of 19 y.o.s have a license, but it used to be around 85%. This decrease by roughly 1/10 of the starting value may not sound like much, but imagine something else falling by 1/10 -- it's not small. And remember that these are 19 y.o.s -- the drop is even sharper for 16 y.o.s.

The peak year of having fun, during the time period here, was 1983. During the mid-'80s and after, fewer and fewer of the country's teenagers bothered to get a license.

We can rule out all explanations based on "substitute goods," since young people are biking less and less too. This also allows us to rule out increasing costs / insurance -- bikes can be found cheap, and you don't need insurance to ride them, yet people are still using them increasingly less. And though I don't have hard data handy, we know that they aren't walking a lot more either. We can rule out the "parental chauffeur" substitute since in general 19 y.o.s aren't living with their parents. If anything, they should be getting licenses at a greater rate since we live in a more sprawling society now compared to 25 or 30 years ago.

The common factor among less walking, biking, and driving is personal travel -- young people aren't going anywhere anymore, regardless of how they might have gotten there. Most of their social spaces have been closed down or taken over by full adults or infants. The mall is the most obvious example -- mostly for people who are no younger than 25, except for those stores supplying infant clothes, toys, etc., for parents in their 30s or older. I guess if I didn't have anywhere to go to indulge in some unsupervised fun, I wouldn't need a license either.

Still, wouldn't they at least want a license so they could drive to their friends' houses? Those haven't been torn down. They must not live in each others' houses as much as teenagers used to.

It's true that they are less likely to have a job, and so less likely to need a car for that reason. But again, what about all the other reasons that you're dying to get your license for? Let's not forget driving to school rather than walking, taking the bus, or having your mom drive you. And the male half of the population thinks -- or at least used to think -- it was required to be able to take a girl out somewhere, rather than use public transportation or having your parents drive. And forget about making out or getting laid in the back of your car if you can't even drive!

Thank god adolescence will always provide plenty of social drama to keep teenagers' lives from getting too boring. Still, what about all the other sources of excitement? While 16 y.o. girls may find it exciting enough to re-hash all of the social conflicts that have erupted during the day, boys can only take so much of that shit. Pretty soon you get restless and just want to go out and do something.

Like what?

Dude, I dunno... but let's just go out and do something!

I mean, dude, if only there was something to do.

June 14, 2009

"Don't you get bored on that diet?"

The monotonous soy-based diet being fed to Illinois prisoners reminds me of a question I hear often enough about low-carb eating: "So you cut out all that other stuff? I mean, doesn't that get pretty boring after awhile?" Nah, it's the de facto vegetarian diet that most people eat that offers little variety -- cut out most animal products, and you get bread, potatoes, sugar, cereal, and maybe some rice. If they're a bit more health-conscious, throw in some vegetables and fruit.

Consider just bread or rice. It's not as though people buy bread made of a wide range of grains -- wheat, rye, oat, etc. It's all wheat, and only occasionally other types. Same with rice strains. Nor do people consume five to ten types of potatoes. The vegetables and fruits served on the side are about the only potential source for variety, and even here it's only the health-food-store people who make use of that.

Using the easiest example I can think of right now -- what I just ate for dinner -- let's see how broad or narrow the range of foodstuffs is on a low-carb plan. I'm ignoring the tiny amounts of things that are used in spices, broths, or drinks:

- French onion soup, using Gruyere and sheep's milk cheeses

- Sardine with a pickle

- Two mini sweet bell pepper halves with 1 oz. of duck and pork liver mousse and goat's milk cheese

- Two slices of sopressata and a poached egg covered with Bearnaise sauce

- Serving of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries covered in heavy whipping cream

- Lime tonic water

- Single shot of espresso

I count three vegetable types, four types of fruit, dairy from three animals, eggs from one animal, and the muscle, fat, and organs of three animal species. Plant species consumed: 7. Animal species consumed: 7. Total species consumed: 14.

Note that this is not a very large meal either -- aside from the soup and berries & cream, it took up only 3/4 of a dinner plate. Since I'm gluten-intolerant, I thought about frying a little ground lamb to take the place of croutons in the soup, but left them out altogether; and I could've easily added a small amount of almonds. These simple changes would've brought the diversity score up to 16 species, 8 plant and 8 animal, again without adding much to the amount of food.

Compare this to eating four slices of pizza, a big bowl of pasta, or a sandwich and chips. Boring? Hardly.

Prison food through history

Here's an open letter that Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation wrote to Obama about the cruel diet being fed to Illinois inmates, most of it soy-based (compared to meat and organ-based before). She notes that Virginia prisoners get to eat grass-fed beef, which is higher quality than the corn or grain-fed stuff that most steakhouses offer!

This variance between prisons was true even in the High Middle Ages. In contrast to the typical bread and water diet, some places offered animal protein and fat. From Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe, 1000 - 1300 by Jean Dunbabin (p.122):

In Cambrai, arrangements were more lavish for debtors, with meat, herrings and cheese as well as soup. In this case, it was the jailer's responsibility to provide the sustenance; but the cost was all passed on, either to the debtor himself if he managed to secure a loan to repay what he owed, or to the creditor who then took charge of him.

The source is Le droit coutumier de Cambrai. If you're already in prison, you might as well go into greater debt and be nourished and vigorous than languish on bread and water.

So remember folks, with such great variability, you'd better do a little research about prison diets before you pick which region to go on your violent rampage in.

June 12, 2009

When did video games become so boring? About 1998

[This won't be as immaculately polished as my usual posts since it's fucking Friday and because the topic is video games -- so really, who cares.]

Well, not that they started out very exciting -- they pretty much sucked on home consoles until the Nintendo came out. Just give Atari games to people who didn't play them when they were all the rage -- meh.

But instead of plateauing, the quality of video games started to slide. And it's not just me -- everyone who played Nintendo says that. And it's not that I look at that system with rosy spectacles: there are plenty of games on it that I thought stunk, and still thought that when I played them again on an emulator recently. Whether you judge by game sales or critics' rankings, a fair chunk of the highly successful games for the Gameboy Advance (popular in the early-mid 2000s) are lifted from the NES peak period of over 10 years before.

If there is a single change that we can point to, it is that video games used to be tests of skill, and so were challenging (and frustrating), whereas now they are tests of having free time, and so hold the player's hand through the game (and are boring). Today's video game is more like a movie -- as long as you turn the crank on the side of the projector, eventually you'll experience the entire thing. That is the opposite of playing a game, since you are never guaranteed to win a game.

Most people who have ever played a Nintendo or Super Nintendo know of plenty of games -- perhaps most of the games they played -- which they never beat, despite playing it for hours on end. I never got past level 3 or 4 in Blaster Master, which never stopped me from thinking it was one of the funnest games on the NES. I got to the final levels of ("Super") Mario Brothers and Mario 2, maybe Mario 3, but never beat them either. I did finish the first Zelda game, although I only got to the final area in Zelda 2 once or twice. And so on for the Double Dragon series: I beat the second one but could only get to the final level in the first one. I simply took this to mean that I wasn't the most highly skilled video game player, and again that didn't make me think that these weren't some of the most engrossing games to play.

They made games somewhat easier for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis -- I could beat Super Metroid, but not the Nintendo original, and ditto for the Castlevania and Mario Brothers games for the SNES. But they were still pretty hard. I didn't play an awful lot of games on the N64, but the games I did play were a lot simpler than what I was used to -- the two Zelda games lacking enemies throughout most of the game.

Now, though, reviewers routinely mention how long it will take to complete a game -- not whether or not you will, as that is assured by the lack of challenge, but merely how long you have to sit staring at the TV until it's done. It's just like a movie critic including the run-time in a review.

Can we date this shift from video games as games to video games as movies? Just from my own experience, it must have been when I tuned out of video games and only played the old ones -- including ones I had not played as a kid. I played the SNES games Secret of Mana and Terranigma only once I was three years out of college, but they were a lot more exciting than the bullshit my brothers were playing on Xbox and the PS2. That was in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

In fact, that's exactly right. All we need to do is search the NYT for phrases related to the certainty of completing any given video game. The search for ' "video game" hours complete', gives a result from 1988, but it's not clear that it has the intended meaning:

"When played, the game cassettes can take up to 70 hours to complete."

First, there's the word "can" -- meaning you might not even complete the game. Second, he's speaking in general, not about a specific game, so it's unlikely he has "expected time to completion" in mind. And third, he's not reviewing a game and giving the run time. The first unambiguous usage I can find is a result from 1998, a review of a particular game:

"In the 40 or 50 hours it takes to complete this game..."

This is the usage that holds up through this year, as shown in a recent review:

"I enjoyed almost every minute of the roughly 17 hours I took to complete the PC version of the game..."

Another phrase we can check for is "replay value" -- this refers to whether, when you watch the movie a second or third time around, there is anything new about it. Older games' "replay value" was putting your skills to the test again -- you knocked out Mr. Sandman once, but were you just lucky? Newer games must supply all sorts of novelties that are only unlocked when you finish the game the first time, to keep the re-watching from getting too boring. Alternatively, they may offer several paths to take during the game, which can't be backtracked to, so that you are encouraged to play the game through many times to explore all possible decision paths. The NYT gives three results for "replay value" in the context of video games -- in 2000, 2001, and 2002.

And it's not that the NYT only started covering video games then -- they have reported on them as far back as Atari in the mid-1970s.

So, just as I expected, in the late 1990s / early 2000s, video games made a shift from rather unforgiving tests of reflexes, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and so on, to movies that the viewer prods along by tapping buttons. If I want that, I'll watch a well conceived and made movie.

And it's gotten even worse with adventure games. This genre used to feature games whose goal was to nimbly navigate your way through a new area -- to display your skill at quickly mastering an unfamiliar environment. Now their goal is just "to explore" and "to collect a bunch of crud." But wandering around is boring, no matter how different the scenery is, and pretending to be a packrat is something I can easily do in real life. I haven't played World of Warcraft, and never will, but it sounds like the epitome of this.

Rather, the games I have in mind are the Castlevania games for the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS. Figuring out how to get through a new area involves no skill -- you just walk and jump for as long as you're supposed to. All of the previous Castlevania games have at least one part (usually many) where you have to make a series of well timed and executed jumps to get through, as though you had to cross a river by hopping across logs being carried downstream.

To relieve the monotony of the newer games, they give you a whole shitload of items to collect along your devoid-of-danger journey: 5 weapon types with 30 examples of each, 100 secondary weapons, 34 types of headgear (I'm counting roughly here), not to mention the body armor, the foot armor, miscellaneous items, and on and on. You can also power up your weapons and secondary weapons, which isn't hard at all -- you just have to sit there and kill 5000 or so enemies with that weapon. You can also power up your strength, defense, etc., based on how long you've been playing -- and with 100 progressions, it can get pretty tedious. One of the Gameboy Advance games even has you collect scores of items to decorate a room, for no other purpose than to be able to brag that you're this much closer to completing this sidequest.

None of the previous Castlevania games had any of this boring shit. You've got so much life (no cornucopia of armors, gloves, boots, or whatever), you've got a small handful of weapons to choose from, and that's it -- see if your reflexes are quick enough to get you through to the end, and see if you're clever enough to get around the apparent dead-ends. Filling up some stupid toybox with arm-bands, enemies' souls, foodstuffs, money, and everything else that isn't nailed down, played no role in the gameplay.

This very different type of video game obviously selects for a very different type of audience -- namely, autistic packrat types who might otherwise be collecting Star Wars memorabilia or jarring up polluted water from every major river in the world. Only for them could the next one of 1000 coins, or the next helmet of 50, serve as an effective carrot on a stick. "Omigosh guys, just one more enemy's soul to capture, and I'll have all 100!" Yeah, and you only had to waste 10 hours to get them.

I hate to say it, but it looks like the only games that test your skill are the first-person shooter games. When you play against someone else, one of you is better at aiming, more agile at turning corners, or whatever. You don't just sit there and see who can finish first in mindlessly collecting a lot of junk. When you play against the computer, this is no longer true of course. But at least there's a remnant of video games as tests of skill. Only before, every genre was this way, including when you played by yourself.

On the plus side, home video games are selling better than ever -- because they're so easy that they won't bruise anyone's ego or offend by highlighting skill differences between individuals. Video games may have been somewhat late in jumping on the egalitarian bandwagon, but there they are. If you can insert a disk into your DVD player and click your way through to the end of the movie, you can complete any video game released in the past 10 years. Conversely, if you're too used to the two most recent "generations" of self-esteem-boosting video games, you'd probably hate most of the games on Nintendo since they'll only reveal how mediocre your skill is. Just pick up Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man and see. Then again, you may learn that playing challenging games is fun, whether you win or not -- much more fun than dozing through a glorified animated movie.

June 10, 2009

Do anorexics have better taste?

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June 4, 2009

Pool day! Well, not so much anymore

I've been trying to think of other fun things that we've stopped doing, and tonight at Barnes & Noble it hit me when I saw a couple of little kids running around the store in swimsuits. It's hard to recall the last time I saw such a thing, but I remember doing that plenty when I was 8 years old. You just left the pool and want to go do something fun somewhere else -- and i don't wanna go back home to change clothes, mom, just let me go to the arcade in my swim trunks!

So let's have a look at the data, which once more are from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. They show the percent of each age group that went swimming at least 6 times in the past year:

Everyone, but young people especially, are much less likely go to swimming in 2006 compared to 1986 -- by about half. It clearly has nothing to do with danger or risk, since improving technology makes it safer to go swimming, and crime has only plummeted since the early '90s. And it doesn't have to do with the qualities of pools going downhill. Take a look at the pool I went to in elementary school, the left picture probably being from the 1980s and the right one being recent:

After the renovation, there are surrounding buildings that look great, there's more green stuff, and in general it looks more like a water park than a municipal pool. It's only gotten more attractive, and yet fewer people are leaving their houses to enjoy it. Note the influence of helicopter parents: the high dive has been replaced by a chute. I think the sight of their 8 year-old kid springing into the air from 20 feet above water would give today's parents an aneurysm. But we did it all the time and lived to tell about it -- the damn things are safety tested, after all.

It may seem like a silly thing to worry about -- if kids these days don't go swimming as much as they used to. But how will young boys and girls mature properly if they don't have to undergo the rite of passage known as End-of-the-year Pool Day? After school is finally done, they let you all go to the local pool as one last field trip. I only did this during elementary school and sixth grade, while in seventh and eighth grades we all went to Hershey Park.

No matter what, though, you were going to see every girl in your grade in her bikini. Sure, you knew what her legs and maybe the lower curve of her ass looked like, just from when she wore booty shorts. And you probably saw her stomach now and again when she wore a midriff-baring top. But rarely did all of these separate glimpses occur on the same day. On End-of-the-year Pool Day, though, they all fell into place -- the overwhelming gestalt perception of her entire body, next to naked, made it worth suffering through all of those not-quite-so-revealing teases throughout the whole school year.

(Playboy, or whatever, couldn't take her place, by the way. It was cool to see a dirty magazine the first time, but what you really wanted to see was the body of the girl who kept teasing you by leaning over onto her desk in math class day after day.)

It wasn't all fun for the boys, of course: this day put to the ultimate test your skill in the art of hiding your zipper-bursting boner. Unlike savages who walk around with codpieces, we have to tame ourselves somewhat, and what practice we got on that day.

It's hard to imagine how brain-meltingly awkward and self-conscious the girls must have felt exposing themselves for the first time. They've got to come out of their shell at some point, though, and it might as well be when they're going through puberty, so they can get feedback about their value (whether they're approached a lot or hardly at all, for example). But a picture is worth a thousand words. Here's what the typical pubescent girl who's pretty cute feels like when the plan for the day requires her to bare herself:

For the autists reading this, her legs are locked together from the knee down, she's wrapping both arms around them just to double the protection, and the look in her eye is nervous in awaiting your judgment of her body.

Shoving kids into the spotlight with only swimsuits to cover themselves, letting them learn how to deal with the pain of belly-flopping off the high dive, taking the training wheels off their bike (assuming they even have one) -- it's part of making them grow up. The 20 sports and extra-curriculars that parents chaffeur them around to do not count, since the kids understand that it's only being done to please the parents or pad their college application. Their parents opinion couldn't count for less, and they only care about the admissions board's thoughts about their application, not who they are as a person.

Going to the pool, or wherever else that they no longer go to, is part of their own social world. They aren't trying to go through the motions to get their parents of their back, or to con the admissions board into thinking they're a great candidate. They have to interact with and make an impression on the people who really matter -- their peers. Also unlike with their extra-curriculars, where their soccer mom or sideline dad is always trying to win their battles for them, their behavior when they go with a group of friends to the pool is unsupervised (except for life-threatening behavior that the lifeguards look out for). They can get experience doing independent things when they leave the house, but why retard it until then? Just let them have a life.

And yet, as the data show, it's not just overprotective parents keeping the young people away from pools, while they go frequently themselves -- as though swimming pools were like R-rated movies. Even the adults are going less and less frequently. It's like there's a general level of sociality that characterizes a population -- how abuzz we are across all domains -- and that it's been declining since sometime in the early-mid 1990s. Of course, boring people are also better behaved people, so we got some plummeting crime rates out of the deal -- but still.

June 3, 2009

The young have been rejecting basketball, the old taking it up

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the decline of biking, here are similar data from the same source about the popularity of playing basketball. My impression was that young people don't play it much anymore -- at least not by shooting hoops in your friend's driveway. In fact, it's not just that I don't see kids doing this anymore -- I don't even see many nets in people's driveways or attached above the garage door.

Here are the percent of people playing basketball across all ages, and then by smaller age groups:

Just as I thought, basketball has been declining among kids for awhile now (the mid-'90s), although it's holding pretty steady among 18 to 44 year-olds. The only age groups who are getting more and more into it are the middle-aged and beyond.

Again, what the hell are kids these days doing for fun? I don't really care about kids getting exercise -- they bounce around enough as it is. But shooting hoops with your friend in the driveway provided a pretext for getting together, shooting the bull, and trying to learn and teach each other social lessons: "dude, there's this girl i think i like" -- "no way! dude, here's what you do..."

Revealing personal stuff when you're a kid or teenager is about as appealing as vomiting on yourself during Show and Tell. There has to be some larger bull session that it's embedded within -- then it's just a sidebar to the main thread of what a dickwad your Spanish teacher is. It's not so hard to re-create this dynamic in instant messenger, but it's pretty tough via texting because the pace is so much slower -- you can't just zip quickly off on the personal tangent and then get right back to the bull.

And of course, it didn't have to be basketball: you could have been tossing the football around in the front or back yard, or -- alert the helicopter parents! -- even in the street. Or playing video games, which now you would do at a distance by playing via an online network. Or going out to hunt mastodons together. Whatever. You can't help each other through the perplexing and unforgivable period of adolescence if you aren't interacting face-to-face, or close enough to it (like chatting on the phone).

June 2, 2009

The decline of biking, and does it make bikes more hip?

Thinking more about how kids these days don't have a life, I thought of more ways to measure the change. It would be tough to find data on how often kids spend time playing outside, or what percent of the time they spend at playgrounds or parks is supervised. But there are at least two things I remember doing a lot as a kid that I don't see at all today -- riding my bike and shooting basketball at the hoop in someone's driveway. The basketball data will come soon, but for now, let's have a look at how the popularity of riding a bike has changed over the past 20 or so years.

The data are recorded in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, and they go from 1986 to 2006. (For the later age groups, the first two years used broader groupings, so in the graphs below, they start in 1988, when the finer-grained groupings begin.) They show what percent of people have gone bike riding at least 6 times in the past year. Here are the graphs for all age groups, and then broken down by smaller groups:

As you can see, most of the graphs tell the same story: popularity peaked sometime in the late '80s / early '90s, and since then has plummeted to about one-half of the peak value. Pretty odd since that's when crime started declining, so you don't have to worry so much about being attacked or having your bike stolen. And interestingly, the decline is consistent across all age groups -- so it's not just helicopter parents keeping their small children from riding their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised. We just don't like being outside as much as we used to -- a pattern that showed up before in the data on the decline in going to parks.

Perhaps this partly explains why so many of the Stuff White People Like items have to do with the outdoors, bikes, and green stuff in general -- 20 to 30 years ago, it wasn't very rare for the average person to enjoy these things, although they wouldn't have tried to brag about their eco cred to others. Now most of us trap ourselves indoors all day long, so the hip people may be trying to proclaim their unique awesomeness by going outdoorsy. I realize that this could well be as idiotic as the idea that the elites only took up tanning once the commoners started working indoors. But at least the timing is right in this case -- as bikes were being abandoned by the population at large, suddenly the insecure status-climbers appropriated them as a symbol of coolness.

I'd probably buy a used bike and use it for shorter trips, but I couldn't stand getting sucked against my will into the SWPL bike culture once they spotted me -- having some Rastafarian queer talk your ear off about which bike repair shop is the best, how much his seat with the customized large black dildo cost, or whatever else. Thanks, but I'll drive.

June 1, 2009

I knew I wasn't missing much at the movies lately

As a child and teenager I went to the movies a lot -- and not only because that's where many of the big video game arcades were located circa 1992. In college, I was insulated from all of pop culture. If memory serves, I saw four movies in four years. Oddly, though, after graduating, I still went to the movies only rarely -- there just didn't seem to be anything good out. Was I the only one? Looks like "no" --

These data are pieced together from several versions of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It shows how many movie tickets were sold, divided by the size of the population, so it says how many movies the average person saw during the year. This number doesn't change radically -- it's always between 4 to 6 movies per year -- but there is still an upward movement from the late 1980s until 2002, and a downward movement from 2003 through 2007. The mid-'80s sucked, although the late '70s and early '80s were cool.

Most people associate movies from the 1980s with the teen comedy genre, and the graph above suggests that the ones made from 1985 to 1988 will be bad compared to the ones made from 1982 to 1984, or in 1989. Sure enough, all of those whiny blame-my-parents movies by John Hughes came out then (although Sixteen Candles came out in 1984). Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a lot better, and not surprisingly came out in 1982. The best teen movie, Heathers, came out in 1989.

The same is true for horror / slasher movies, another genre central to the decade. After the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Terminator movies came out in 1984, it was more or less finished.

Notice how little movie attendance responds to the state of the economy -- true, there's a dip during the recessions of the early '80s and early '90s, and there's a surge during the '90s boom. However, there's a lull during the '80s boom, a surge during the early 2000s recession, and a lull during the recent housing boom era. No real consistent relationship. That probably doesn't stop people from claiming that the masses will pile into movie theaters during hard times to escape the harshness of reality, or that people will abandon movie theaters during hard times in order to save money or to not be reminded of Hollywood celebrities. The state of the economy may affect how many movies get made, perhaps even what their subject matter is. But as far as just going to the movies is concerned, economic health predicts little.

So now I don't feel so guilty about being out of the movie loop for the past 6 or 7 years. Apparently there wasn't much worth seeing. And it's not that I sheltered myself from pop culture generally, or that I'm averse to whatever's new -- I was very in touch with rock music when it was good, around 2003 to 2005 (maybe even into 2006). It sounded great, fast-paced, made you move. TV shows from that time weren't so bad either -- I kept up with Family Guy, Project Runway, even Made or True Life on MTV.

But none of the handful of movies that I saw each year thrilled me and made me want to catch up on things. The last movie that I had a blast at in the theater was The Big Lebowski in 1998. (Well, they showed Amelie on campus in 2002 or 2003, but that was French, not Hollywood.)

I'm sure there are some good ones that I missed, but that's true for any medium in any period. On the whole, though, movie-goers seem to have sensed that movies released after 2002 pretty much sucked.