January 30, 2010

The evolution of better looks as societies grow richer

Although better nutrition undoubtedly makes people more attractive -- for example by giving them enough vitamin A and the proteins and fatty acids needed to maintain healthy skin and hair -- this is only a minor improvement on the pre-existing genetic endowment. And better medicine certainly plays little or no role at all in enhancing people's looks simply because most medicine was harmful until the 20th C.

What could have so altered the genetic blueprint for outward appearance that a population looks a lot better as it grows richer? Note that I'm not comparing richer vs. poorer societies at a moment in time -- those differences could reflect all sorts of other differences -- but how a given group like the Scottish become more attractive over time as their material welfare rises.

There could be many reasons for greater selection for beauty in more prosperous environments, but a very simple one is the disappearance of the looks-vs-money trade-off that men used to face when choosing a wife. Dowries -- material stuff given to husbands by brides -- were routine until fairly recently, surviving into the 19th C. In the poor, Malthusian world that humans lived in before capitalism lifted all boats to comfortable levels, a key factor in a husband's genetic success was having sufficient material wealth to make sure his kids could survive and thrive. So how much dough the wife would bring to the household was a big deal in his choice of mate.

However, once the average man becomes incredibly wealthier and everyone better fed, the dowry that the wife would bring would not contribute that much more to taking care of their kids' necessities during childhood. Therefore he will choose less on the dimension of the woman's wealth and more based on other still important factors such as her looks (a signal of good genes). The magnitude of this selection pressure is going to be pretty big because it's the one that men naturally obsess over the most, and only something like a compelling looks-vs-money trade-off will dam it up. That means that even over 5 to 10 generations, people will become noticeably better looking as cuter women are chosen as wives / mothers.

Overly romantic social scientists often characterize this transition as one that finally frees up the human heart to choose based on true love rather than mere material wealth. It may do that -- but more importantly, it makes it possible for guys to almost entirely vote with their cock. This unbridled lust has done more to make the average person more attractive than have all the feeble endeavors of do-gooders to secure a toothbrush and balanced diet for every child.

By preferring the support of a comely to that of a wealthy wife, he intends only his own Darwinian fitness; and by directing that marriage in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest pulchritude, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing the good looks of his own children he frequently promotes those of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote them.

Can you sing better than a 10th grader?

Since rock music died out in the early 1990s, the only tolerable period has been the New New Wave between roughly 2003 and 2006 when a bunch of young kids wised up:

"Fuck it -- we might as well copy something great from the past rather than try to be original. I mean, how well has that been going for the past 10 years?"

That suggests that pop music might as well go the route that high music has gone and just have energetic and ambitious young people interpret the classics. Unlike classical music, though, interpreters don't require as long of an apprenticeship, and most of the punch of pop music comes from the raw energy anyway.

Here's a 16 year-old guy on YouTube doing very good INXS covers -- much better than the ones by successful professional pop musicians of the past 15 years. YouTube also has INXS covers by hit-makers Matchbox 20 and The Bravery, and they both suck compared to this high school kid.

"Listen Like Thieves"
"Kiss the Dirt"

There are more on his channel. He's hardly gotten any views or ratings, probably because he looks too nerdy -- and in a Devo, true nerd way, not in the fashionable meta-ironic Weezer style. Also, not being a cute girl will always harm your YouTube popularity. Hopefully the next wave of wild times will pick up before he turns 25 or so, and he'll get to make some good and original music.

January 28, 2010

Is lifetime happiness greater when you peak earlier or later?

leSuppose that we have two people, Easton who reaches peak status earlier in life -- say at 25 -- and Landon who reaches peak status later at age 55. Their highest and lowest levels are the same, and they descend or ascend at the same rate. Let's say a level of 0 means the population average -- nothing above ordinary status -- and 30 is the maximum. So after getting through adolescence and becoming pretty independent by age 25, Easton starts at level 30 and declines by 1 each year until he gets to 0 at age 55. Landon starts at level 0 at age 25 and climbs by 1 each year until he reaches level 30 at age 55.

Assume that there are no other major differences, like the domain in which they achieve high status, and that they are physical and mental carbon copies of each other. So the only difference is going from level 30 to 0 vs. 0 to 30. Obviously both will feel great at level 30 and not so great at 0. Still, over the entire period from age 25 to 55, which one enjoys greater happiness, or is it the same?

I'll post my answer in a few days, but I'm interested in hearing others to see if there are any crucial things I've overlooked.

January 26, 2010

When were times most fun? Survey says...

I'm not putting this up at my pay blog because it's worth having a little more solid foundation for the narrative I've been spinning lately about how tiring the culture has become since the early 1990s.

The idea is to use survey data to see how people felt at the time, since what they feel when looking back could be biased in a positive direction if they feel nostalgic or in a negative direction if they feel remorseful. Ideally you want to take the person's pulse across a variety of indicators of fun times so that you get a richer account of what makes daily life enjoyable. The General Social Survey has three questions that I've combined into a fun index. Think of it as a checklist. The response that counts as a check is in parentheses after the question.

1) HAPPY. "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" (Very happy)

2) LIFE: "In general, do you find life exciting, pretty routine, or dull?" (Exciting)

3) TRUST: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in life?" (Can trust)

The first two are self-explanatory. Why include how trusting people are? Well, how else are you going to go out and socialize with lots of people if all of you are suspicious of one another? Trust is the most basic ingredient of group action, and you can't have fun all by yourself. I've been talking mostly about the culture's decline in sincerity, but the implosion of trust is an equally strong factor. That probably drives the flight from public spaces that I've documented in other posts, such as not going to parks or bike-riding anymore, and it's at the root of Robert Putnam's story about the decline of community.

By the way, that's my theory for why the crime rate tracks the fun and wild vibe of the culture: when most people are trusting, they're more vulnerable to criminals -- not just by getting scammed, but simply by being out and about rather than holed up in their homes. Criminals only come out of the woodwork after most people rush into the public space. If most people are suspicious, paranoid, and overly cautious in social life, they won't be out much. A special case of this is helicopter parents not letting their kids go anywhere or do anything. With so few open targets venturing out into public spaces, criminals look for something else to do for fun and money.

Now, the whiners will object that this is just a checklist that a preppy head cheerleader would make up. But they're wrong: even if you defined yourself by the obscure music you listened to, you still searched for other people who liked that music, you congregated at the clubs and record stores where they were popular, and in general you spent a lot of time hanging out with other people who liked what you liked. In short, you had a life -- whether you participated in the mainstream or not. You felt happy, life was exciting, and you trusted people enough to do all those social things just mentioned.

To make the index, I just added the fraction of people who checked off the right response for each of the three questions. This answers the question, "If we chose someone at random, how many of the three boxes would we expect them to check off?" If everyone checked none, the index is 0; if everyone checked all three, the index is 3; in between is in between. This assumes that the variables of happiness, excitement, and trust act independently of each other to produce the overall fun level. Another way to do it is to multiply them instead of add them -- this is where each one interacts with or reinforces the others. It turns out that the pattern is exactly the same either way, so I'm sticking with the first way I drew the graph, which is the expected number of boxes checked off on the fun checklist, out of three. Here are the results:

There aren't many years from the '70s that include all three questions, but 1973 is the second-funnest of the past roughly 35 years. 1976 is still up there, and 1980 -- which culturally is still part of the late '70s -- is even higher. It's no surprise to me that 1984 is the funnest year on record. That's right at the height of new wave, dance pop, breakdancing, one cool movie after another, Reagan's landslide re-election, and on and on. Even by 1987 there's a noticeable drop-off, and it slides bit by bit through 1990. Again, no surprise that 1991 is the first year of the bottoming out that you see, although 1994 was an even bigger bummer. By this time, everyone is hysterical about third wave feminism, political correctness, AIDS, postmodernism, bla bla bla, and the homicide rate reaches its peak in 1991. The recent euphoria shows up pretty clearly: 2002 through 2006 buck the trend of boringness, but as we found out, that was unsustainable and 2008 turned out to be the least fun year recorded. (Imagine if they had data for 2009!)

From the peak of 1973 or 1984 to the nadir of 2008, there was a 15% decrease in the fun index. Although the pattern is the same for the interactive model, it's measured differently, so that one shows a 38% decline. Regardless of which model is closer to reality and what the true decline is, the important message is the picture. Times were pretty fun starting at least in the mid-'70s and lasting through the mid-'80s, the late '80s (including 1990) were a twilight period, and ever since 1991 we've been mired in a sarcastic, meta, ironic, cynical hell.

I actually don't mind it so much because there are ways around it. For one thing, the late '70s and the 1980s are back in fashion, so you can socially enjoy culture that isn't so disdainful of carefree fun. (Take this early Blondie song, for example.) That gets around the problem of happiness and excitement. Trust is a much harder problem, and the only real short-term fix you have available is to move to a place that's pretty low in ethnic diversity, like the Mountain Time Zone where I am. Sure, you're giving up the higher salary, the better architecture, the more varied cuisine, yadda yadda, of diverse coastal life. But those things are laughably impotent at boosting human happiness when compared to the radiant bustle of social life made possible by people who basically trust one another.

January 25, 2010

What signals does your dancing send?

Tyler Cowen points out an article that reviews some findings from the scientific study of dancing.

The results showed that women gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men with the highest levels of prenatal testosterone. The men with the lowest testosterone in turn got the lowest attractiveness ratings. "Men can communicate their testosterone levels through the way they dance," Lovatt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And women understand it -- without noticing it."

And what exactly is it about the more attractive dance styles that girls dig?

The men who got the female students hot under the collar danced with large movements which were "complexly coordinated." But it's a fine line between hot and not, however: Those men who made big moves but who were less coordinated came across as dominant alpha males -- and were unlikely to win women's hearts. The researchers also found that the size and complexity of the dance moves decreased in parallel with testosterone levels.

This sounds like a paradox -- don't perceived alpha males have higher prenatal testosterone, and aren't females supposed to gravitate toward them? How is it that the best male dancers had high prenatal testosterone -- aren't complex dance moves a girly thing?

The paradox is easily resolved by distinguishing two sub-types of high-T males, one for each type of mating strategy. First, there are those who invest their great energy to engage in male-male competition, where the winner inherits the available females, as though two knights waged war over a plot of land and a passive group of peasants. Then there are those who invest their great energy to directly signal their quality to females, who then choose the winner of their own accord, as though two corporate headhunters struggled to make the most appealing pitch about their companies to a sought-after partner. The former overpower male competitors through physical intimidation, violence, and so on, while the latter win over female onlooker-choosers with signals of genetic quality. (Research from Jamaica shows that males who are judged better dancers by females have greater bodily symmetry.)

Finally there are the low-T males who engage in both male-male competition and direct-to-female signaling. They obviously can't compete against other males individually, since they'd get crushed. Rather, they form teams with other low-T males. These cooperatives are large enough to protect members from getting violently pounded by individual bully males. (And bully males are too rowdy to cooperate in large groups of equals.) On the female choice side, they obviously can't compete against sexy males either individually or as an aggregate -- unlike the case of violence, 10 plain-looking guys are not, as a whole, as competitive or more than a single Adonis. Rather, they try to persuade female choosers that they shouldn't take the risk of mating with an exciting, rootless charmer; they should instead settle down with a drab, gentle family-raiser. The low-T male teams can also patrol to make sure none of the charmer males mate with their females on the sly. *

Another way to see this for yourself is to go to a dance club and see which males occupy a focal location and are allowed lots of space, one of the clearest signals of high status. There are the large males who (clumsily) move their body around to clear away other males, but there are the skinny lead singer lookalikes whose moves also clear out a large personal space. In a lek, the low-status males are crowded together out along the periphery like wallflowers.

What about female dancing?

In women, the link between dancing style and testosterone levels were similar -- but the reaction of men was just the opposite. Dancers with high levels of testosterone moved more parts of their body, with their movements being somewhat uncoordinated, while those with lower testosterone made more subtle movements, especially with their hips. The male students found the latter style most appealing.

News you can use if you're looking for a girly girl. BTW, that's how most gays dance -- with subtle hip-based movements. After all, they are appealing to male brains.

And what article on mating dances would be complete without a discussion of teenage girls?

The largest degree of [dance confidence] can be found in girls under the age of 16. "They see dance as something fun, not as part of mating behavior," says Lovatt. That changes around the age of 16. "Between 16 and 20, dance confidence among girls falls markedly," says Lovatt. "Girls begin to see dance as a social act rather than a way of expressing themselves. They begin to worry about how they look and start searching for a boyfriend."

That won't surprise anyone who's seen girls dancing confidently on YouTube: they're more likely to be younger high school students than college students. I've noted several times before how wildly girls dance in clubs that cater mostly to high schoolers, even compared to ones that cater to college people. Still, that's a pretty nice combination in the 16 to 20 range -- high-stamina dancing, while not thinking so highly of yourself. Girls want that extra confidence in guys, but guys want girls to be more humble.

But once young women have come to terms with their lost dancing innocence, the satisfaction ratings start rising again. From the age of 20 onwards, their opinion of their own dance floor competence starts to improve and keeps increasing until the age of 35. After that it hits a plateau, however, as satisfaction levels stagnate. From 55 onwards, the value even drops. "That coincides with the menopause," says Lovatt. And it doesn't get any better: "Dance confidence remains low for the rest of a woman's life."

Yikes. Despite their plummeting levels of girliness, they're growing more self-confident. Again no surprise if you've ever been in a dance club surrounded by high school or college girls one night, and then by 30 year-olds the next night. The younger girls are at or near the peak of their girliness, and they're either justifiably confident or virtuously humble about it. As they grow older, they become more contemptible, rating themselves increasingly higher than they merit. Think of Kelly Kapowski vs. Mrs. Robinson.

Men also become more pleased with themselves as they age, although that could be due to dancing more attractively, so that the rise in confidence is deserved. I didn't start using larger and more complex moves -- or really any moves at all! -- until I was 24 or 25.

The pattern is somewhat different among men. Their dance confidence levels keep rising until the mid 30s. It then stagnates before starting to sink from the age of 55 onwards. But then, surprisingly, men get a second wind. From 65 on, they start to once again see themselves as pretty smooth operators on the dance floor.

The reason that older men, but not older women, get back into feeling good about dancing is that men can re-enter the mating market while women can't at that age. Younger guys signal their youthfulness just by their looks. A 65 year-old man doesn't have that option, so he turns more to a carefree attitude toward dancing, ribald humor, and other ways of signaling that he still has a healthy energy level and is ready to go.

* I've stolen this three-part typology of male mating strategies from Barry Sinervo, who discovered these patterns among the common side-blotched lizard.

January 23, 2010

Evaluating culture by how good the not-so-great is

Before I used YouTube to determine that the last great rock band was Guns N' Roses. However, it might be more helpful to appreciate how much better or worse the musical zeitgeist is by ignoring the top-rated groups, since the presence of superstars owes more to chance than does the presence of pretty-good-stars. Think of it another way: in between the best songs on the radio on a typical day, what do the next-best filler songs sound like? As I mentioned when looking at commercials, we often take the mundane for granted and forget how good it was only once we've lost it -- or if it was bad, we look back only later on and thank god we don't have such terrible filler material in our pop culture meals.

Obviously if the best music of today sucks, the groups from the 50th to 90th percentiles are even worse. Just turn on the radio and hear for yourself what the filler sounds like. (I'm putting aside the three years of good music in the mid-2000s when rock saw a new wave revival and crunk finally made hip-hop music fun and danceable again after over a decade of gangsta rap.)

To be as fair as possible, for the pre-'90s death of rock music, let's look toward the very end when it was on its last legs. Let's also restrict it to groups who weren't superstars, and even then look only at their third or fourth most famous hits.

"In Your Room"
by The Bangles
"Don't Look Back" by Fine Young Cannibals
"Dressed for Success" by Roxette

I know, I know! But truly, even this low standard discovers much better music than what the highest standard would among today's whiners and warblers. It's not too hard -- all your song needs is the presence, rather than the absence, of melody and a fun vibe. And how girly are The Bangles compared to The Spice Girls or The Pussycat Dolls! Susanna Hoffs sure is a sight for sore eyes (not to mention the bonus points she gets for being born in the disco-punk generation). Even the masculine chick from Roxette is soft and cheery compared to later hard rockers like Courtney Love, while still rising above the fair sex's penchant for sappy navel-gazing a la Ani DiFranco or Norah Jones.

We haven't enjoyed any good new pop music for nearly 20 years, but on the bright side, popular recognition of this seems to be mounting. This means that, rather than enjoying old music only on your own, you can get the extra rush from knowing that it's in the air and fashionable. It would be nice if human happiness didn't respond to that, but it does. Where it exists, '80s night is incredibly more popular among young people than nights that feature music from the past 10 or even 20 years. If you drive around with emo or Jason Mraz blasting out your windows, most people will shoot you nasty looks for polluting the air.

But change it to The Go-Go's or Prince, and see how many genuine smiles you'll produce (and no mean glares). That's not just for older people for whom there's nostalgia value -- even people who were toddlers during new wave, or even those who weren't born for another 10 years, get a kick out of it. Good is good. It's like going into someone's house and seeing pre-Abstract Expressionist art on the wall, or going through high school in one of those Collegiate Gothic buildings rather than in a concrete and glass box.

January 22, 2010

Using google to see which races people think are good-looking

Using Google's automatic suggested list thingie, here are the results relating to Persians:

Why are persians rich
Why are persian women so beautiful

Same if you use Iranians:

Why are iranian women so beautiful
Why are iranians white
Why are iranians not arabs
Why are iranians protesting

Also the Lebanese:

Why are lebanese women so beautiful

As well as Israelis:

Why are israeli women so hot
Why are israeli women so beautiful

And the Mormons (notice the age difference):

Why are mormon girls so hot

Doesn't work for Turkish, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Arab, or Armenian women, or any women from North African countries, nor from other Gulf countries. No luck for Afghanistan or Pakistan, although Indian women get good and bad valuations:

Why are indian girls so pretty
Why are indian women so beautiful
Why are indian girls so ugly

Indian people are all over the place physically, so it's no surprise that some people vote yay and others nay. But Lebanese and Persian women are not so diverse among themselves, so there's an ideal type there. And given that there is no generic Middle Eastern bias, we conclude that Lebanese and Persian girls really are something special, something I always knew. And while trying out the search for Moroccan women, I stumbled upon the so-hotness of Mormon girls.

If you're bored, try out some other part of the world and report what's up in the comments.

January 21, 2010

No more urban legends?

Since the crime wave ended in the early 1990s, there haven't been many new urban legends -- the scary friend-of-a-friend tales, not a bunch of tiresome internet rumors. Jan Brunvand, the folklorist who popularized urban legends over several decades, has remarked that he sensed a decline in their popularity since the 1990s, although he attributed it to the rise of the internet. After all, you can fact-check on the web to see if an urban legend is true or not. I doubt that, since plenty of people told you it was "just a stupid story" and "obviously fake" before the internet. Snopes.com might have a more credible reputation, but not by much compared to your peers. I mean, really -- who are you gonna trust?

But his assessment of the health of urban legends still sounds right to me. I flipped through his most recent compilation to see what dates were attached, and there's hardly anything from the post-crime-drop period, aside from some silly email chain letters and internet rumors. It makes sense functionally: when the danger level plummets, you don't feel such a great need to tell cautionary tales, and you aren't so receptive to hearing about them. What would be the point? Getting worked up over some ghost stories -- that's, like, so gay.

We saw before that not only are kids not making up new kissing games, but they aren't even carrying on the tradition of the old ones. They're not making up new urban legends -- OK. But are they even keeping the old ones alive? I spent a fair amount of time around teenagers as a tutor and never heard anything like that, or else I would've chimed in and said that's only an urban legend. Of course, it's not a commonplace activity, so I could've easily not been around them when they did. Still, I've never heard my undergrad friends tell any, or spread them via Facebook, or overhear them at nightclubs where under-21 people hang out. You certainly don't see any cultural products aimed at them which feature urban legends. The last case of that was the 1998 movie Urban Legend, but that was geared toward teenagers and older audiences, not to Millennials (who were born at the earliest in 1987).

We ran a test before about how many under-25 people who read this blog had heard of the various kissing games like Seven Minutes in Heaven. How many of the following have you heard in-person, told orally -- not something you read about on your own at Wikipedia or Snopes?

1) Guy has a wild night, wakes up in a bathtub full of ice, and finds out his kidney has been surgically removed and the thief long gone.

2) Woman with elaborate and gross hair-do goes to hospital complaining about head pains, and doctors find a nest of baby spiders inside her hair.

3) Guy drinks soda and Pop Rocks at the same time, and his stomach explodes. (If younger people have heard this, I assume the anachronistic Pop Rocks has since been replaced with something else.)

4) Girl places tuna in her vagina for her boyfriend to eat out, but he doesn't get it all out and some days later she finds maggots up in there.

5) Closing your eyes and chanting "Bloody Mary" several times at a mirror in the dark will summon a ghost by that name when you open your eyes.

6) Customer at Wendy's takes a big bite into chicken sandwich, and white goopy stuff squirts out -- turns out it's not mayonnaise but a tumor that he bit into.

7) While trick-or-treating, children get apples that have razor-blades hidden inside.

8) Evil-doers run up to unsuspecting pedestrians and stick them with a syringe that has HIV.

9) Girl masturbates with raw hot-dog, but it breaks and most gets stuck far up inside her vagina. This occasionally featured the "maggots later on" detail, and I don't recall there being a stock answer for how she got it out. (There's probably a true case of this happening, but that doesn't mean it's not a folktale.)

10) Young girl is driving around while a killer waits hiding in the back seat of her car.

11) Babysitter is terrorized by lewd or gory phone calls and reports them to the police, who tell her they're coming from a room upstairs inside the house.

Those are just a few of the more popular ones as I recall them. I just wonder how many of these tales the Millennials have heard from someone in person, and who told the story as though they believed it themselves, or at least were credulous -- and where you too at least found it plausible, even if you didn't fully buy it.

Evolutionary origins of our attitudes about business and elites

Readers might be interested in this post I put up at GNXP. Comment over there.

January 20, 2010

New York gets weaker on crime; wild times, here we come

This is just the first, barely perceptible change in the letting-up-on-crime direction, but New York is softening up on teenage criminals, emphasizing detention less and therapy more. Crime rates won't start shooting up again until at least 2017, maybe as late as 2027, but this shows that crime and responses to crime oscillate in cycles.

On the plus side, the wilder culture we will soon have will give us exciting rather than boring popular culture, just as rock music accompanied the crime wave of the late '50s through the early '90s.

January 19, 2010

Men are not intimidated by smart or high-status women

From the NYT, and surprisingly not an example of Sailer's Law of female journalism (unless Sam is short for Samantha), we hear some anecdotes about the difficulties that over-30 women who are educated or high-status or whatever are having in keeping a man. Regardless of how common it is, there is a real pattern underneath those anecdotes, but it is not their intelligence or status that turns off men. It must be something else. First a few simple proofs of what is not the cause.

Smart women have been smart all their lives; indeed, their fluid IQ peaked as it does for everyone sometime in their 20s, so if anything they're not as smart as they used to be. Did they enjoy more male attention or less when they were 22? And that's true no matter how smart or dumb the guy was -- low-IQ males would have no problem dating and boning a coed from NYU. Hell, they'd rather date her than some dumb-as-rocks 20 year-old from a trailer park. That all changes when she's a 40 year-old MENSA member. So that rules out high IQ driving men away.

It's not quite that extreme for status, but basically the same as for IQ. The only difference is that she is higher-status when she's over 30, but the complaints are always about men being uncomfortable with a status gap. Again, a blue collar guy would have nothing against sleeping with a chick from Swarthmore. If we go back even further, we remember that it was every low-ranking boy's dream in middle and high school to date a high-ranking girl -- that is, a very popular and therefore very good-looking girl. That rules out high status driving men away.

The same goes for wealth. In college, she might not have been earning big bucks, but she did have access to daddy's credit card -- and probably one of her own too -- which a low-income male might not have had. Once again, he wouldn't mind if his daddy's girl gf had greater purchasing power than he did.

That leaves only two non-exclusive explanations for the pattern. One is that smart, high-status, wealthy females are the ones who have no interest in a relationship with a large gap in their favor for IQ, status, or wealth. The other is that smart, high-status, wealthy females change in important ways from their college years to their mid-to-late 30s and beyond, and that these other changes are what begin to more and more drive men away. The most obvious is looks, although that's true for all women. The next largest change is in personality: as a result of career training and climbing the ladder to success, she tends to develop a more cold, stiff, and bitchy personality, completely unlike the emotionally responsive, fun-loving, and forgivably bratty girl she used to be in college.

So after a few moments' reflection, the pattern is not much of a mystery at all except to nearly menopausal women who have squandered their opportunity to give birth.

January 18, 2010

Two little thoughts on Haiti

I know next to nothing about Haiti, so unlike most people on the internet, who I'll concede have spent entire minutes researching the Caribbean, I won't say that much about it. But a couple of things occur to me about our response:

1) I'm more likely to donate when there's an unobtrusive sign at the cash register that notifies you that you can tack on a donation of, say, $1, $5, or $20 to help, than when the cashier asks me to my face in front of a line of onlooking customers. It's an attempt to use social shaming for the greater good -- "I mean, you don't want all these people here to think you're some kind of heartless skinflint, do you?" -- but it backfires. We resent the impropriety of being put on the spot like that.

It's like if some fat guy is buying two pints of ice cream, a pie, and some candy bars, and the cashier asks him earnestly, "You know, there's probably several pounds of sugar in all this, and that will only further harm your health -- are you sure you want to buy this?"

For some reason, we don't resent it so much if the attempt at shaming came from the other customers in line, like "So, are you going to donate?" or "Jeez, that looks like a lot of sugar." I think we feel like they are our equals, and so we accept shaming from them. We're all trying to help each other act better, and today it just so happens to be our turn in the hot seat -- "OK, you got me." The cashier, though, we perceive as an authority figure -- only they are able to put a given customer under that much pressure, they're the ones taking our money or making us sign forms, etc. -- and so shaming from them strikes us more like an abuse of their power. They're just putting us in the hot seat to signal that they can, and that we can't do it back to them, we think.

2) There are already a couple of references around the web to Adam Smith's "earthquake in China" passage from his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Basically, the quoted part says that a person will lose more sleep over the dread of losing their own little finger than they will over the knowledge of the deaths of millions of far-away people swallowed by an earthquake. Surely that's how most Americans are responding to the news of the earthquake in Haiti.

It's the only part of the paragraph that is ever quoted (see WikiQuote's entry on Smith, for example) because most people who like quotations are either cynics or pessimists. You rarely go looking for a good quotation when you're feeling sanguine. By only quoting that one section, the cynics get a rush from implying that human beings claim to care about others but really only care about themselves, and under the same reading the pessimists are relieved to uncover another aspect of human nature to bemoan.

But read the rest of the paragraph here (number 46, or ctrl F "china"). He adds that, although we appear to value our own little finger more than millions of Chinese in the previous example, what if we could push a button that would save our finger but also kill millions of Chinese? Suddenly we have the exact opposite reaction -- we wouldn't dare value our finger more than all those other people. He's drawing a distinction between passive and active moral behavior. We appear more callous when we're in passive mode, but once in active mode we behave much more morally. That split shows up a lot in the psychology lit on intuitive moral judgments.

So here the cynics and pessimists are wrong: when put to a real test, most people accept that they're no more special than others and will take a hit rather than cause harm to innocent others in order to save themselves.

January 16, 2010

Sailer's rule of female journalism: skin-lightening cream edition

Sailer's Law of female journalism:

The most heartfelt articles by female journalists tend to be demands that social values be overturned in order that, Come the Revolution, the journalist herself will be considered hotter-looking.

From the NYT, here is another example, this one on the dangers of skin-lightening creams. The reporter previously wrote about blacks who straighten their hair, provided a separate mini-article on the history of the practice, and says that she got her hair done by a "curly hair specialist." So I'm assuming she's black herself, probably a Gen X-er who heard the phrase "the politics of..." too many times in college circa 1991 and thought it would remain cool forever after.

I checked out her earliest articles from about 10 years ago, and they're all book reviews that don't relate at all to looks, whereas her recent articles all focus broadly on cosmetics, fitness, etc. When women are in their late 20s, they're not freaking out quite yet about their looks, but come their mid-to-late 30s, the deformities are too stark to ignore any longer. Had they followed mother nature's design, they would've already started a family by that age and looks would not matter very much to their sense of worth. But if the physically decaying woman is childless, she scrambles to find a way to sublimate her anxiety, and half of the world's cultural sewage is the result. (Whiny young males supply the other half.)

The easiest way for the average black woman to look better is the same as it is for women of any race -- put down the sugar, and cut back on carbs in general. Africans especially need to watch out for carbs because they've had even less time than Europeans to adapt to agricultural high-carb diets, and Europeans already do horribly eating that junk. This must also account for some of their attitude. High-carb diets, by depriving you of fat and especially the B vitamins, put you in an irritable mood. * Groups that have had less time to adapt will probably have their mood thrown even more outta whack than groups that've been eating corn, potatoes, and bread for a longer time.

By simply cutting way down on their carb intake, black women will overcome the two biggest obstacles they face in the mating market -- having extra fattage and a snappish attitude.

* If you look at B vitamin deficiencies, a lot of them are concentrated in the nervous system. I have four eggs a day, and I'm never in a bad mood. (Unlike the year in college when I was vegetarian and very moody -- even for someone that age.) If someone cuts me off, or a store is closed early, or I have to read some article that makes it sound like there's an epidemic of blacks dying from skin creams, I might reflexively get angry, but it never persists. Eggs are distinctive for their cholesterol and B vitamin levels, but when I eat other things high in cholesterol (like pate and dairy products), it doesn't have the same effect. It must be the boatload of B vitamins that keeps me in such a cheery or cocky mood most of the day.

January 14, 2010

Kids aren't inventing new kissing games -- or practicing old ones either?

One day in pre-school the teacher turned off the lights for nap-time, and a fellow toddler chick invited me under one of the tables. I snuck under the floor-length tablecloth that hid us from the teacher's eyes, and found her there facing me. I don't remember exactly how she phrased it, but she proposed i'll show you mine if you show me yours. After duly whipping it out, I sat there for a little bit while she fumbled around with her clothes. Even after exposing herself, she kept struggling to find out where her penis was. Frustrated and embarrassed, she apologized: ...i think it's stuck...

We take these kinds of games for granted, but I wonder how uncommon they've become since the early 1990s, when young people started becoming less promiscuous across a broad range of behaviors. Would a middle schooler today even know what Spin the Bottle is? I searched the NYT's recent archives and all journals in JSTOR, but I couldn't find any references to new kissing games, or folkgames in general, after the late 1980s. Before then, there was a healthy tradition in folklore studies to document not just children's games but specifically kissing games -- and how they'd changed over the decades. I conclude that this era's sexually lazy adolescents have been shirking the task of making up new make-out games, at least since the beginning of the 1990s.

For some historical background, I used the NYT's full archives, JSTOR, and Lexis-Nexis to find the earliest references I could to make-out games familiar to me. I remember first playing Truth or Dare? during Ms. Sundberg's art class in 4th grade, but it goes back much further. There was a teen girl book by that name written in 1973 by Jacqueline Wilson, and a 1979 article in the Journal of American Folklore refers to it as a common boy-girl game. However, a 1959 article in Midwest Folklore describes the very same game, only with the name Truth or Consequences?, after a radio quiz show of the 1940s. You have to admit that the teenagers of the early 1970s had more of a knack for naming their games.

Strip poker goes even farther back: there's a 1919 article about it in the NYT. And so does Spin the Bottle. There are articles in the NYT in 1935 about a musical revue by that name, but I'm not sure that it refers to the kissing game. However, a 1949 article in Jewish Social Studies mentions it as one of the games that Israeli kids play, and articles from 1959 in Child Development and Midwest Folklore both document it among American children as well. What about Seven Minutes in Heaven? There's a 1953 article in Jet about the spread of this kissing game among blacks at least, and by 1977 the NYT talks about it in the context of what goes on at "boy-girl parties."

I imagine that when pubescent kids today hear the words "seven minutes in heaven," they don't get a rush of adrenaline as they wonder when they'll finally get to play it. Rather, they'd laugh sarcastically and dismiss it with i'm not gonna lie, that sounds pretty gay.

Once the level of wildness in the culture began plummeting in the early '90s and we began retiring from public social life, all sorts of fun stuff began to disappear: good pop music, outdoor entertainment -- and evidently adolescent make-out games. And I doubt that paranoid helicopter parents let their kids throw sleepover parties as often as we used to before the early-'90s pacification. Well, except for these girls' parents (NSFW).

I'm going to time having children of my own so that they'll come of age when wildness has already surged again in the culture. The '20s and '30s seem pretty sure bets. The violent and property crime rates may have swung back up by then, but those are too rare to figure directly in the lives of young people, except for "at-risk" populations. And on the plus side, they won't be deprived of fun pop music, hanging out unsupervised, and sexual initiation games. Make them grown-ups sooner rather than later, and get them the hell out of the house and into the real world.

January 12, 2010

When did meta-irony infect advertising?

Returning to the culture's decline in sincerity, i.e. all that annoying meta-ironic shit, one key area of entertainment and pop culture that I forgot was advertising. The painfully self-aware trend will show up in this area as the ad that is, like, too cool to condescend to the audience by using facts or humor or sensuality, opting instead to go so overboard in its wackiness that the audience understands the ad is winking at them. "We're too hip to be a real ad campaign." It's like the hipster trust-funder who wore a trucker hat over his fashion mullet. Example: those Orbit gum commercials.

I first remember this trend showing up in video game ads in the early to mid 1990s. Sega started it, and Nintendo eventually sank to their level too. See the Angry Nintendo Nerd's brief comments on Nintendo Power's ads (from 6:45 to 7:30). I see a 1996 date on one of the ironic ad issues.

The premise of these ads is that consumers have grown jaded, so you have to sneak past their skeptic defense system by being as uber-ironic as possible. Of course, ads have been around for more than a century, so this is just a baseless rationalization to jump on the meta-ironic bandwagon that took off during the '90s. To estimate when this idea took hold, I searched the NYT for articles that had both "jaded" and "advertising," looking at 5-year time blocks. Here is how this changes over time, where the year on the axis is the first within the 5-year block:

Not too much going on in the '50s and '60s, although there's a jump in the first half of the '70s, probably reflecting the late days of The Counterculture. It subsides in the latter '70s and is still pretty low through the earlier 1980s, more evidence of how refreshing the culture was then. * Overall, no sustained growth, though -- that doesn't start until the late 1980s. You can't see it in the graph, but the jump actually begins in 1988, so the mid-'80s were still in the non-self-conscious stage. As an independent check, take a guess what year Adbusters was created. (Answer here.)

Throughout the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, there's an explosion that should look familiar based on all of the other examples of meta-irony. The latter 2000s show a decline, but it's still really high. I'd like to hope this is a leading indicator of the death of this obnoxious trend, but we'll have to wait and see. (I don't expect it to hit bottom until the middle of this decade at the earliest, and it could last until the mid-'20s.)

Finally, for those who weren't very old in the pre-screwballery days, some examples of how non-ironic ads were:

* Early in 1984, the Super Bowl commercial for the Apple Macintosh and Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" campaign came out. It sounds ridiculous to feel even the slightest tinge of nostalgia for ads -- and I can't actually feel it in this case, as I was too young to remember either of those -- but it goes to show how even the mundane things matter. It's one thing to contrast Ghostbusters with a Will Ferrell blockbuster, but how much of your time do you spend watching movies? Not as much as you do looking at ads. You don't realize how valuable ads are which are merely goofy until you are bombarded by ads that drip self-awareness -- whoa dude, I get it! It, like, knows that we're watching it!

It's a strange world indeed when the spoofs of Mentos commercials make you want to strangle the makers more than with the original ads themselves, who were only boring and maybe gay, but at least didn't mistake themselves to be clever and subversive artists.

January 10, 2010

People in age-diverse clubs are less trusting, and that kills the mood

A little bit ago I showed why an older guy looking for a younger girl should search for them in a place where everyone is her age, and the guy is one of only a few outliers. It's much more difficult in a place where ages run the gamut. I chalked it up to how comfortable she would feel -- very much so when she fits in age-wise, uneasy when there's a broad mix, and not safe when she stands out as an outlier among fogies.

I still believe that description, but what's the source of her comfort or discomfort? I think it boils down to trust, in particular trusting that if she makes a move to "cooperate" (in Prisoner's Dilemma terms) by putting herself out there, it will be reciprocated rather than spurned. There's a great book, Coethnicity, that reviews the empirical results which show higher ethnic diversity associated with lower levels of trust and less provision of public goods. The authors propose many mechanisms that could drive this pattern, but they conclude that it mostly comes down to Zoe expecting co-ethnics to reciprocate her cooperative moves and to punish her if she shirks, while she doesn't expect the first or fear the latter reprisal from other-ethnics.

So in a highly mixed-age setting, if she belongs to the teenage ethnic group and you belong to the 20-something ethnic group, how does she know that if she makes a move on you, you won't view her as some weird immature little girl who presumes to be attractive to older guys? Plus she doesn't feel pressure from her own ethnic group or from other groups to approach members of other groups, whereas she feels she'll be ostracized by her group as a wet blanket if she doesn't approach people her own age (that is, if she "defects" from the game of mingling).

Thus, she's much more secure in approaching a boy of similar age because she expects greater reciprocity in the first place. Moreover, she feels compelled to approach boys her age in order to avoid the punishment from her age-mates if she were to not play along. And she's aware that the boys her age are going through the same thought process. So she trusts interacting with same-age boys more than older-age boys, even if she's equally attracted to both. When interacting with the former, there is greater norm enforcement, and trust is a precondition for having fun with someone.

That all changes, though, when most of the people are her age and you're an outlier. We expect guests to assimilate to our norms, at least as long as they're in our company. As the 20-something guest among the teenage ethnic group, you're expected to reciprocate advances, and you can expect them to quickly cast you out if you show disdain for their customs. Well now the situation is like it is when the boy is her own age -- the risk of being cruelly or callously rejected shrinks, even though the reward remains just as valuable, so she's more likely to indulge her desire to approach a cute older guy.

And of course, her worst nightmare is the opposite situation, where she's the teenage guest among people who are mostly in their 30s or older. This time, even if she tries to assimilate into the older group, she can't expect reciprocity from her target guy as much as before. The simple reason is that he feels incredible peer pressure to reject her advances, in part from male co-ethnics who are envious of him being approached by a pretty young thing, but more so from jealous female co-ethnics. More, she doesn't expect her own group to punish her if she doesn't make a good-faith effort to mingle -- they're not even there, and even if they were, wouldn't care much. And the other-ethnic group definitely won't punish her for not joining in -- if anything, most of them would punish her for trying to join. Her trust in the interactions now evaporates, and she doesn't approach anyone.

As I said in my first post, this applies to any setting, not just night clubs. Teenage girls will make moves on their tutor or teacher (assuming they find him attractive) because most of the people in that setting are her age. She's much less likely to in a setting that includes teenagers, graduate students, post-docs, and tenured faculty. And she's not likely at all to do so when most of the people are tenured faculty.

Again, it may sound strange to approach younger girls where you'll stick out as an outlier age-wise, but assuming you have any chance at all, that's where it's the greatest. * By taking the easy and more intuitive path of pursuing them where you'll blend into a broad range of ages, you allow trust-aborting diversity to spoil your fun.

* The same holds for any difference that can be construed as an ethnic difference, obviously including race: if you want a Cuban girl to feel comfortable approaching you, don't go to a club where Cubans are only one of a wide variety of races, but to a club that has a mostly Cuban crowd and you're the guest.

January 6, 2010

Using the fashion treadmill to get off the hedonic treadmill

We take many of the enjoyable things in life for granted, assuming they'll always be there: our children, our food, our gadgets, etc. When we first experience them, we're elated, but as time goes on we habituate ourselves to their presence, causing us to enjoy them less and less.

For example, you really hit it off with someone in your freshman dorm during your first week at college, and for awhile you can't sit still because you just have to hang out with them. You're practically joined at the hip. But as the end of the school year approaches, you notice that while you still eat meals together, goof off in each other's room together, and so on, it's nowhere near as exciting as it was during the first month. You're fine spending time by yourself or with other friends. Suddenly the summer arrives and splits you two apart, and you find yourself wishing you'd created a little more mischief during the second semester, by which time you'd taken the relationship for granted.

The Stoics recommended a technique to prevent this habituation to enjoyable things, or what is now called the hedonic treadmill by psychologists -- negative visualization. You simply think to yourself what could go wrong that would separate you from the enjoyable thing. For instance, you might tell yourself that this could be the last day of your friend's life, or that at any moment they could be called home by their family, and so on. When you discover that these bad things don't unfold, you become grateful for the continued presence of your friend. Doing this regularly (not necessarily every day, but perhaps weekly or monthly) keeps you from growing accustomed to them, so your enjoyment is not diminished by habituation.

In the abstract, this solution makes good sense, but it seems that the power of it derives from being able to truly convince yourself of the non-trivial chance that the bad things may actually happen -- otherwise you will brush those possibilities aside and proceed to take the good thing for granted. Now, the Stoics wrote in a Malthusian economy where growth was never sustained, where class mobility was very limited, and where disease, war, and famine were always around the corner. In that harsh world, it would not have been too difficult to tell yourself that your child might die by the end of the year, that this meal is special because you might be starving next week, or that your newly won status may vaporize when civil war breaks out and you find yourself exiled to the middle of nowhere.

However, convincing yourself of these things in the comfortable modern world we live in now is an impossible sell, not merely a challenging one. There are exceptions, such as high school friends who know they'll be separated upon graduation, entrepreneurs who know their business is likely to fail before long, a captured soldier who knows his survival is sketchy at best, and perhaps a few others. But in general, only the most self-delusional can convince themselves that they might also suffer the same misfortunes that Marcus Aurelius could have expected. For us, the good things appear to be here to stay.

So where can we look for good things that have a built-in expiration date, allowing us to use negative visualization to enjoy them at roughly the same level, without taking them for granted? I think we should look to things that go in and out of fashion, broadly construed. Seneca did not live in a world where there may be great popular music that would last for a stretch but that would be booted out as bad music caught on only for its novelty value. Or where colorful clothing would be the norm for a few years before succumbing to a backlash of black. Or where the "it food" might be steak with bearnaise sauce this decade but rice with soy sauce in the next.

In the modern world, the only good things that may well vanish tomorrow are those subject to the churning of the fashion. The standard silver lining that people see is that, hey, they just might come back into fashion! And don't get me wrong, it is indeed wonderful to hear The Cars, Prince, INXS, and early Madonna over the speakers in supermarkets nowadays. But that doesn't solve the habituation problem, and you have to wait a very long time for the revival -- if it happens at all. I see a better side-effect: knowing they are to be hanged by fashion in a fortnight lets you use negative visualization to enjoy them fully for every day that they do exist. *

Moreover, even when the trend is gone, you'll still have all of the pleasant memories, and even more importantly you won't feel paralyzed later on by regret. You didn't take the good thing for granted, and so there will be no mountain of missed opportunities weighing down on your mind.

I'm not suggesting blindly following fashion, since you may not like what's in vogue. But given all the various sources of pleasure that are subject to fashion, there must be at least a handful at any given time where the hip thing is also the enjoyable thing for you. I feel grateful to live during a time when going dancing at '80s night suddenly became trendy -- you never know, the fad might die out and dance clubs might revive The Spice Girls and Ricky Martin! -- and when, thanks to Starbucks, a coffeehouse craze has become "in" -- and who knows whether that will go the way of the roller rink?

As I said before, there are a few other ways to use negative visualization to your advantage: starting a business, going into a warzone, taking a class, or teaching (your students will only be around for so long). Still, those aren't feasible for most people over the long-term. But fashion's blades will always be cutting short the thread of many enjoyable things. ** And if you just search a little for the trends that appeal to you and remind yourself that they won't be around forever, it isn't so difficult to cherish what you have.

* You might object that you'll know that even after the good thing becomes unfashionable, you can still experience it, and that this awareness will thwart your ability to use negative visualization. In some cases, that just won't be true -- try finding a drive-in movie theater or a nightclub that only plays disco music. Even when the thing is still around, experiencing it just won't feel as good as it did when it was popular and there was a collective euphoria surrounding it. A lot of these things are enjoyable in part for the social connections they create between you and your fellow indulgers. Worse yet is if there's an outright backlash, where all but the strongest will consider their public reputation more than their private enjoyment. Think of wearing colors and patterns during the '90s, or suggesting to your friends that you go dancing when brooding and angst are what's hip. The contemptuous eyes of the mob will spoil your attempts to continue enjoying the good thing once it's passed out of fashion.

** Creative destruction in competitive markets does this too, but it's not possible to pick out which particular things will be driven out in this way -- otherwise you'd have a perfect get-rich-quick scheme. You can only look back in retrospect at a horse-and-buggy and think how nice it was that you got to experience it while it lasted. You had no reason to suspect it would be replaced by a self-propelled hunk of metal. So trying to use negative visualization won't work for good things that will be swept away by even better things through creative destruction.

January 4, 2010

Future generations won't feel nostalgia for places?

That's what Dan Gilbert predicts. The basic argument is that as stores become more uniform across the country or world, replacing the locally distinct stores of yesteryear, you won't feel any longing to revisit the place where you grew up because those same stores will be available wherever you end up.

In this post I'll go through some basic points where I think Gilbert's premises of what the future will be like are wrong. In a follow-up post I'll grant Gilbert's vision of the future and show that even then we only have to worry about losing nostalgia for places whose experiences are dominated by using consumable goods.

First, it's not true that every Starbucks is the same -- indeed, each one looks pretty different from the others, aside from the color scheme. The building space is different, and so is the selection and arrangement of furniture, the views of outside, the baristas (and how well you know them), and your fellow customers. When I was in Maryland over the summer and for Thanksgiving, I went to two different Starbucks (within about three minutes' drive of each other), and they were totally different from each other -- and more importantly, from the one I go to every day where I am now. Being away from my "home" Starbucks really did make me want to return. *

This isn't quite as true for other stores that Gilbert mentions, such as McDonalds, but even there no two are alike. And as we get wealthier and become less sensitive to price and convenience, we'll want more variety between McDonalds. The really important parts may be the same across all McDonalds, but that still leaves plenty of wiggle room for variety -- choice of furniture, what the seating arrangement is like, whether there's a play room and if so what it's like, what the view to the outside world is like, who tends to work the cashiers, what clientele it attracts, and so on.

Even in the touristy area of Barcelona called Las Ramblas, whose big-name stores you think would try to appeal to tourists' and locals' taste for uniformity and predictability, there are two McDonalds separated by roughly 15 minutes' walking. Still, aside from the consumable goods sold, they are quite different. One has almost no outside view, while the other is on a corner with large windows. One has standard McDonalds furniture, while the other's is in the mid-century modern style. That must obviously reflect the different groups of people who go to each one. There's a third McDonalds about three minutes' walking from the first one, and it too is totally different: it is more vertically stacked and offers a view of the bustling crowd below in the Portal de l'Angel. I would still love to return to the Burger King next to Pla├ža Catalunya.

Because consumers really do value variety, dominant sellers will move more in that direction over time. Even stores where you don't expect to sit down and linger, such as grocery stores, are becoming more distinct. Again, this is probably a wealth effect -- the chain's stores have already done well enough on price and convenience that they now have to distinguish themselves by the variety they offer, not only of consumable goods but of the design of the store itself.

It's more visible within a chain like Whole Foods, whose customers are wealthier -- the two near me are as similar as grocery stores need to be, but otherwise they do feel like two different grocery stores. But even the Safeways are headed there, just as they are in other aspects of wealth-driven variety. I remember as a kid that they had no imported cheeses, and you were lucky to find fresh mozzarella or feta; otherwise it was mostly American, Swiss, and Cheddar slices. Over Thanksgiving I went to the Safeway I went to as a kid, for the first time in years, and that had all changed.

So, even if one chain dominated all of the coffee store market or all of the grocery store market, in the future each store would have its own character. And those that cater to wealthier customers are not very far from that even today. For these reasons, I think Gilbert's projection of what the future will look like is off, and that we shouldn't worry about a world that will never come to be.

We might also ask what's so special about places where producers sell us their goods and services? Do we not also feel nostalgia for other types of places? Surely we do, and those aren't under the threat of uniformity due to large chains commanding more of the market. Houses are not going to look the same, nor are school buildings, libraries, parks, or churches. Nor will the natural environment, such as the hill where you used to go sledding as a kid, the creek that wound behind your school, or the woods and caves you explored on camping trips. None of those will be reproduced in another location, and thus nostalgia will make you want to return to those original spots.

Indeed, we have stronger nostalgic feelings for these non-commercial and therefore more sacred-feeling places, so that you could argue that even if Gilbert were right, we wouldn't notice it much. Sure, the small part of our nostalgia that would've been spurred by thoughts about where we used to buy coffee or hamburgers or jeans might not be there, but that loss is nearly invisible compared to the nostalgia we feel for homes, school buildings, and libraries, or for hills, creeks, and woods.

In the next post, I'll consider a future where every version of some type looks the same and offers the same products and services, which is the portentous trend Gilbert sees. Even there, we will only lose our nostalgia for the original we grew up with if the experiences we have in the place are dominated by using consumable goods.

* That's why there's nothing at all silly about the sustainability of there being two Starbucks right across the street from each other -- the consumables being sold are the same, but none of the other stuff is. One has cute 20 year-old baristas, the other a bunch of disaffected indie rock males in their 30s. One has the furniture more spread out, the other has it placed in a cozier concentration. One has windows that open out on a certain view of the surroundings, the other offers different views. One has no bathrooms or unappealing bathrooms, the other has nice ones. One draws a certain clientele, the other draws a different clientele, each group perhaps converging on their home turf in the same arbitrary way that drivers pick the left or right side of the road to drive on.

In fact, even if both stores were identical in all other respects, the preference of people to self-segregate to some degree would alone make two side-by-side Starbucks sustainable. The two groups might have identical preferences regarding coffee and coffeehouses, including choice of location, but they wouldn't want to mingle with the other group. So, just make two exact copies right next to each other and let them sort themselves into separate buildings. That's more or less what a restaurant did when it offered smoking and non-smoking sections.