June 30, 2010

Camille Paglia on Apollonian vs. Dionysian times

Here is a recent op-ed of hers ostensibly about a drug that would increase a woman's sex drive, but really more about how shriveled up the culture has been for the past 20 years compared to the libidinous era of the '60s through the '80s. The theme is a familiar one here, but she doesn't connect it to the crime rate, which it matches perfectly (including the contrast between the high-crime Jazz Age and safe, priggish 1950s).

Unless you pay attention to the crime rate (as a proxy for the level of violence, which is how people gauge how risky the world is), you won't be able to explain why the past 20 years have been so flaccid:

Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife.

Well the average male offered no better visually from the Summer of Love through Studio 54 through arena rock concerts, yet girls were still boy-crazy.

And why has rock music been so bland during the same time period?

But with the huge commercial success of rock, the blues receded as a direct influence on young musicians, who simply imitated the white guitar gods without exploring their roots.

But why did this fading of the blues influence only become dooming during the early 1990s rather than the 1980s or 1970s or the 2000s? And why did blues die out as an influence in black music? That can't be attributed to imitating white guitar gods. Same goes for R&B generally -- it's been as boring as rock has, and the timing is the same. Still, even if her explanations don't work, I'm glad that there is a growing awareness of how unique the '60s - '80s period was, that the initial Gen X caricature of the '80s is officially dead -- Paglia even gives props to Belinda Carlisle -- and that the desperate attempts to make the '90s look cool are quickly unraveling.

June 29, 2010

Dead malls and the bygone carnivalesque in American culture, part 1

Malls are dead. If you have memories of the 1980s and earlier, you've surely noticed the direction that shopping areas have steadily headed within the past 15 to 20 years. At one end of the spectrum, there are smaller-scale, unenclosed spaces whose stores offer almost only fleeting indulgences, such as spas, hair salons, and food service chains or (typically upscale) grocery stores. They occasionally have a fashion store or a bookstore. At the other end of the spectrum are yawning gulf spaces with several big box stores, also unenclosed.

Lifestyle centers and power centers -- as these "retail concepts" are called -- have all but thoroughly replaced the shopping mall. The trend is widely remarked on in urban planning books, especially those with a New Urbanist viewpoint, who gloat over the mall's death. The transition began -- when else? -- during the 1990s, as the culture went from dangerous and exciting to safe and boring. Here is an NYT article showing that it was already clear by 2000.

The easiest way to date the downfall of the mall is to look to the iconic Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. It played the other-worldly hang-out in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and wannabe Valley Girls in every Nowheresville, USA dreamed of cruising out west to behold the deluge of bodies pouring down its stairs and escalators, as an earlier generation of rootless explorers would have marveled at Victoria Falls. (Now it would be more like a stop along a Grand Tour of the ruins of ancient civilizations.) Although the Galleria was struck by a major earthquake in 1994, all reports mention that it had already been suffering for several years, that is since the culture began shifting in a safer and duller direction.

(Malls starred not only in movies but in music videos, too. Relatively unknown singers like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson gave grassroots performances while touring through malls across the country, much as others would go on the road playing in coffeehouses. Sure enough, the mall featured in the video for "I Think We're Alone Now" is dead.)

The death of the mall is one of those Obviously Good Things. The placid, open-air lifestyle centers signal a regaining of our sanity after having lost our minds wandering around the confines of malls. And for those who despise grandeur, the power centers offer the convenience of large general stores combined with a semblance of boutique shopping -- very huge boutiques, but all of which stand alone, not enclosed, and perhaps placed asymmetrically on the plot, unlike the gauntlet of storefronts that recedes down the corridors of a mall. Plus look at how much classier the stores are in a lifestyle center: they cater not to the blind consumerist who chases after trendy things, but to every person's inner sophisticate who delights in authentic experiences.

This not so much at the power centers, but everybody gets in and out of those places as fast as possible, and anyway it's not hard to rationalize the visit by telling yourself that you're just going to Best Buy to see if a giant-screen TV would give your weekly film club the best experience as you go through the Criterion Collection.

Back on planet Earth, the rise of the lifestyle center shows just how self-absorbed the culture has become since the 1990s, as most of the stores sell a pampering service of one kind or another that the customer receives mostly in isolation from all other people. It also shows how much people now enjoy patting themselves on the back for their good taste in all things, hence the ubiquitous tour guidebook-like promotions for "the olive oils of Spain" and "lesser known Croatian cheeses." Mostly what such stores sell is a soundbite -- often written out in prose on the packaging, to ease rehearsing -- that the buyer can parrot to those whom they are desperate to impress. "Why, I never knew you were such a connoisseur!" Humbler people would say "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," but no thought could be further from the mind of today's self-satisfied overnight know-it-alls.

Also, when the goal of shopping is not primarily about the quality of the goods sold but signaling how au courant your tastes are, the wheel of fashion spins faster not slower. One season Greek food is in, the next season it's Thai, after that Spanish, then perhaps Antarctic. Lifestyle centers have made our relationship with food more shallow, not less -- at least before, we enjoyed it as food!

Finally, the idea that lifestyle centers are more hip and progressive than those tacky and inertial malls is risible. As part of the larger demand for New Urbanist ideals within popular culture, our new retail centers seek a return to the quaint Main Street shops of middle America in the 1950s. Pause and think about that for a moment -- the cool people now want to resurrect the atmosphere of Leave it to Beaver. In 1984, who would've predicted that? Lifestyle centers cater too much to older people (like, over 25) to be very hip. Few young people care about Whole Foods or can afford an afternoon at the day spa. About the only hang-out for teenagers in such places is Jamba Juice, where the stuff being sold and the sheer tiny size of the space doesn't foster getting into or even plotting mischief. And again, they're besieged on all sides by old people.

Nor have these peaceful, human-scale spaces made us more sociable or trusting. Trust levels and "social capital" in general has been plummeting during the rise of lifestyle centers. Indeed, it's precisely because people began not to trust each other very much that they abandoned the more unpredictable malls in favor of the sleepy yet safer lifestyle center. Being social is ultimately about leaving behind your self-consciousness and joining in with some larger group activity, which you're unlikely to see in lifestyle centers -- lacking an enclosed space, the patrons don't feel the natural bond that people feel inside a large common space such as a school building, and even inside any particular store, most people are tucked away in their own cozy cocoons.

I don't think the built environment influences trust levels or sociability in either direction, positively or negatively. Rather, these traits change according to their own dynamic laws, and the built environment is adapted to the current state of human nature afterwards. Still, if we just look at the correlation, it is obvious that malls go together with high trust and sociability. That is apparent throughout human evolution -- the more trusting people became of strangers, the larger and the more easy-going the crowds that they could support.

After this initial revision of what shopping has been like since the 1990s, part 2 will re-discover the Dionysian, anti-consumerist, and humbling features of the classical shopping mall.

P.S. I'll kill the first person who says "the internet did it."

June 27, 2010

Boys and girls according to Google

Google's fill-it-in-for-you feature when you begin typing your search shows what the most likely choices are, i.e. the ones that other people tend to enter when they start a search like yours. Let's use this to see what the most popular perceptions are of male and female nature.

"Why are boys" -- so stupid, so dumb, so mean, mean to girls they like, so confusing, so complicated, so hard to read, so immature, so weird.
"Why do boys" -- like girls, like breasts, like virgins, like to tickle girls, like to eat girls out, get morning wood, get hard, tease girls, cheat, cheat on their girlfriends.

"Why are guys" -- attracted to breasts, hard in the morning, so stupid, such jerks, such douchebags, mean to girls they like, so confusing, so complicated, players, afraid of commitment.
"Why do guys" -- (pretty much the same as with "boys," but also) get boners, like asian girls, like skinny girls, like long hair.

"Why are men" -- (so) attracted to breasts, attracted to women, stronger than women, taller than women, (so) stupid, so selfish, so mean, players, afraid of commitment.
"Why do men" -- (nothing that hasn't already been covered).

Nothing too surprising here, but notice how, contra the stereotype of easy-to-read males and super-perceptive females, these female googlers are puzzled by male behavior -- at least by the behavior of the small fraction of males who they're actually interested in. Such guys have plenty of options, so of course they're going to be cautious of who they commit to, are going to play games, and will be hard to read. In contrast, guys with no options have only one thing in mind, are desperate to play no games at all, and are as easy as a book to read.

Also notice how surprised girls are that boys would "like to eat girls out." i mean... so you don't, like... think it's yucky? ... whew!

"Why are girls" -- so hot, so stupid, so complicated, so confusing, so emotional, always cold, so mean, so mean to each other.
"Why do girls" -- wear bras, wear thongs, get tramp stamps, cut themselves, have periods, smell like fish, play hard to get, like bad boys, like jerks, like tall guys.

"Why are women" -- so stupid, crazy, so emotional, always cold, so complicated, so difficult, attracted to bad boys, called cougars.
"Why do women" -- get wet, nag, cheat (on their husbands), stay in abusive relationships, have abortions (among other things already covered).

Again nothing too surprising, although notice the paradox that females are seen to be so cold and also so emotional -- namely around dorks they wish would leave and around everyone else, respectively. Also, girls are not just "mean" or "so mean" to the opposite sex, as guys are, but girls are also "so mean to each other." Even if they've seen Mean Girls, most guys have no appreciation for how destructively catty the average girl is, although girls will readily admit it if you ask them about it and say they wish it were otherwise.

Strange changes in music heard in public

Not long ago -- maybe 10 years -- supermarkets played "elevator music" by Muzak, while coffeehouses were associated with more energetic and exciting music than that. (I put quotes around elevator music because when was the last time you actually heard it in an elevator?)

Now it's the other way around. Whoever programs the music at Starbucks' headquarters has been diligent in avoiding exciting music -- they skip over 1920s jazz but include stuff from the mid-'30s through the mid-'50s, leave out the late '50s through the early '90s, and include the mid-'90s to today. Every once in awhile it's broken up by some OK reggae or Smiths songs, but the overall vibe is soporific. In supermarkets -- whether mainstream ones or Whole Foods -- you actually hear rock music. Sometimes it's lower-quality stuff like Candlebox or Creed, but almost as often it's Hall and Oates or The Cars.

And it's not necessarily the lowest-common-denominator song by the group as you might expect: in the perfectly middle-of-the-road grocery store that I go to, I've heard "What You Need" and "Listen Like Thieves" by INXS, "Lucky Star" by Madonna, and "Major Tom" by Peter Schilling. (Although I really wish my supermarket would stop blasting so much metal and play something with a beat by Ministry...)

This reversal would have seemed unimaginable just 10 years ago, but given how new it was to have music playing in every public space, it would've been miraculous for them to have gotten it correct at the start. They needed some trial and error to figure out what kind of music best fit their business and would boost profitability. And that seems to have been settled, for now anyway.

It seems like people in coffeehouses don't want to be distracted by exciting high-quality music because they're there for some other purpose, and one that involves some degree of focus and lingering -- to chat over the phone or in person, read, write, have a business meeting, etc. Some music is OK just to drown out the other potential distractors, like keyboards clacking, but it shouldn't be exciting enough that you focus more on the music than on what you came there for. Also, by playing boring music the coffeehouse gives you a little motivation to hurry it up and free up the space you're hogging for new customers. With great music playing, you'd be there all day.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, are places where you make up a short list of goods you want to grab off the shelves, swipe a credit card at the cash register, and get the hell out of there. How can the business keep you there longer to linger over the dazzling variety of stuff? Well, not by playing Muzak, which just makes you angry. By playing relatively exciting rock music, they can distract your mind well enough that you forget what exactly you were supposed to be going after, and why don't you stay here just a little longer till the end of this song? Unlike coffeehouses where customers have few options to choose from and generally have a regular drink, supermarkets offer a cornucopia of goods from which customers like to mix things up each time they go there. Impulse buys are better suited to supermarkets, for example. And how else to get customers in an impulsive shopping mood than to play some carefree, fun-loving rock music?

That would seem to be a general principle, then: expect more exciting music where you don't focus so deeply and where you tend to get in and get out, and expect more drowsy music where you tend to have a definite purpose requiring focus and where you tend to linger. Obviously this only applies to background music in a business that sells something else, not a dance club for example.

June 25, 2010

As in social relations, girls seek harmony in making music

Compared to classical music, one huge letdown of popular music is the light emphasis on harmony. A great melody hooks you and pulls you along, but you get more of a feel for the sublime when you're pulled in multiple directions and somehow not getting torn apart by cacophony. Still, there's one reliable source for harmony in pop music -- girl group vocals.

Because females are designed to work in small groups of close friends and kin, compared to males who are made for interacting in large groups outside of their immediate family, females don't work well in dominance hierarchies -- that's not how two best friends or two close sisters treat each other. Males sniff each other out, figure out who goes into what tier of the pecking order, accept their fate, and then get on with the business of hierarchical teamwork. This pattern shows up across cultures.

When a group of girls gets together and decides to make music, they bring this anti-dominance bias along with them. As a result, you see a lot less difference in status in girl bands than guy bands. In the latter, there may be a lead singer who hogs all the attention, while the other two or three are practically invisible. In the former, you're much more likely to see the members sharing duties in songwriting, vocals, lead vs. rhythm guitar, and so on. No one wants to be "that girl" who tries to monopolize the spotlight, alienate the other girls, and break up the band. In interviews, The Bangles went out of their way to emphasize that there's no lead singer or chief songwriter -- that they were all equals (or close to it anyway). In the ones I've seen, it was typically Susanna Hoffs who leapt to make the point since everyone assumed she was the lead, as she was by far the cutest one.

The easiest solution to this dilemma is to not play instruments and just sing -- that way they avoid the specialization that leads to hierarchy. For this reason, vocals-only girl groups are by far more common and successful than ones where they play instruments.

At the same time, having three voices in the song doesn't solve the problem entirely: they still have to get along aurally. Hence the greater tendency toward harmonizing in girl groups.

This idea also helps us make sense of when we see more or less of the egalitarian-harmony arrangement. If the girl band is made up of fairly masculine females, as in punk or grunge, we expect their masculine minds to be more accepting of hierarchy and have a rock band that looks a lot like a guy band, complete with a lead singer who monopolizes all attention -- the Riot Grrrl bands, for example. The more R&B-oriented girl groups of the early 1960s, which drew feminine girls, are at the other end. Even among all-male groups, the more feminine Beatles did not have as much internal hierarchy and focused more on harmony than did the more masculine Rolling Stones.

The idea makes sense of another pattern -- namely, why mixed-sex groups always have the female in the lead role, from Blondie to Mazzy Star to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The lazy cynical answer is that record producers and the band themselves do this for financial gain -- if there's a cute chick fronting the band, that will draw a larger audience and bigger bucks. Of course, why they use this tactic and not any other, probably more profitable, way to sell out is never explained. In reality, it is because females don't tolerate dominance hierarchies well, so they'll be more resentful than guys will of being that lower-status band member who nobody knows about. And she doesn't even have to feel resentful -- just being more nervous and likely to buckle when there's a leader giving you orders would be enough to make you want to bail.

So, because there's no other spot for someone with an anti-dominance bias than the lead role, that's where girls end up in mixed-sex groups. This pattern also proves how free of sexism the pop music industry is -- if patriarchal male rule prevailed, they'd assign her the least prestigious role instead of making her the lead virtually without exception. Somehow the hand-wringers seem to have missed that point.

If men are creepier than women, why are feminine gays creepier than the masculine?

Fortunately I don't get approached much by gays in nightclubs, although it happens every once in awhile; somewhat less rarely one or more will try to get my attention in the supermarket, bookstore, Starbucks, etc. It's always in a semi-creepy way, like how the average dorky guy would eye over a girl in public. The one exception is masculine gays -- they never give off that creeper vibe, aren't overly eager to push themselves on you, and in general are easy for guys to get along with (no girly vocal inflection, no histrionics about how disobedient their pet poodle has been, etc.).

Admittedly I'm only basing my impression of the guyish ones on three regulars at a nightclub I go to (and Freddie Mercury), but it's such a world apart from the makes-your-skin-crawl vibe of feminine gays that I think it's enough data.

Clearly creepiness is not something inherent to having a Y chromosome, nor even inherent in playing some male-like role -- again, it's the feminine gays who creep others out. It must have to do with who is in a more desperate situation. Among straights, that's guys: on average, they want it more than girls are willing to give. Especially since only some fraction of guys get most of the attention from girls, the leftover fraction are more willing to do something desperate and potentially creepy because at least they'll get noticed for a moment or so, rather than remain completely invisible.

Among gays, there are many more feminine than masculine ones (I'm not sure if this is the same distinction as "top" vs. "bottom"). Since there are therefore so many feminine ones fighting over a handful of masculine ones, the former are more worried about being shut out or invisible. Hence, they're willing to make a riskier and potentially creepy move to get noticed at all.

According to this logic, the more invisible the person believes themselves to be, the creepier they'll act. One reality check here is variation in behavior by age -- all else equal, middle-aged gays are not going to command as much attention as 20 year-old ones. The creepiest gays I've ever encountered have always been middle-aged, which in their case means over 30. Their vibe is about 1,000 times more disgusting than that of the "dirty uncle." (Tim Gunn is the exception that proves the rule.) Even feminine gays, if they're under 25 or so, don't really follow or pester you in nightclubs, as much as they may try to make eyes at you in Urban Outfitters or Barnes & Noble. They figure, "There may be a surplus of feminine gays like me, but whatever, I'm still young and have plenty of options, so I don't need to act so pathetically."

I'd also predict that the gay culture is creepier in a place like San Francisco where the median male is about 35 years old, compared to a college town where the only gays are under 25. The latter might be more promiscuous, but I'm talking about the overall heebie-jeebies vibe they give off to straight guys.

June 23, 2010

Poll: Best albums of the last 30 years (the critics be damned)

Michael Blowhard ran a poll several years ago asking for nominations for the Best American Fiction Movie of the Last 25 Years (the Critics Be Damned). A movie could only make it if it was great but not beloved -- maybe even hated -- by serious critics. Therefore, it's not an attempt to out-snob the critics but to celebrate crowd-pleasers that the critics pass over in naming great movies. Die Hard was by far the winner, though others like The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Dumb and Dumber make a good showing too.

Why not do this for albums? Say back through 1980, given that most of the pre-'80s stuff the critics and mass audiences are more agreed on. (The critics would place the later Beatles higher than the average music fan, but they'd both probably put it on such a list somewhere.) As a rough guide to albums that are ruled out for appealing to serious critics, nothing is allowed that appears on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time. (Hit Ctrl + F and search for the album to easily make sure it's not there.) In the interest of space, limit it to 10 albums max. If you need to jog your memory, here's a list of the Billboard #1 albums starting with 1980; a box at the bottom has the other years.

Remember -- we're not naming niche albums that are like art-house films to one-up the critics, but the musical equivalent of Die Hard. Something that was a deserved smash but that you wouldn't learn about by consulting the critics. I'm just winging it with my list; the point is to get the ball rolling and see what types of albums have gotten short shrift.

Artist, Album

INXS, Kick
INXS, Listen Like Thieves
Madonna, Madonna
Madonna, Like a Virgin
Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet
Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine
Duran Duran, Rio
Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
Bananarama, Bananarama
The Bangles, Different Light

Critic nerds cannot dance, and in their eyes getting your body involved -- especially for some social occasion -- would profane the music, so anything great that has a dance influence will always be underrated (also true in classical music). And as they use music as a refuge from the world, rather than an impetus to get out there and stir shit up, they prefer songs that are cozy and human-scale rather than grand, which leaves out most '80s hard rock or hair metal. I tried thinking outside of my preferences, but there really isn't much from the '90s or 2000s that Rolling Stone didn't already name, like Dookie or Siamese Dream. Music became much more singles-oriented than album-oriented then, so it's not surprising that there's little to choose from.

Anyway, thoughts? Your list? Hall and Oates should be in there somewhere, but I don't have enough of their albums to know which one it would be.

June 22, 2010

Why at the final moment girls say "We shouldn't be doing this..."

Maybe you're about to embark on a boat-tossing make-out voyage. Maybe you're about to dive headlong into the depths of her stormy sea. Maybe you're only chatting harmlessly at the bar. But at some point, she halts the progress with "I don't know... we shouldn't be doing this..." I'm not talking about when she says, "OK we're done," where she really does want to stop. She obviously wants to keep going in the "we shouldn't be doing this" case, so why does she say this?

One standard answer is that it's a disclaimer that she can use if she should have to suffer the negative consequences of doing something she knows she shouldn't do. For example, she might get labeled a slut, so this phrase gives her plausible deniability -- "Hey, I said we shouldn't be doing this, and I knew it was wrong, so don't judge me so harshly." This is the cover-your-ass theory.

A second standard answer is that she is probing some individual quality that you have, like how strong or manly you are -- the more masculine and dominant you are, the more likely you are to brush her disclaimer aside. The assumption is that girls prefer sleeping with strong, dominant types and have to figure this information out some way or other. This is the test-your-manhood theory.

Both of these theories are plausible accounts of just this one test, but we gain more insight by trying to explain a host of related cases with the same small number of explanations, not by tossing out ad hoc guesses after seeing each case. Here are some related cases that cast doubt on both of the above theories. They all involve one person (the actor) acting in a way to further cement a social bond, and the person or persons on the other end of that bond (the beneficiaries) exhorting the actor not to do whatever he's about to do.

1. A group of close friends are hanging out and talking together in a bar, when some slimeball comes up to the girls in the group and makes a variety of lewd remarks and tries to fondle them, although never getting violent with them. The girls give him looks of disgust and try to slap away his hands and push him back, and he walks off. Everyone in the group starts talking about how awful that was, all agree that he deserves to get the shit beaten out of him, and that he'd be better off dead. At the height of this discussion, one guy (the actor) announces that he's going to go over to the creep and beat him up. The girls implore him not to be so silly, you shouldn't do that, etc., but they do not put their foot down, like "No, you'll stay right here young man."

Everyone in the group knows that it would violate some code to go after the creep long after the fact, rather than notify the bouncer or security and have him removed from the club or something. So when the girls say, "You shouldn't do that," both the actor and beneficiaries are aware of that. But since the girls are not firm, it's clear that they want the actor to go over and kick the creeper's ass. (Similarly, a grenade gets thrown into a platoon's area, and one brave soldier declares he's going to run and cover it, while the others beg him not to, although they don't do anything to restrain him.)

The cover-your-ass theory fails here because the girls cannot be held responsible if the actor beats the creep up. And the test-your-manhood theory does not work because, unlike how they choose their sex partners, girls do not choose their friends based on how macho they appear, so they are not constantly trying to figure out if you're as manly as you claim.

2. Two close friends agree to go parachuting together, and right before the first is about to jump out, the second one stops him to say, "We must be crazy... you know we really shouldn't be doing this." Again the tone is not sarcastic or humorous, nor is he firm. His tone suggests he does want both of them to jump out. Similarly, the two might be about to go on a joyride that they've been getting excited about after talking about how fun it would be, with the friend in the passenger seat saying "We shouldn't be doing this." Both are aware that the act violates what they take to be their normal level of risk by a longshot.

The cover-your-ass theory fails again because the second one cannot be held responsible for anything that happens to the first one after jumping. The test-your-manhood theory fails for the same reason as before: guys don't choose their friends based on how macho they are (they may even want someone not so macho, to minimize dominance contests).

3. Two close friends are threatened by a common enemy who they would rather not stay and fight. They'd rather run away from the problem, but their escape vehicle requires two people to operate it (like a pilot and co-pilot). Just as the first friend hops in the pilot's seat, the second one says, "This isn't right, we shouldn't be doing this..." Again the tone of voice indicates that he's not firm and wants the plan to continue. Both are aware that fleeing violates some code against facing your enemies, or at least taking the enemy out lest it turn on others in the community once the friends have fled.

The cover-your-ass theory somewhat works here. If they are found out as cowards, the friend who expressed doubt may get more lenient punishment than the one who said "full steam ahead." The test-your-manhood theory fails here because brushing aside the disclaimer and carrying out the plan to flee suggests that he's a coward, not a macho man.

There are many examples like this, but overall we see that the two theories do not do very well. Rather, the reason that the objector raises the "We shouldn't be doing this" issue is that they want to see how committed and faithful or loyal the actor is to their relationship. If the actor replies, "I know we shouldn't be doing this, but I just can't help it," then he proves that his actions on behalf of furthering and deepening the relationship are not under his voluntary control. If he doesn't get into the relationship for rational, voluntary reasons, then he cannot bail out for rational, voluntary reasons. Showing that your commitment to the relationship is not under voluntary control is a credible signal of your trustworthiness, something that all people are worried about regarding their allies and mates.

In case 1, the girls are waiting to see if their guy friend is devoted enough to their friendship that he'll risk injury to himself to avenge their honor. If he says, "Yeah y'know what, I should probably just stay here," they'll feel betrayed -- or at least let down, believing that he's more of a fair-weather friend.

In case 2, the objecting friend is waiting to see if his buddy is devoted enough to their friendship that he'll take what he knows to be an unusually great risk just to say, "We went through that shit together." If he says, "Yeah y'know what, I should probably just stay here in the plane and ask the pilot to land," the objecting friend will feel betrayed or that he has only a fair-weather friend.

In case 3, we see the same as case 2. The objecting friend wants to make sure that the other one is committed to fleeing in cowardice together, lest the objector be left to flee alone while the first one goes back to take on the enemy.

And in the case of the girl saying "We shouldn't be doing this" before something that may in some sense be wrong, she's testing not your manhood but your commitment to her. You wouldn't risk getting in trouble over a girl you didn't care anything about. Suppose you could get fired for sleeping with one of your students or co-workers. After hearing "We shouldn't be doing this," you wouldn't dare say "I know, but I can't help it" unless you really were stuck on her. If you merely wanted to proceed because you wanted to bed her, you'd say something more logical like, "Don't be silly, they won't find out" or "It won't be a big deal if they find out" or something else that tries to understate the severity of the risk. By saying, "I know we shouldn't, but I just can't help myself when I'm around you," you show that you're willing to pay a high social cost to be with her. The costliness of this act makes it an honest signal of your trustworthiness -- at least that you can be trusted with her, even if not necessarily with others.

Of course, if she was not interested in the guy in the first place, his costly signal of devotion would only creep her out more -- like John Hinckley, Jr. trying to shoot Reagan so that Jodie Foster would notice him. Remember, we're talking about a case where the guy and girl are already about to do something big together, where basic trust and familiarity have already been established. So instead of getting weirded out, she thinks, "God, he's willing to sacrifice his job for us -- he really does care." Remember also that we're talking about where her tone of voice is not firm but shows she wants it to happen. Thus, she won't think he's being intolerably foolish to risk his job; otherwise she would put her foot down and not allow him to put himself in harm's way.

In our cynical age, people are too eager to wittily toss off ad hoc explanations of human behavior where our motives are variations on petty status-seeking, like covering your ass and looking more macho than other guys. Once we open our view up to a fuller range of similar cases, it looks like the explanation has to do with the same small number of Big Themes of the human condition -- love, trust, betrayal, revenge, etc. That is surely why Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, et al. continue to be read today, while overly cynical and witty authors are mostly forgotten -- with the latter, not only is their writing more boring, but they don't even seem to get things right.

June 20, 2010

Tall girl outcast cliques

Men are like dogs, whose social groups are marked by dominance hierarchies that lock into place fairly early after sniffing each other out, and where the many members largely accept their place in the pecking order. Girls, though, are like cats and give a contemptuous up-and-down examination to any new girl who tries to move in on her turf. Their social groups remain small because girls don't accept dominance as readily as guys do, and equality is harder to maintain as there are more people in the group.

Thus, male groups are pretty stable because with such a high level of inequality among the members -- from the top dogs to the underlings -- it would be stupid for any guy to try to climb the ladder. After all, you're already above the guys who you can easily defeat, and there are only a few people near your own level who you could displace. Going after the top rank is mostly impossible since that's too easy of a fight for the current leader. Of course, periodically one of the lower-ranking members may go through a growth spurt and join a few varsity sports teams, or discover their talent at the guitar and become famous in their high school, giving them a boost in status that lets them harmlessly ascend the hierarchy. Mostly, though, there is little point in conflict because the cases where it would make a real difference in ascending ranks will be so unevenly matched that the lower-ranking guy will not bother.

By contrast, because there are not that many members in a female group, even moving up one or two ranks could transform a sidekick girl into a queen bee. And because their group members are more similar status-wise -- less hierarchy -- girls will be often tempted to stage such a coup, given how evenly matched the contest would be most of the time: i mean i'm not gonna lie, i like her as a friend and all, but she needs to know her place and i could like totally take that bitch on. It's odd that Machiavelli isn't more widely read by teenage girls, given how the logic of realpolitik pushes against them all day every day, while law and order generally prevail among male groups in modern societies.

Much of this status-jockeying consists of fiercely monitoring the other girls' behavior and reporting the slightest infractions of one girl to the others, at which point the group more or less pins the offending girl down on the ground and all together leans on her chest to make her say she's sorry and it won't happen again. But often that won't be enough, and the girl will simply be ostracized and expelled from the group entirely. Moreover, because girls would rather not waste all the time and effort to monitor and perhaps eventually expel bad apples, they are much more ruthlessly discriminating right at the moment that a new girl expresses an interest in joining. (Guys aren't so choosy -- they'll find a spot for the new guy somewhere along the totem pole.)

On what basis would girls slam the locks shut on their clubhouse before the newcomer even made it to knock on the door? Anything that suggests she would be more dominant than the existing members and would immediately assume the lead role: i meannnnn who died and made THIS bitch queen? Behavioral clues might give such a girl away after close and lengthy inspection, but physical traits are easier to see quickly and from a distance. Clearly the one that matters most is sheer body size, primarily height but perhaps also muscularity. We therefore expect tall girls to be barred from most female groups, and as a result that they'll form their own tall girl groups where the female norm of mostly-equals will be satisfied.

The sociology literature shows that members of social networks tend to resemble each other in all sorts of ways -- males tend to hang out with other males, wealthy people with other wealthy people, sports fans with other sports fans, etc. Indeed, this is true for height as well (google "homophily height").

Still, from personal experience, it doesn't look so much like short girls hang out with each other, average-height girls with each other, and tall girls with each other. Instead it looks like tall girls have their own groups but that girls of below-tall height are OK making groups together. And to me it's most pronounced among the crowd at '80s night, where most of them are 18 to 21 years old and where the setting is a dance club. Competition over mates is most intense during adolescence and young adulthood, and when the environment is a lek rather than classroom, so we'd expect female groups to be especially likely to kick out tall girls in that situation. That's why we see a greater prevalence of tall girl outcast cliques in young dance clubs than in middle-aged office spaces or elderly retirement homes.

As an aside, I find that the tall girl clique is the best set-up if you want to approach one or bait one into approaching you. If the group is mixed-height and you approach the tall one, she'll already be nervous that you're singling her out for her height, but because no one else in her clique is tall, she'll feel extra peer pressure not to go along with it -- i mean i don't wanna be that person and hog the attention just because my legs are longer than theirs. But if all the girls are tall, none of them will feel paralyzed by that peer pressure.

And if you're not as tall as they are, you have to overcome their initial preference for taller guys. If you look at most famous cases of guys who have tall trophy wives, the guy usually belongs to the bad boy group that Alias Clio calls "mavericks", or high-energy go-getters who tend to fly solo and enjoy displaying their excellence through performance. Mick Jagger, Prince, and Tom Cruise come to mind. In a night club setting, the easiest way to show this is to give a more athletic performance on the dance floor: it shows that you're in shape and coordinated, but more importantly that you have a lot more energy or stamina and that you're a natural performer. I don't know why, but the tall girls who approach me in dance clubs are far more likely to spontaneously remark on how much energy I have, compared to what other girls say (e.g., omigod you have so much energyyy!!! vs. omigod you're such a good dancerrr!!!).

Perhaps tall girls feel a certain affinity with the maverick because both tend not fit into groups so well -- the latter because they don't want to in the first place, the former because their attempts to join groups usually result in getting locked out or expulsion. Both are more independent spirits.

Tall girls aren't really my thing (not that I dislike them either) because tiny girls ooze femininity more, but if they are for you, it's worth understanding where they come from socially and psychologically. Plus anyone who loves studying and portraying the variety that human beings come in (especially the unusual examples) should focus more on the Tall Girl, who tends to only get attention in popular culture as a one-dimensional femme fatale or butt-kicking babe. There's so much more interesting political drama in their lives that has gone unseen.

E3 reflections

Since the mid-1990s gigantic summer concert festivals have slowly died off, most notably the HFStival on the east coast and the touring Lollapalooza. As rock music evaporated during the 1990s, something else was needed to fill the void in teenage identity-markers. To thrive in safe and boring times after crime started falling in 1992, the next big thing could not be some successor of rock music but something that would speak to shut-ins -- video games.

Starting in 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has provided an annual showcase of what the industry is up to. Attendance at the three-day festival this year was just over 45,000 -- as many as would fill up RFK stadium for the HFStival way back when -- and that's nothing compared to 2005 when anticipation for the current systems was intense, peaking at some 70,000 attendees. Aside from those who attended in person, over 17,000 comments can be found at a popular video game website's live feed from E3.

I've heard about this silly thing for years but finally decided to see what all the hubbub was about this year and watched the press conferences and some trailers over the internet. Pretty boring stuff -- they give demonstrations or play videos showing what new systems or games are coming down the pike, and that's about it. Imagine movie fans gathering in Hollywood for three days to watch a bunch of trailers and teasers of in-the-works movies, all while treating studio executives as though they were gods. Normal people try to miss the previews at movies and skip right over the "coming soon to DVD" junk at home. At least at rock concerts, you heard the polished final work, not a mish-mash of ideas they've been working on and may or may not be out by the end of the year or next.

It's simply astounding how central video games are to young people's and even middle-aged people's identities today. They cheer for their favorite system like others would for a sports team, and rivalries are as intense among fans as they used to be between fans of the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Wii owners are mostly normal people and treat their system as a toy or diversion, but those who own an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 are often psychotic.

Last week at a used video game store, I had trouble browsing through their Super Nintendo games because some lunatic kept shouting at the top of his lungs about how like so incredibly awesomer the 360 is compared to that god-awful piece of shit the PS3. I was about to turn and tell him, "Reality check -- no one gives a shit," but instead he'd started a debate among four or five people out of fewer than ten total in the store.

They weren't just discussing how fun the games were to play -- in fact, they hardly talked about that at all. Rather, they were arguing about a company's role in the industry as a whole, the way that music fans did not just argue about which songs they liked but who had a better stage presence live, who respected their fans more, who was more likely to take rock music in a new direction, etc. Only these teenage and 20-something guys were talking about toy-makers.

And not very fascinating toys either. The first thing you notice is that there is almost no color -- mostly grays and browns -- and all in fairly uniform shading, making it hard to tell what's what, like which object you're controlling. And forget about brightness or contrast to make it look lively and distinguish figure from background. Here is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 from 1992, and here is Rage (considered to be the best game shown this year) to be released in 2011. Use of CGI in video games is even more laughable than in movies, so that most of the characters in video games look like soulless wax sculptures. When video game characters were drawn like cartoons, they weren't aiming to look realistically human in the first place, and therefore achieved their visual goal well.

And as "cinematic" as video games try to be, they'll always fail because anyone with any writing talent is going to work in TV, movies, or print, not video games. That's another advantage of the older style of video games, where they didn't even bother with a story -- after all, who cares? It's just a game that you want to have fun with.

Browsing through E3's list of upcoming games, I was also shocked by the fact that virtually the only genre of games being made today is the first-person shooter, where you run around shooting people from a first-person point-of-view. Again the attempt to compete with realistic-looking movies leads video games to fail. Most of the landscapes and the layout of the terrain are incredibly similar from one game to the next, as they're all trying to capture real life on planet Earth. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog or New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where you jump around and attack or avoid enemies, do not aim for this degree of realism, which frees up the level design and backgrounds to be anything the designer can imagine. That's why any two games from this genre don't feel nearly identical; just compare Super Mario 2 vs. Super Mario 3.

Speaking of Nintendo, I alluded to it before, but video game dorks hate Nintendo for having brought video games to mainstream audiences (especially to girls). For high school and college boys, this has replaced the former practice of whining about some hit band introducing the masses to punk, goth, or whatever genre you jealously guarded, lest one source of your identity no longer set you apart from everyone else.

Related to this are the dorks' complaints about "casual" vs. "hardcore" gamers (no matter how many times I hear "gamer," it still sounds stupid). The former are those who play video games now and then but aren't obsessed with them and therefore, unlike the latter, are not truly committed to the cause of Constantly Leveling Up. Music fans will recognize this as the once preferred pastime of "point out the poser." As I watched the E3 press conferences, though, I discovered that this has percolated up to the executives' and game designers' worldview as well, as they pledge to make games for the casual and hardcore gamer alike. Before safe and boring times set in, game designers only thought of their audience as normal people who wanted some diversion, not as a mainstream audience and a self-appointed elite audience.

And just as before with music snobs who want some unrecognized genre elevated to serious art in the public's mind, the hardcore gamers are in reality desperate for approval from the mainstream culture. They want the mainstream to allow video games into the tent of legitimate entertainment along with TV, movies, and music. So far, most normal people do not appear persuaded -- they see video games as a glorified kid's toy, as fun as they may be. This lack of seriousness given to their identity-marker bursts the hardcore gamers' egos. They must realize that the culture has not replaced one great form of entertainment with another, but that we used to have a great one while today young people mostly have no fun.

June 17, 2010

Eastern Europe more soulful because of greater violence?

If I'm right in the idea being pursued here for awhile about the relationship between the level of violence and how petty vs. grand the culture is, we can make a prediction for cultures outside the original list that inspired the idea.

To re-cap, when the level of violence starts to steadily rise for awhile -- not just a blip -- people start to discount the future more and feel a greater need to band together or help each other out against whatever common menace threatens them. They could perceive this threat as another nation, as criminals, as witches, as the devil or other disembodied but influential spirits, etc. Feeling death near, they focus more on the big themes of human nature -- love, trust, betrayal, revenge, man's fallen state, sacred rituals, mortality, and so on -- rather than dither the hours away sniping at one another in trivial status-seeking turf wars, which would only pay off after a long career in social gamesmanship. They find less comfort in reason and enlightenment values, turning more to mystical and supernatural views.

This idea is based on the history of Western Europe and the U.S., which have seen falling homicide rates since roughly 1500 or 1600 (depending on the country), with several notable exceptions -- most of the 14th C., ca. 1580 to 1630, ca. 1780 to 1830, and the recent mid-to-late 20th C. crime wave. Aside from the culture made during the Trecento, the Elizabethan period, the Romantic era, and the wild ways of the 1960s through the '80s, much of Western culture appears to have moved away from The Big Questions and more toward, e.g., "the woman question."

On that basis, what if we found a group that was somewhat similar to Western Europeans but did not experience a secular decline in violence for the past 500 years? One that has a homicide rate not last seen in Western Europe since 1600 or 1700? We'd predict that the culture that this group makes would not have undergone such a strong process of trivialization of concerns or religious secularization. As discussed before about whether more violent societies make more desirable women, Eastern Europe has remained fairly dangerous by Western European standards up through today. It is not a matter of being Slavic, as the Western and Southern Slavic groups have low or moderate homicide rates, while the non-Slavic Baltic states are up there with Russia. And it is not a "legacy of Communism" thing for the same reason.

To compare Eastern European culture to Western, it's probably best to focus on Russia, as they were and are the most economically advanced region, the most politically powerful, etc., and thus the one that could best support a community of artists, intellectuals, and so on. The record of their high and folk culture is certainly richer than for other Eastern European areas. I won't go into too great detail, mainly because I'm not an expert, but also because the broad pattern looks pretty clear. Overall, it does seem that Russian culture has remained more like the culture of Western Europe during the Elizabethan or Romantic periods. Some examples:

- After the Romantic era ends, the rest of the 19th C. culture continues the religious secularization trend that began during the Age of Reason. I don't just mean the growing religious doubt or proto-Existentialism, but turning away from the entire religious way of seeing, thinking, and acting. If you wanted something on the timeless and universal themes of all human art and folklore, you likely had to have it imported from Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. During the even more atheistic 20th C. in Western Europe, Solzhenitsyn was just about the only major literary figure whose worldview held that man was inherently imperfect, his fallen nature led his reach to exceed his grasp, and that the present-day hell he finds himself in could only be left behind by leading a more religious life that would check our natural tendencies toward pride, vanity, and so on.

From the Russian lit course I took in college, I remember the affected nonsense word-game poetry, Zola-esque social realism, and the Modernist stream-of-consciousness odyssey throughout Petersburg. So it's not as though the two cultures were completely different. Still, it's hard not to conclude that Russian lit remained more spiritual and tragic as Western lit grew more materialist and trivial in its subject matter.

- Western Classical music more or less gave up trying during the early 20th C. and by 1952 had sunk to laughable performance art with John Cage's 4'33". Just about the only major composers keeping the spirit alive by then were Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Not to mention Russian ballet. The country may now be the only place where straight athletic men still find figure skating a noble pursuit.

- As Western visual art sank lower and lower into absurdity, major Russian artists seem to have followed them but always seeking to imbue their works with spirituality and wonder. You'd have to ask them why they say this, as most lay people might not notice on first viewing, but commentators on 20th C. art (as I recall them) tend to refer to Malevich's sparse and geometric paintings as mystical (which I don't recall hearing about Western Cubists), to Chagall's paintings as more poetic or soulful than that of other avant-garde artists during the 1910s and '20s, and to Kandinsky's work as more spiritual than that of other purely abstract painters. (He also wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art.)

Again, it's not as though we have two entirely separate worlds here, but overall the pattern does look like Russian culture resembled Western culture more from the atypical 14th C., Elizabethan, and Romantic eras than the larger trend in the West toward secular material values and petty cynical one-upsmanship. This confirms a nice "out-of-sample prediction" of the original idea based on Western Europe. I've only focused on Russia because there is so much more material to draw on, and more easily, than for other Eastern European countries, but I'll bet the same rough story is unfolding in Ukraine or Lithuania as well.

On a final fun note, while looking through early 20th C. Russian paintings, I found a piece of evidence suggesting that the Russian babe phenomenon is not so recent. Here's a self-portrait of the 24 year-old painter Zinaida Serebryakova.

June 16, 2010

Heritability of music tastes

While reading an interesting discussion about power pop at Steve Sailer's, I recognized some of the names and style descriptions as ones that appealed to me, and then looked up this list of the 100 best power pop songs. My dad is stuck in 1965, so I heard a lot of the groundbreaking songs as a little kid -- during car rides, on the tape player in his apartment, coming from his 12-string acoustic guitar, wherever -- and my brothers and I used to watch the Help! movie at least a few times a month. To the extent that kids could get into music, I was into that stuff; son resembled father. (I recall around age 8 answering that my favorite band was The Beatles, i.e. pre-Revolver.)

As a teenager I got into alternative and indie and forgot about all the music my dad still listened to. When adolescents are trying to forge their own group membership badges, it's not necessarily their parents who they're rebelling against -- it's just that to be a new, unique group you have to adopt things that no one has adopted before (at least not within memory). Now as father walked by the filial mirror, he halted to stare at a completely different face looking back. What happened to my son?!

No longer fettered by teenage worries about "Will my friends think it's cool?" I've been free to listen to whatever I want. My tastes had already grown to include what Wikipedia music geeks label "jangle pop" (no hits in the NYT before 2006, so it's an example of post-hoc label proliferation). That is, power pop music that was popular, mostly from the 1980s: Tom Petty (who covered "I'll Feel a Whole Let Better"), "There She Goes" by The La's, some of The Smiths and The Cure, and so on. Last week I went to the used record store and picked up CDs by The Byrds, The Searchers, and The Beach Boys, and they've been in heavy rotation since. Oh my god, I'm turning into my dad!

(Although I hated any kind of dance music as a teenager, I've grown to love it. That part I get from my mother, who labored to drag my stubborn dad out to dance clubs when new wave and synth pop exploded into the mainstream circa 1983 or '84.)

Music tastes are like height or IQ where children resemble their parents more as they mature into adulthood. When you look at toddlers, a fair amount of the variation you see in their heights or IQs could reflect environmental differences among them, like some having intensive reading programs so early on vs. others not, or some being temporarily more deprived of key nutrients than others. However, when you look at them as adults, a lot of those environmental effects have gone away because most people in our society aren't more deprived of key nutrients than others forever (they may get free lunches once they go to public school), and eventually those toddlers who didn't start reading and writing at age 2 will wind up in literacy-building programs in kindergarten. As adults, therefore, genetic differences between them have come to play a much stronger role in distinguishing one person from another.

The temporary environmental effect that keeps teenagers from resembling their parents is the requirement to only adopt approved group membership badges, and again these will usually have to be novel and so different from those adopted by the parents. The teenager's personal tastes get mostly buried underground, only to rise from the grave once the adolescent slumber is over. This is a great reminder that, despite all of the posturing about "I'll do what I want, mom," those who truly bind teenagers in a cultural straitjacket are their friends and allies -- "Sorry, but we don't dress like that, we don't listen to that music, and we don't hang out there." As an adult, you get to say, "Sorry to hear that -- that's too bad for you."

These tastes are an awful lot like personality traits, which are moderately heritable, so over time we expect to see children come more to resemble their parents. That doesn't mean they'll like the exact same music groups or even the same genres, but there will be some basic taste that is highly similar to the parent's. Maybe it's a general taste for stripped-down, natural, abandoned music as opposed to built-up, artificial, self-conscious music. This abstract taste could be satisfied by listening to different groups -- perhaps father chooses The Byrds, and son the early Bangles. Still, at some level they're listening to the same music. Neither would go for the pretentious, overwrought later Beatles or that goofy, aware-of-the-camera crap by Jason Mraz.

June 15, 2010

Rational vs. mystical views in low vs. high-crime times: Law & Order or Unsolved Mysteries

The 20-year run of the to-be-canceled Law & Order series illustrates how different cultural production is during dangerous vs. safe times. The first couple seasons aired right as the crime rate was peaking and focused on real crime -- Non-Asian Minorities dealing drugs and shooting each other. Lacking a hero who could be counted on to bust up the bad guys if the system failed, these initial seasons were too hopeless to draw wide audiences during a high-crime era. It wasn't until the 1993-'94 season that the series broke into the top 30 in ratings (where it would remain through 2005). By this time it had made the switch to focusing on preposterous crimes committed by the bad yuppies, giving the good yuppies in the audience a grotesque enemy to join together in reviling.

In general, that's what "speaking truth to power" narratives are all about -- firing up intra-elite status contests about who's a better planner for the masses rather than really giving a shit about the downtrodden, most vividly on display in Dickens' attack on the 19th C. political economists.

Earlier we saw that the highly stylized and ornamental crime / film noir movies that have survived through the decades were almost entirely made during low-crime times. (As an update, here's a different list of the 100 greatest film noir movies, and there are only 2 out of 100 made during high-crime times.) Dangerous times, in contrast, create crime movies that feel more raw and authentic like Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. So what is the high-crime counterpart of the Law & Order series? Hill Street Blues would seem to be the obvious answer, but taking into account the themes of sex crimes and child kidnappings that run throughout Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I think a better example is Unsolved Mysteries.

Unlike the "ripped from the headlines" approach of Law & Order, where caricature is required, the "true crime" appeal of Unsolved Mysteries employed more straightforward documentary techniques. It felt more like watching a local news report than a kabuki play, instilling a sense of urgency and dread in the viewer. Over at YouTube, everyone swears how they still get spooked out of their wits on hearing the opening theme. During it's hey-day from 1988 to 1991 or '92, Unsolved Mysteries had greater ratings than Law & Order has ever had, reaching 18% of all households with a TV in 1989. By 1993 it had dropped out of the top 30 and steadily fell into obscurity, paralleling the apparent decline of urban legends around the same time.

While the series lacked a hero to fix everything up, it still did not dwell on the failures and impotence of the system, which would have given it the nihilistic color of the early Law & Order seasons. The features were presented more as modern ghost stories, where human criminals appear to be possessed by evil rather than motivated by rational (if anti-social) grievances. When the world seems like it's coming to an end, people are more willing to believe in the occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Just compare the supernatural "force" in the early Star Wars trilogy to the positivist account of "midi-chlorians" in the later trilogy, delivered as though it were a 1950s science reel for school use.

(The X-Files is not about belief in the supernatural, as they present logical and rational grounds for belief in what the government and others only claim to be paranormal. For example, an episode about a man whose shadow vaporizes other people explains scientifically how his shadow came to take on this property. No one knows, though, how Freddie Krueger is able to enter your dreams -- he just can.)

As society apparently slides further into ruin, it seems more plausible to people that something weird or paranormal really is going on. And all religions begin with the view that we live in a depraved age, which is only going to get worse unless we do whatever the religion puts forward as the solution. Why ponder how to escape from sin, suffering, social disharmony, etc., if it seems like people are not so wild, not so beaten down, and are getting along better? The decline in belief in spirits, gods, devils, etc., first from hunter-gatherer to agrarian feudal and then to central nation-state is likely due to the drop-off in violence as each societal transition is made.

During the height of the recent crime wave, the 1980s saw not only the rise of TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries but also of urban legends and news items about Satanic cults, the divine healing powers of televangelists, and the modern-day werewolves and vampires that were called serial killers. This folklore, however accurate or not, has been lost since the fall in danger that began in 1992, just as it temporarily vanished during the last low-crime era of roughly the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s.

Going further back, though, to the next-most-recent crime wave of roughly the turn of the 19th/20th centuries through the early 1930s, we see how popular this folklore was -- Theosophy's peak popularity during the Roaring Twenties, the early monster movies (which took a turn toward the mediocre or merely sci-fi after crime fell in the mid-'30s), the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the early 20th C. Catholic revival that converted G.K. Chesterton in 1922, Graham Greene in 1926, and Evelyn Waugh in 1930, while T.S. Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927.

Returning to how culture changed during previous surges of violence, we see the same temporary fascination with the mystical, supernatural, and occult during the Romantic movement, the Elizabethan period, and the 14th C. -- but that's a matter for another post.

June 14, 2010

Should Atlas Shrugged have been about teachers instead of businessmen and inventors?

Prophets of social revolution often get the future wrong, the most obvious example being Marxism. Marxists believed the communist revolution would occur first in the capitalist economies like Germany, not in the backward peasant societies like Russia or China, because the iron laws of history said that feudalism had to first be replaced by capitalism, which would in turn be superseded by communism. Hence all of the left-wing support for the communist revolution in Germany at the end of WWI, since that's where the transformation was destined to take place, and the relative lack of interest in the communist revolution in Russia around the same time, since they didn't even have a capitalist system for the workers to take over and run by themselves. And about the state withering away once the communist revolution had succeeded -- wrong again.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we have prophecies about how the world might unravel if people don't heed the warnings of libertarians. Most notable here is Ayn Rand's dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. In it, creative and entrepreneurial types gradually get so fed up with state coercion generally, and in particular with being conscripted into an army of self-sacrificing helpers, that they start to withdraw from the system. With the inventors, scientists, businessmen, and other pillars of the economy slowly pulling away, the whole thing starts to keel over -- that'll teach the state to bite the hand that feeds!

With over 50 years of experience after the novel's publication, we see how wrong was Rand's vision that coerced self-sacrifice among creative types would ruin the system. To consider a timely example, look at how much regulation the banking industry came under during the 1990s and 2000s to serve the interests of social justice by giving out more mortgages to poor and Non-Asian Minority home-buyers. Rather than bankers individually growing weary and ultimately withdrawing from their calling, they as collective corporations dove into coerced self-sacrifice headfirst and for years swam around in big bucks. And if somehow the pool's drain opened up, someone else would keep them afloat -- I mean, people aren't just going to let saints go under for serving the cause of social justice, right?

Researchers, inventors, and artists too resent having to comply with state regulations such as meeting affirmative action targets -- e.g., when appealing to the government for grant money, having to detail how some expensive piece of equipment will be used in equal measure by men and women, as well as by whites / Asians and NAMs. Or having to detail how some community arts outreach project will target all demographic groups equally, if a financially strapped arts group wants state funding for it. Nevertheless, as annoyed as they may be, on the whole the members of these professions are not in revolt, do not even give off the smell of stewing in resentment, and don't suffer from the high burn-out rates that Rand would've predicted.

It is rather another group of professionals pressed into the populist posse who are the most likely to drop out and tell society to go fuck itself -- the teachers. Most people who go into teaching start out with something of a passion for it, though not necessarily at the level of those who join the Peace Corps. They like interacting with people, seeing their students "get it" and enjoy the teacher's favorite subject, and helping otherwise helpless young people reach their full individual potential. They could care less about making sure as many little girls go into engineering as do little boys, or that there be an equal fraction of their white students as of their NAM students who they help get into the Ivy League.

They merely want to push each student to pay attention and do their best. In their view, they are cultivating a group of seeds none of whose secret blueprints they can read beforehand -- they only want to provide the soil, water, and light to help these seeds blossom into whatever shapes they were meant to take on, to improve the world in their own humble grassroots way.

As Steve Sailer discusses in a recent column, against this desire fights a coalition of parents, politicians, voters, employers, and academics who are all agreed on one thing: teachers are to blame for how screwed up society is. If only the teachers would bla bla bla, our social fabric would not be stained by inequality of outcomes across racial groups, women would be equally represented as men at all levels of influence throughout Silicon Valley, "troubled youths" (wink wink) would not turn to a career of crime, and teenagers would never get pregnant, drunk, or hooked on TV and video games. The rest of society charges teachers with curing all of these diseases -- after taking care of that easy stuff like babysitting 35 hell-raisers without raising your voice or the back of your hand.

Turning to the first of the over 300,000 google results for "teacher burn-out" (more than four times as many as for "banker burn-out"), we see that a good deal of their stress is related to meeting "increasingly strict standards of accountability" and "expected numbers" (i.e., regulations related to Closing All Gaps), and that the highest attrition rates are for teachers in "minority" (i.e. NAM) schools. With these chilling gales blowing against the teachers' spark of purpose, it's no wonder they feel burned out.

Are current or would-be teachers looking for somewhere better to teach, where their work would be less interrupted and hijacked by such regulations? You bet. New teachers would love to get a cushy job -- behaviorally, not financially -- at a private school that didn't require so many hoops to jump through. There's also been an explosion in the private tutoring business (here's an NYT feature from 1993), some of which includes test prep but is more general. I worked in that industry for several years, and the main appeal for me was not having my time and energy sucked dry by teacher-blamers. I know it was for most of my co-workers too.

If you're a college grad, or even in college, are smart (shown by test scores or GPA), show up on time, and get along with kids and teenagers, you're hired. If you want to tutor specific subjects like high school math or the SAT, you have to take a quick test to prove your competence, but it costs nothing other than a little time. No pointless certification process.

And since most of your work is based around the company's materials or is free-form based on the student's homework that day, you don't have to take classes on how to make lesson plans, complete with all the theoretical balderdash about how to make them effective for all demographic groups, etc. You have a basic idea of what works, use a little trial and error for a given student if that doesn't work, and end up with whatever seems effective for that individual. No one is going to track whether the female students you work with do as well as the males, or NAMs and whites, or rich and poor. You're free to help each student do their personal best, and the devil with the demands of the Ministry of Social Justice.

This is not merely a hatred of credentialism, since most burnt-out teachers are certified! It has to do instead with the larger coerced self-sacrifice that teachers are subjected to.

What Rand fundamentally miscalculated was the ability of inventors, businessmen, etc. to not just slip out of their regulatory fetters but to then form them into lashes with which to whip their competitors, a phenomenon known as "regulatory capture." Look again at the bankers' profits even after they were charged with making crummier loans. Maybe one or two stubborn strands remain to hinder their movement, but that just makes life annoying rather than intolerable. It ends not in a revolt but a muttering.

Although it would sound somewhat callous, a banker could get away with saying, "Hey, it's not my fault that you poor people don't have any money." And an artist could be pardoned for saying, "Hey, it's not my fault that you untrained guys can't make good art." But in a society where the blank slate ideology dominates, nurturers cannot excuse themselves from the problems of their charges. A teacher cannot say, "Don't blame me if your kid is an idiot and a hell-raiser." Of course we should -- after all, nobody's born stupid or evil.

This prevents teachers from getting away with regulatory capture. The banker can say, "You poor people don't really deserve these mortgages, but you know what, we're going to be generous and give them to you anyway," expecting the tax-payers to save the banker if this act of forced generosity blows up in his face. In contrast, the teacher cannot say, "You dumb students don't really deserve this A, but you know what, I'm going to be generous and give it to you anyway." Unlike the banker who has succeeded in "serving the community" by making loans to poor or NAM borrowers, the teacher who attempts regulatory capture by doctoring test scores, or making the test so easy that any dolt can ace it, has failed to Close All Gaps (just wait a little while to see) and will not be bailed out if his students end up doing horribly later on. In fact, he'll probably be fired or have his school shut down if there's evidence he tried to co-opt the regulations.

Unlike bankers and scientists who can have their cake and eat it too -- present plausible evidence of serving social justice while co-opting regulations for their own benefit -- teachers cannot. The very attempt to give dumb students good scores proves that the teacher isn't really trying to Close All Gaps, in which case doctoring the scores would not be necessary. It is this inability to undo all the various restraints on them that makes teachers the most likely group of necessary professionals to slowly pull out from the system and tell the parents, politicians, and philanthropists to all go to hell without them.

June 13, 2010

Elite American interest in the World Cup

Here's how frequent the phrase "World Cup" has been in the Newspaper of Record since it began in 1930:

The 2010 data-point is as of June 12, but probably won't be very different by the end of the year, at which point no one would care anymore.

Not even the liberal elites started caring until the 1966 World Cup; the first two received zero mentions, and the third only one mention. Both the 1942 and 1946 World Cups were cancelled, yet the NYT believed that its American readership wouldn't have cared since it didn't mention "World Cup" during these years. Just imagine if two consecutive Super Bowls were cancelled -- the NYT would still discuss "Super Bowl" in those years, if for no other reason than to cover the fans' outrage.

From 1970 to 1990, there was a steady, low level of interest. It's only during the '90s and 2000s that the NYT's audience really started to pay attention. There is lots of discussion about how to make soccer-watching more widespread among Americans, given its low scoring, no-hands allowed rule, etc. But nothing has really changed in the rules over the time that it's shot up in popularity here (to the extent that it has). Rather, what will convince a lot more Americans to follow soccer is persuading them that soccer-followers are more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than those provincial boors who watch football. Pretending to like soccer is another part of the Stuff White People Like phenomenon of the past 20 years.

That might seem like a strategy with limited maximum reach, but look at how widespread designer toilet brushes are, or how even ordinary supermarkets carry cheap cans of fire-roasted tomatoes with garlic.

June 10, 2010

Anti-babe protestors in China

Yikes. They're not going to get much global sympathy that way. They need to take a lesson from the Lebanese and Iranians and only send out the cuties.

Western US less morally decadent than eastern? Data from support of piracy

GameFAQs, a popular news and discussion website about video games, runs a survey every day and gets tens of thousands of responses. The average user is who you'd expect -- male, age 21-25, etc. Because of this bias, you wouldn't want to use these surveys to see how much the average American plays video games. But other surveys would hardly be affected by this bias, like recent ones they've run on eye color and whether your name for soda is "soda," "pop," or "coke." This year's surveys also have maps by US state, by country in the world, etc. They only show what the most common response is, not an average, because many of their surveys don't have numerical answers.

Yesterday's survey was how bad you think piracy is for the video game industry. Admittedly it's not as bad as it is for music, but using emulators and stealing ROMs is rampant over websites and peer-to-peer file-sharing. That's not just for old games that are hard to find real copies of anymore -- and even those are now available for legal download, for a price, on current game consoles. I recall during my downloader days about 5 to 10 years ago that I played Mario Kart 64, a game not even 10 years old at the time, as well as many games for the Game Boy Advance, which was a current system at the time.

So the obvious answer is that it is a problem. The more that video game companies believe people to be illegally downloading their games, the less incentive they have to re-release the older games for new systems, and the more they will charge for current games. But that's only a problem for the creators of video games and the majority of video game players -- not a problem for the acne-stricken shut-ins who spend most of their day stealing music, TV shows, movies, and even video games.

Because this is such an easy question to answer, we can use responses to gauge how selfish and greedy people are across the US, at least with respect to stealing something that you expect not to be punished for. These responses only reflect people's beliefs, but their actions would probably be pretty close (you'd have to control for internet access, income, bla bla bla). But that's more important anyway when judging culpability -- did they act out of desperation in the heat of the moment, or do they have regularly selfish thoughts in this domain?

I took the percent of respondents who gave either of the two clearly wrong answers (that it's not a big deal at all or that piracy helps companies), and subtracted the percent of all Americans who gave these answers. This tells us how a state compares to the national average and makes the map below easier to read. 45% of Americans overall see no negative consequences, and the extremes are 9 percentage points higher than that (Maine) down to 8 percentage points below-average (Wyoming). The bluer states are the more anti-piracy states, and the browner ones are the more pro-piracy states. The ones with very light shading of either color mean they're pretty close to average, while dark shading shows more extreme values. Here are the results (data here):

There are a few outposts of not-so-selfish people back east, but they're pretty lightly shaded. The clear picture is an east - west split. The two most selfish states are both eastern (Maine, then West Virginia), whereas the two least selfish states are both western (Wyoming, then Alaska). This shows that race plays no role, or we would see the typical split between California, the South, and the Bos-Wash Corridor vs. the rest of the country. The most extreme states on either side are almost entirely white. And it's not a bi-coastal vs. fly-over country split, so nothing to do with the Culture Wars of the past 20 years.

The map that this most closely resembles, from my memory anyway, is the per capita number of Starbucks, also a mostly east - west split. (The Spearman correlation between the two is -0.58 -- more Starbucks per capita, less support for piracy.)

You could use all sorts of surveys to measure how selfish people are, but this one is pretty straightforward. Ask a bunch of young males whose obsession can be stolen without them being noticed or punished, "Does that harm the group being stolen from?" It's not "Would you ever commit murder?" but again we get a clearer view into the moral guide within their mind. It's not some extreme example that they have no way to respond to meaningfully, and it shows how easily they would take the next step down the slippery slope. For instance, piracy is devastating the music industry much more, and do you think someone who looks the other way for video game piracy is going to say it's wrong to pirate digital music? Or TV shows or movies?

For those who have never lived in the western half of the US, it may seem surprising that they'd be less self-deluded about the harm to a stolen-from group -- that's not the Bible Belt of the south, and what about all those ethics professors back on the east coast? Perhaps the lower level of moral decadence in the western half reflects who was likely to migrate -- namely those with something of an enterprising spirit, who would naturally be more wary of flimsy rationalizations of theft against businesses. They could've just stayed in West Virginia and turned to petty crime, bullied their bosses into giving greater compensation, or gone on the dole, but they chose to blaze a trail and make it out west.

Peter Turchin, in his book Historical Dynamics, reviews a lot of sociological work going back to Ibn Khaldun that notices a difference between a more moralistic frontier region vs. a more decadent center of an empire. A code of solidarity or fellow-feeling holds up the frontier, while the center is tossed about by the logic of "let the devil take the hindmost." Historically, this enabled the barbarians on the fringe to invade and take over the debauched elites in the center, and the cycle repeated itself. Judging from the map above, that is just as true today in America as in southern Europe during the twilight of Rome.

June 7, 2010

Modern women better looking due to delayed motherhood and few kids?

Everyone who has looked through portraits or pictures of people from earlier times notices how mediocre the women look compared to now. That's also true for hunter-gatherers -- it's rare to find a group whose women knock your socks off. Moreover, the progress seems to be very recent, like within the past 100 or 200 years at the furthest. Before then, it doesn't seem to matter if you look at women in 1800 or 1300; all are not very exciting to behold.

The first guess is that it has to do with better health, meaning better nutrition or access to medicine or prevention of infectious diseases. But none of those work because hunter-gatherers have great nutrition -- better than our nearly de facto vegan diet of the past 20 to 30 years. Plus they live in low-density groups so that most crowd diseases are unknown, though they still may suffer from those spread by winged insects or snails in their water source. And it's really not even a close call -- hunter-gatherer women are nothing close to your typical middle-class American woman in looks. If it were a matter of nutrition, effective medicine, and prevention of infection, then American women of the 1950s should be the ones who look the best, yet that doesn't seem true when flipping through old photo albums.

There could have also been natural selection for better looks, although that usually implicates a greater pathogen burden, as good looks signal good genes, and these are more important where just making it through childhood without being overwhelmed by bugs is crucial. Our pathogen burden has only lightened over the past 100 to 200 years, so that can't be why today's women in America look better than those of earlier times.

A simpler explanation is that women now put off marriage and having children much later than historically, and they have far fewer of them even when they begin. The idea is that women's good looks are designed to help her attract a mostly lifelong mate -- once that's done and she's started raising a family, who needs to preserve good looks if that's at all costly? Better to pull those resources out of maintaining good looks and invest them where they'll be of greater use for mothering. Her children's fitness will not depend on how cute she looks, and assuming her appearance doesn't go to hell too much too soon, the husband won't desert her either. So once motherhood begins, looks slowly (and then quickly) fade.

The number of children she has also matters: the more she has, the stronger the demand for mothering-related expertise rather than looking good. Also, the more she has, the more secure she feels that her husband isn't going to ditch her if her looks begin to fade.

Therefore, if women start to delay marriage and child-bearing, and if they have fewer kids once they start, their bodies are getting the signal that it's rough going in the mating market for some reason. After all, this late and so few kids, possibly none at all? Shoot, guess we can't turn off her looks just yet. We'll have to keep up whatever looks she has for awhile, rather than re-invest those resources to making her more nurturing and maternal. (Another characteristic of modern women is that they don't seem very motherly or wife-like even by age 30.)

So if we could compare 17 year-olds from England today vs. 500 years ago, we might not notice too much of a difference, since looks only start to fade once the body expects motherhood to begin. Yet we don't have many pictures of teenagers from that long ago, and more recent ones usually show them in some body-covering work uniform in some dim factory. Still, relying on paintings of adolescent and young-adult girls (Botticelli, Fragonard, and Bouguereau spring to mind), they seemed to look about as lovely as they do today.

However, most of our intuition about what women look like in various time periods is based more on women who are around 25 or older. For most of human history, they'd nearly all be mothers -- and even if they weren't, their bodies would reflect such a past, and would start withdrawing resources from good looks if they sensed it was too late, that she'd had her chance and blew it. After the demographic transition, a good deal of these women may not even be married, let alone be mothers, and even then they wouldn't have had many children. These signals all tell her body to keep up whatever looks she had before, at least for awhile longer in the hopes of finally snagging a husband and pumping out babies.

This idea would not only explain why women from roughly the same population have gotten much better looking after the demographic transition -- not simply "over time," since there seems little improvement before the transition -- but also why modern women look orders of magnitude better than hunter-gatherer women, despite the latter having equal or better nutrition and freedom from crowd diseases. And it would also explain why, fixing the place and time, higher-class women tend to look better than lower-class women. I remember little difference in middle or high school -- there were tons of cute girls who weren't from upper-middle backgrounds. Putting that aside, though, somehow when you see them in their 30s, their looks have decayed much more than have the looks of the upper-middle girls, compared to where each group started out as teenagers. Higher-status women are purer exemplars of the demographic transition, so their bodies are more likely to think that they've got to keep up the looks and not get all maternal, nurturing, and wife-like just yet.

The same idea applies to men, although they don't age as awfully as women do, so the effect is harder to notice. Why don't men age as quickly? Recall that a woman's Darwinian fitness doesn't depend much on her looks once she starts raising a family -- her kids don't respond to her based on how pretty she is, and provided she doesn't look like a scarecrow right away, the husband isn't going to ditch her. Those resources are re-invested into mothering traits. But the father's Darwinian success can still be boosted by impregnating lots of other females, either in a polygamously sanctioned way or just on the sly, and no young babe is going to sleep with a much older guy if he looks decrepit. Fathers don't father nearly as much as mothers mother, so the need to re-invest resources from looks into fathering traits isn't that strong to begin with. This also explains why men tend to have higher energy levels, higher sex drives, and are just overall more fun and exciting to be around as they age, relative to aging women. After all, if they weren't, they wouldn't be able to stay in the mating market and keep picking up younger girls.

June 6, 2010

Documentaries mushroom during safe and boring times

At the opposite end of the artistic greatness spectrum from epics or lyric poetry, we find satire and muckraking AKA literary journalism, the social novel, etc. (The lowest combine both genres a la The Colbert Report.) Aside from being too focused in time and place to have much appeal to people over there later on, the author feigns distance and objectivity as though a saga were unfolding from his tongue, but is in reality as partisan and involved as a 13 year-old girl spreading rumors about the better-looking girls at school. We don't care if you're going to make it personal -- just be sincere about it. Don't front.

And the themes treated are rarely the Big Ones like good and evil, love, death, the supernatural, revenge, family conflict and cooperation, opposites coming together against a common enemy, and so on. There may be a hint of these, but it is always in service of the overarching themes of how clever and saintly the author is, and why the author's cultural tribe is like definitely so much better than the other ones being satirized or raked through the muck.

People from several thousand years ago were inclined to dicing up their cultural adversaries, but none of this has been successfully passed to wide audiences throughout the generations. The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, the Bible, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Hamlet -- these have a much better shot at surviving for several thousands of years more, and not works that mock some king or pope or other, that chronicle an obscure quarrel between literary geek factions, or that whine about how managers compensate their workers.

Previously we saw how waves of violence shift the culture in the Big Ones direction -- if something could do you in tomorrow, you'd better think about more important things than whose wig style to lampoon in your next devastating mock heroic. Then when people perceive the world to have gotten much safer, they return to their default state of petty status-seeking. That's true for both producers and consumers, since if no audience existed for a certain type of work, the creator would typically not bother making it. Using available data on homicide rates, there were three huge waves of violence before the 20th C. -- during the 14th C., from ca. 1580 to 1630, and from ca. 1780 to 1830. That's where the heavy shit in Western literature comes from. After these peaks subside, we get Renaissance Humanism, the Age of Reason, and Victorian Realism, where the focus shifts from the meaning of life to how totally awesome it would be if the author's tribe ran the world instead of those clueless, heartless philistines in power.

What instances of this pattern do we see here and now, given that we've been going nearly 20 years and counting without crime or other forms of wildness flaring up like they did from 1959 through 1991? The literary culture, especially for the average person, has become less central, so we should probably look to the cinema. What movie genre has seen an utter explosion in popularity during these safe times? -- documuckaries. Consider:

- The IMDb list of top rated documentaries, unlike for other genres, shows movies made almost exclusively during safe times (the American ones anyway, and leaving aside the 26-second Zapruder footage).

- Box Office Mojo shows that the 100 highest grossing documentaries, unlike for other genres, were almost exclusively made during safe times.

- Since the earliest entry in either list is 1972, here's how common the word "documentary" has been in the NYT from 1970 through 2009:

These three independent sources all show a fairly static picture during most of the high-crime period, a rumbling underway by the late '80s and taking hold by the mid-'90s, and a takeover from then on. Fortunately it looks like it won't grow any further, but it's not clearly heading back down either.

Before, the enfant terrible used to be Roman Polanski or Dennis Hopper -- now it is Jon Stewart or Michael Moore. I think we'd all agree to a higher risk of getting murdered if it meant cancelling The Daily Show and recovering the Saturday Night Live of the late '70s and late '80s / early '90s.