July 31, 2010

Slow dancing's death as a sign of falling trust and stunted social growth

Most people at dance clubs, even young people, don't actually dance with anyone else anymore. Now everyone hangs out in their own small groups instead of wanting to mingle. That's the opposite of what you saw from the late '50s through even the early '90s, where socializing between boys and girls was the main reason you went to your school dance.

I still vividly recall my first middle school dance in the fall of 1992, when I was in sixth grade and had just turned 12. Even though there was a bit of sex segregation, there was still a sense of urgency to break it up and just put yourself out there -- c'mon man, just go up to her and ask her to dance! Anyone could tell that the girls were also eager to break free from their comfort zone and actually get to touch a boy's body with their hands for a decent stretch of time. During the '90s that sense of urgency evaporated as young people, in all aspects of their thinking and behavior, switched from a "now or never" mindset to one of "let's just goof around and put the big things off until later."

Everyone has commented on how vulgar the YouTube videos are that show young girls dancing, or how scandalous it is that young people's preferred dancing style -- when they actually do dance with someone else -- is grinding, which resembles a standing lapdance. Yet these changes signal young people's retirement from libidinous behavior. Girls shaking their ass around in an exaggerated way are just trying to get as much attention as possible without having to give anything in return. During truly promiscuous times, girls have no such self-consciousness and feel powerless before boys. Just listen to any song by the girl groups of the early 1960s, Bananarama, Belinda Carlisle, and the "mall queens" Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Girls at dances back then weren't gyrating around wildly but drifting around waiting for some boy to sweep them off their feet. They gave off a signal of vulnerability rather than control.

As for grinding, nothing could be more anti-sexual. The girl is not even facing the guy -- therefore they will not be making out, let alone fucking, as they haven't established the most minimal level of interpersonal contact -- namely eye-contact. While she may or may not let him put his hands on her hips, she herself rarely touches him with her hands, also spelling doom. Also, she is free to just flit away on the slightest whim to someone else: she just has to step forward. When people dance face-to-face, she would feel a huge psychological cost to bail out in mid-song -- she's been caught in eye-contact, facing another person, for awhile, and she'd have to step back, turn her body completely around, then walk off. Under the circumstances, that's just too much, so she's guaranteed to stick around for at least the full song, and maybe a few others. There's no such guarantee with grinding.

Finally, this applies to her friends meddling in her business, too. If it's face-to-face, her friend would have to make a very rude cutting-in gesture, try to pry her hand from his, spin her around a bit, and then lead her off. That's too rude for most people to attempt, so her friends will leave her alone in that situation. With grinding, they can just walk up to her, take her unoccupied hand, and lead her off without having to turn her body around, make her step back, or otherwise cut in between two people, all in a single motion.

Add it all up, and you see a profound lack of trust between the sexes, especially how girls feel toward boys. It takes a certain amount of good faith in the other person to dance face-to-face and close-up, given how locked-in you will be for at least several long minutes. Grinding signals her unwillingness to place even that much trust in him -- she doesn't want to establish eye-contact that might pull her in, and she wants to be able to bail out whenever she pleases and without warning. This is just one aspect of the decline of trust in others that has showed up in social surveys since the late '80s / early '90s.

Girls have always felt uncomfortable by making themselves vulnerable, but it's only recently that they've valued immediate comfort over the longer-term benefits like establishing a bond of trust between herself and a boy, making a deeper emotional and perhaps physical connection with him, and so on. Sure, you expose yourself to the risk of being used or having your heart broken, but girls used to accept that risk -- and indeed did occasionally get used or had their heart broken. They simply accepted those losses because otherwise they could not have enjoyed all the times where something deep and magical happened. Now they want to be shielded from every tiny threat to their comfort zone, preventing exploitation and heartbreak but also stunting their emotional, social, and even spiritual growth.

One last thing about grinding -- aside from these problems with trust, eye-contact, etc., just look at how little physical contact there is! The middle section of her ass touches the guy's lap, and that's about it; at most the guy's hands might also touch her hips. Slow dancing places one body right up against another, often bringing their heads close together as a prelude to kissing, as when she rests her head on his shoulder or chest.

I wasn't alive to see what dancing was like in the mid-'30s through the mid-'50s, when the crime rate was falling and people were generally behaving themselves, but from what I've seen in TV and movies their dancing was pretty emotionally detached and somewhat physically at-a-distance as well, although at least they were facing each other. It doesn't look exactly frivolous, but you can clearly see the lack of abandon or connection there that we'd recognize at any young people's dance club today.

Part of the reason why girls were so willing before to make themselves vulnerable was that they felt like the guy was not in full control of himself either, and therefore could not coldly plot out some calculating scheme to use her. And he felt this way about her, assuaging his worries that she might be a maneater or someone who'd otherwise leave him heartbroken. Thus, both trusted each other and did not feel that either one really had the upper hand -- they were simply being moved around by the hand of fate, a neutral third party. Hence the ubiquitous phrases like "I just can't help it," "Let's not try to fight it," and so on. If you want to reap the benefits from close social interaction, at some point you have to switch off the rational, lawyerly part of your mind and just go with the flow.

The music that young people dance to reflects this -- Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sound more cool-headed and composed than the power balladeers of the 1970s and '80s. My impression is that these kinds of songs are the most likely to have been forgotten even for bands that have seen a revival of their popularity, and even if the song was a #1 hit such as Madonna's "Live to Tell" or The Bangles' "Eternal Flame." The last slow song in the classic style, that I can remember, is "Come Undone" by Duran Duran, released as late as 1993. So, in the interest of historical conservation:

"Save a Prayer" Duran Duran (1982)
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" Bonnie Tyler (1983)
"Amanda" Boston (1986)
"Take My Breath Away" Berlin (1986)
"Heaven in Your Eyes" Loverboy (1986)

July 28, 2010

The entrepreneurial spirit and pastoralism, or how capitalism came from farmers and herders mixing their genes

Social scientists argue a lot over how capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and related events developed -- especially why they began in Northwestern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, rather than in some other agricultural society or perhaps at some other date. I admit up front to having read a little but not a lot of this stuff, so for all I know the ideas below have already been proposed and refuted, although they cannot be very widely known or I would've come across them by now.

It's no surprise that capitalism had to await the adoption of agriculture, a certain level of technological development, and the rule of law. But these pre-conditions were in place in various parts of the world before 1750. The most obvious puzzle is why China never came close to Europe in entrepreneurship -- they'd been practicing farming for longer, for most of history they were more technologically savvy, and had more or less weeded out the bad apples from their society through a strong central government (the major exception was when they were invaded by a bunch of bad apples from Mongolia). For the recent past, and so probably back several centuries or so, Northeast Asians have had a higher average IQ, more of a future orientation, and again were more well behaved and law-abiding. For founding a capitalist society, what's not to love?

Social scientists have long pointed out that Europe has been more dynamic than static East Asia, and in recent times as East Asians have assimilated into Western societies, white people and Asian people acknowledge that European-descended people seem more risk-taking, trailblazing, creative, or something. That's the main ingredient that East Asia seems to have lacked, but that Europe had. Still, why this difference? I think the answer is that Europe had a much higher fraction of its population as pastoralists rather than farmers. (A quick way to see that is by looking at lactose tolerance -- it comes from pastoralists who started to rely on milk and dairy from their livestock rather than only killing them for their meat. Most of East Asia shows little to no lactose tolerance, while in Europe it is the norm.)

First we need to see what makes different ways of making a living so different. There are two traits each with two possibilities, giving four possible groups (although only three really exist). There is whether the group is sedentary or nomadic, and whether stuff can be accumulated or not. While these vary along a spectrum, we'll just chunk them into "more" or "less" true. This gives us:

Sedentary, Accumulation = farmers
Nomadic, No accumulation = hunter-gatherers
Nomadic, Accumulation = pastoralists (or simply "nomads")

There doesn't seem to be a type that is sedentary and where the accumulation of stuff is not possible.

It's the sedentary trait that gives agricultural groups higher IQ and a more future orientation -- farming is much tougher stuff to figure out and requires you make a substantial investment in the future. The reason is that if conditions turn bad and you're nomadic, you can simply go somewhere where they're better. If you're sedentary, you're stuck with having to figure out how to change the conditions for the better through your own devices.

(By the way, this applies across all life forms that have to deal with a changing environment -- one strategy is to leave for greener pastures, while the other is to stay and make things better yourself. So more sedentary species are smarter. Leaving for a better place is not cost-free, though, or else every species would have gone that way. The metabolic demands of wings, for example, are huge -- flying, let alone for that long and going that far, is not cheap.)

So for a society to become capitalist, they have to have a good history of farming. Europe and China both meet that, while Australian Aborigines and native North Americans generally do not, so this trait gets us part of the way to understanding the global pattern. But it doesn't tell us why Europe and not China.

That's where the accumulation of stuff comes in. This makes class distinctions possible -- one farmer may have tons more wheat than another, and one shepherd may have tens more sheep than another. Therefore natural selection will shape these people's personalities to accept class divisions and inequality, while hunter-gatherers will retain their disgust for social stratification. As noble as the latter mindset may be, it means they won't be able to start and run a capitalist society.

The key difference between pastoralists and farmers is the maximum level of inequality. The resources in question are both zero-sum -- land / food surplus / fortresses / etc. for farmers, and livestock for pastoralists. However, in a farming society the top of the class hierarchy can control a much larger fraction of all resources than could the top of a pastoralist society. For example, in a farming society it's possible that the top landowner might own 1,000 or 10,000 times as much land as the bottom landowner (ignoring the landless), or that he might have a storage of 1,000 to 10,000 times as much wheat / rice / corn / etc., or that he might have 1,000 to 10,000 times as much wealth in the form of jewels, precious metals, and so on, stored in his treasury. I don't know exactly how high these disparities could go, but they're pretty high.

A top-ranking pastoralist, however, can only look after -- I don't know -- several hundred livestock at most (probably more like dozens), compared to the lowest who might only own one. Females in pastoralist societies accumulate wealth in the form of jewelry, baubles, and fine clothing that they can carry around while re-locating. Here again the disparity cannot be so great as in a farmer society. The richest women may be carrying 10 to 100 times as much fancy junk as the poorest, but it will be nothing like the buildings full of treasure chests belching jewels that you see in advanced farming states.

Why this difference in how unequal the wealth distribution can be? Because pastoralists are nomadic, while farmers are sedentary. If you're on the move, the wealth you accumulate must be able to travel with you -- livestock and personal jewelry -- whereas if you're sedentary, you can amass more and more and more land to your fiefdom, and build larger and larger storehouses for grains and precious objects, given that you don't have to personally defend it against theft -- that's what your minions are there for, to guard it and manage it.

How does this make pastoralists more entrepreneurial than farmers? The premise of entrepreneurship is that someone begins somewhat low on the ladder, then through dogged effort, risk-taking, and cunning, rises to the top to rival or even displace the incumbent elite. That will be much easier to do in a pastoralist society where it means going from owning one goat as a teenager to overseeing a flock of dozens or hundreds of goats by the time you're a mature man, if you play all your cards right. It doesn't look like so intimidating of a goal. By contrast, when coming out on top means going from having a small shack and a backyard garden to controlling thousands of acres or more of land, you have to admit that this ambition seems a lot less realistic. For one thing, there is a much greater distance to traverse on the social ladder, and the incumbents are a lot stronger in protecting their stuff from falling into your hands. They have hired guards, men-at-arms, and so on, whereas the top shepherd has only himself and a few ill-equipped allies to make sure nothing bad happens to his flock.

Thus, a personality that makes you believe in and act on a "rags to riches" worldview is more likely to evolve among pastoralists than among farmers because it gives greater benefits to the former. The benefit is the effect on your genetic success, times the probability of actually making it from bottom to top. Obviously the success is greater if you go from a small farmer to a Pharaoh, than from a one-goat herder to a 100-goat herder. In terms of offspring, though, I think it would only be the difference between having dozens of children for the elite herder and hundreds of children for the elite farmer -- one order of magnitude difference. The probability of success in the farmer society, though, is I don't know how many orders of magnitude smaller than in a pastoralist society, but surely more than one. Look at all those low-ranking farmers who never came anywhere close to a rags-to-riches goal, and I'd say it's probably 100 or 1000 times more difficult to reach your ambitious goal as a farmer than as a pastoralist.

Both of these characteristics -- the intelligence and future orientation of farmers, as well as the entrepreneurial impulse of herders -- are necessary for a capitalist society to get started and run smoothly. As these two groups inevitably mix with each other -- say, by the charming herder sweet-talking one (or more) of the farmer's daughters -- we will find people who get the genetic variants that boost IQ and low time preferences, as well as those that boost an entrepreneurial spirit. These hybrids will be naturally suited to invention, starting up businesses, and blazing other economic trails. That's why it happened in Northwestern Europe rather than China.

Japan seems to have caught on pretty soon after it was introduced (whereas China continued in farmer poverty), so I'd guess that either recently or as far back as the settlers from the Asiatic mainland, they had a higher proportion of nomadic people. Korea seems to be that way to, if to a somewhat lesser extent. At the very least, I know that the modern-day Japanese are descended from those who were nomadic enough to leave the mainland and make a decent sea journey. Plus the Japanese were hunter-gatherers until much more recently than the Chinese, shifting to farming only within the past couple thousand years. The Chinese therefore will have minds more adapted to farming life than the Japanese will.

The other major apparent puzzle is Ashkenazi Jews -- they seem to be on top in lots of capitalist societies, yet they have lower rates of pastoralism than other Europeans. They came to Europe as farmers (and maybe herders?), then spent several hundred years forced into white collar professions such as money-lending and tax-farming. I don't think we have to invoke a greater entrepreneurial spirit to explain their success in capitalist societies, though -- remember that IQ plays a big role, too, and those brainy jobs they nearly exclusively held for centuries probably selected for higher IQ (see Cochran, Hardy, & Harpending, "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence").

IQ is normally distributed, and Ashkenazi Jews appear to score on average 1 standard deviation above European Americans. They are about 2% of the population yet make up around 20-30% of the lists of eminent individuals -- leading CEOs, Nobel Prize winners, etc. Assume that such a level of eminence requires an IQ of 145, or 3 s.d. above the European average -- and that is not astronomical; it's probably close to the average Harvard undergrad's IQ. Also consider a world where Jews are 2% and other Europeans are 98% of the population (as blacks and Hispanics are not very competitive at these levels of eminence). Then at the elite level we expect to see 26% Jews and 74% other Europeans, which is exactly what we see in reality.

So I think the Ashkenazi pre-eminence in such entrepreneurial and creative fields is due mostly, perhaps entirely, to their higher average intelligence, not to a more entrepreneurial drive in their personality. Since they were shunted into their white collar professions for centuries, I'd bet that there was no increased selection for an "I'm gonna make it from rags to riches" impulse. That sector of the pre-modern economy was something like a hereditary caste. As personality traits go, they were probably selected more for whatever makes a good manager, rather than what makes a good entrepreneur.

These big looks at history always try to say something meaningful about the future, so here it is: the best way forward for China to found and maintain a proper capitalist society would be to take in a decent number of pastoralists and intermarry. There are plenty in Tibet, although that would probably look bad. Of course, the wealthy agricultural elites could always search for Hebridean shepherdesses or Alpine milkmaids and entice them to re-locate to Chinese palaces as their wives, although pastoralist people tend not to be so motivated by luxury. Well, they can figure it out for themselves, but they need more rowdy herder types.

By the way, that's one point in favor of India over China in the upcoming few centuries -- there are lots of herders in the Northwest, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I've heard Gujarat described as "the Texas of India." Combine that disposition with the big brains found more in the South, and there you go. Of course that would require a partial dissolving of the caste system, which luckily was not so strong in Europe. But at least the two main ingredients are there. Overall Indians seem more creative and rambunctious than the Chinese, so I'll bet on them for the next century, assuming no brain drain saps either country. (I don't think either will have to worry about a herding drain.)

Africa has both types of societies, but they're a lot more recent, unlike their longer established counterparts in South Asia. So it's not clear that the full potential of natural selection has been reached for both types in Africa. Also, the natural fights between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers are particularly bloody in Africa -- the well known Rwandan genocide is a prime example -- and obviously inter-group violence needs to calm down before the two can mix.

The places I would be most pessimistic about are where people never developed farming or herding, such as Australian Aborigines. After that, where only one of the two newer types got going but not for very long, such as much of the indigenous Americas, where farming is pretty new and pastoralism is either absent or very recent.

July 27, 2010

The revenge tragedy in movies

One reason that people today can appreciate cultural works from long ago is that art reflects larger societal changes that either consciously or not the artist picked up on. When a society goes through a similar big change, artists and audiences will be in a similar mindset as their earlier counterparts. Perhaps the strongest societal influence on high or popular culture is the violence rate, with people during periods of rising violence pursuing cosmic themes and during periods of falling violence being bored by anything other than the trivial.

So, petty satire and mockery prevail during safe times: think of the mock-epic of the 18th C. England or all those Will Ferrell movies where some doofus is presented as a hero -- not sincerely, but only to make fun of whatever group that he is a grotesque caricature of (there's lots of exaggerated kabuki facial expressions just in case you didn't get it). On the other hand, during dangerous times we are forced to deal with heavier themes. A key example here is the revenge tragedy that fascinated the Elizabethan world, which was in the throes of a rising wave of violence.

Much of the Western world went through a similar crime wave from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, so we might expect to see a newfound appreciation for this genre. Below are some brief sightings of the genre's re-birth in popular movies during the recent crime wave. They are not conscious imitations of the Elizabethan form, as they do not follow every last convention set hundreds of years ago. Still, the motifs in these revenge-themed movies are strikingly similar to the earlier ones, suggesting that whenever a society goes through such a wave of violence, artists and audiences will naturally turn their minds to such motifs.

The examples are drawn from the 1980s and the single year of 1990 (pre-grunge, pre-Rodney King) because I know these movies better than ones from the '60s and '70s, and also because they get so maligned as dramatically lacking, when they're some of the most exciting movies ever made.

In particular, these movies rarely have the revenger come gradually closer to the murderer, and kill him in one fell swoop upon meeting him. Rather, like the Elizabethan models, there is a protracted series of encounters and scheming between the two, both sides often maintaining a facade of innocence and agreeableness when they're face to face. This heightens the dramatic tension as we wonder whether the murderer will foil the revenger before his would-be triumph, and if not, just when and how he'll ultimately get revenge. Most people overlook these subtle aspects of the movie and merely whine about the big explosions and gratuitous body count that punctuates the longer periods of scheming and counter-scheming. Also, the heroes are mostly stoic figures, just as they were in Elizabethan drama, rather than the whiny and often self-pitying emo dorks of recent action flicks.

Ghost. This one comes closest to meeting all of the conventions. A well-behaved banker, Sam, uncovers what turns out to be a money laundering job by a power-hungry and corrupt banker, Carl. Carl hires a criminal to find out how much Sam knows, although the criminal ends up killing him. Sam returns as a ghost who makes his presence known to both Carl and Sam's grieving girlfriend, Molly (in her case, through spiritual possession of a fortune teller). After a period of plotting on both sides, including an episode where Carl tries to seduce the girlfriend of the man he more or less had killed, Sam eventually kills the man responsible for his death; he himself goes off to the afterlife. The twist in this movie is that the ghost of the slain victim and the revenger are the same person, instead of a ghost motivating someone else to get revenge. Unlike all the other ones covered here, this one actually ends with the hero dead, very atypical of Hollywood movies.

RoboCop. A good cop, Murphy, is brutally murdered by a gang whose leader is working for a corrupt corporate executive named Dick. Enough of Murphy's body and brain are kept alive for him to form the basis of a cyborg police officer, RoboCop. Here the role of the ghost is played by Murphy's repressed memories that reach RoboCop's awareness and spur him to seek out whoever was responsible for Murphy's death. After a period of scheming back and forth, as well as what we could only call madness in a robot, RoboCop ultimately kills the gang, their leader, and Dick. (Earlier in the movie, an executive is killed during what the others present took to be a mock demonstration of a deadly crime-fighting robot, the ED-209, an instance of the "death during masque / dumb show" motif of Elizabethan revenge plays, although not involving the ultimate revenge.)

The Star Wars trilogy. Luke's surrogate father Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader and later appears to guide him in ghost form. Contrary to convention, though, the ghost does not urge him to exact bloody revenge. The two battle each other physically in the meantime, and the murderer even tries to undo the hero psychologically by telling him that the murderer is his father. The hero descends into madness and joins the dark side, then all but kills the murderer, who had just suggested that his next target would be the hero's sister (preemptive revenge?).

Batman. Bruce Wayne's parents are killed by a psychopathic criminal, Jack Napier, who Wayne plots against and is plotted against by, whether in the everyday personas or as Batman and the Joker. An extra layer of intrigue has the two competing over the same woman. The ghost role is played by undying memories of his parents. Batman never quite goes crazy, though he comes close to losing it, yet succeeds in killing the Joker.

You get the idea. Without going into detail, here are a few more that come pretty close:

Conan the Barbarian. No ghost of the hero's slain mother, but there is a ghost of his slain lover and companion. The scheming between the revenger and the murderer is not very elaborate.

Beverly Hills Cop. Again no ghost or madness. But the drawn-out intrigue between the revenger and the two villains is superb.

Rambo II. The hero only gets revenge on lower-ranking villains, not the corrupt powerful one, whom he only threatens with a knife. Lacks a ghost.

Total Recall. No kinsman or close friend of the hero is killed. The ghost is a video recording of the hero himself, before he had his memory messed with, although it turns out the ghost was lying about the misdeeds that the villain had supposedly done to him -- the ghost was in on it.

Sudden Impact. The villains rape but do not kill the revenger and her sister. There's a ghost in the form of persistent memories, but there's little intrigue between the revenger and the villains. She merely surprises them and shoots, sometimes without their even recognizing who she is.

July 26, 2010

Unnatural looking gym bodies

Homo sapiens evolved without weightlifting machines, jump ropes, and other modern inventions. Assuming they ate the diet that human beings are suited to -- rich in animal products and low in carbs -- and lived their normal lives, they were lean and muscular. Although pastoralists are not hunter-gatherers, they rely enough on animal food and do not even cultivate let alone consume the carby junk that farmers do, like corn, potatoes, wheat, rice, etc. And they are still physically active. It's only when people started farming that their health went down the tubes -- they got shorter, had weaker bones, and so on.

Still, some people in agricultural societies ate well, and in the capitalist societies up until about 1980 an increasingly large fraction of the population could afford a diet brimming over with animal foods. In our species' beginning, we might have gotten muscled by hurling projectiles, moving heavy obstacles out of the way, giving others a boost into a tree, pulling ourselves into a tree, sprinting toward a prey animal, sprinting away from a predator animal, and so on. Once capitalism set in and we no longer lived that way, we would have played sports, lifted heavy things for a living, and other activities that are not so different from what a hunter-gatherer would have done.

Once people started going to the gym, though, they started to look weird. I can't pinpoint exactly what it is about gym bodies that look off -- it's a gestalt impression. But every image of the ideal male body I've seen from the ancient Mediterranean through the movies of the 1970s and even somewhat of the '80s shows a very different looking person than the gym guy. To show what I mean, here is a 16th C. Italian sculpture of Ganymede, a mythological figure famed for his beauty, and here is a random shot of present-day gym dudes.

What are the differences, and why causes them? A computer program designed to recognize patterns could do a better job if it were fed a bunch of images of each type and then told us along which dimensions they differed the most, but I'll try to flesh out some of my overall impressions.

First, the gym guys are fatter. In some parts they have little body fat, but if you just look overall, they're not as lean as Ganymede. It would be the same if I compared them to a group of hunter-gatherers or pastoralists, who are always lean and cut. I attribute this to the gym guys' diet -- obviously they're lifting weight to build muscle, but they probably eat too much carbs, which boosts their insulin level and keeps more fat locked in fat cells instead of being burned for energy.

Also, their skin looks pretty matte, not glistening. Here I can't compare with Ganymede, but think of Stallone in the early Rocky movies. It's not just sweat, since it's true even when they're not working out. I think what's going on here is a lack of vitamin A among the gym guys. This vitamin is necessary to maintain the health of your epithelial cells -- anything on the surface, such as your skin, but also "inner surfaces" like your digestive and respiratory tracts. Low vitamin A levels will make your skin look like hell.

To build muscle, you need to eat protein, which gets broken down into amino acids, and these are re-assembled into human muscle protein. Vitamin A gets used up in this process, so if you eat a lot of protein and are lifting weights, you will probably deplete your store of vitamin A -- unless you get a decent amount from your diet.

There's really only one source for it, and that's liver. Of course, most gym guys don't eat liver in any form, unlike what regular people in capitalist societies used to do until very recently. Hunter-gatherers have good access to it, and even pastoralists do to a lesser extent. Vitamin A also comes from dairy products, although in far lower concentrations, so pastoralists make up for their relative lack of liver by consuming a lot more dairy. Eggs, too, are about as good a source as dairy. But unless these gym guys are eating a dozen eggs and a pound of Gruyere cheese or clotted cream a day, they're not getting enough vitamin A. (This vitamin only comes from animal products. A precursor to it comes from plants, but the conversion process is so inefficient that you'd have to munch a room full of spinach just to get enough -- like cows that chew grass all day.)

Next, their chest muscles are way too overdeveloped. You never saw these kind of man boobs before gyms existed. They have somewhat defined abdominal muscles, but not really anything on the sides of the torso -- again, I'm not talking something monstrously beefed up, but something lean and cut like Ganymede shows on his sides. You can't really see the definition of their ribcage, but that may just be the fat problem mentioned earlier. I also don't notice a clear distinction between the biceps and triceps. It's hard to see if that's there on Ganymede, but go watch a Dirty Harry movie where you see his arms, or when De Niro starts working out in Taxi Driver, or any random picture of hunter-gathers and pastoralists from google images. There's a thin strip between the biceps and triceps that should be flatter against the bone, with the other two standing out more. Gym guys instead have a single bulge on their upper arm. And while their shoulders stick out somewhat, the place where they meet the upper arm is not as cut as you can somewhat see in Ganymede -- or any basketball player's arms.

I don't see any diet-related cause for these muscular differences. I think it's due instead to veering off nature's course for building human muscle. Remember, we evolved in a world without devices meant to isolate this narrow muscle area or that one, so it was not possible to overdevelop one area and leave another one underdeveloped. Pulling yourself into a tree, hurling a spear, and lifting heavy objects all require the coordination of many groups of muscles at the same time. So does swinging a sword or a baseball bat, suplexing another man, dashing to the end zone, and the athletic variety of dancing. Even the workouts that non-jocks used to do (until the gym took over) stressed the entire body, or large parts of it anyway -- pull-ups, push-ups, sprinting, and so on.

Apparently it is impossible to reproduce that in the gym laboratory, although you might think you could just target this narrow set one day, then another narrow set the next day, and so on, until you hit all of the body. How do you know what the proportions should be, though? Should you spend the same amount of effort on every single muscle? Maybe our natural workouts, while using lots of muscles, don't use them all equally. And if they do differ, how would you know which should get more effort than which others? And how do you know which muscles are given a slow-twitch vs. fast-twitch stress in our natural workout? Trying to re-create this suite of nature's harmonious proportions through human artifice is sheer hubris. Maybe some gym wizard could come closer than the typical gym user, but even they still look weirdly out-of-balance.

For their narcissism -- wanting to "look good naked" -- the gym guys are punished with malformed bodies, unlike those who seek the mix of discipline and fun that comes from doing athletic activities, who are rewarded with classical sculpture bodies.

All that I've said applies to females, too. However, throughout our species' existence they were never the launchers of spears, the movers of large rocks, etc., so their natural workout should be different from that of males. In high school I noticed that the girls who played soccer had the best bodies in a feminine sense, probably due to the lack of upper-body workouts, and the lack of fast-twitch muscle stress that would cause them to bulk up (like I noticed on some field hockey and softball players). The least natural looking are the gymnasts, which isn't surprising given how explosive their activities are, and what a large role their upper body plays. Unlike the more demure soccer players, gymnast chicks strut around like guys with their shoulders out and their arms at a distance from their sides, even if they're only 5'1. Just like males, the gym girls end up looking not quite right -- just take a look at any women's fitness magazine cover. They look better than if they were fat, but it's a far cry from the natural softness that girls are supposed to have.

Fortunately, all you need for following the right path is access to a tree with sturdy branches within jumping distance, some flat or hilly land to sprint over, and some heavy shit to throw around. Probably the easiest thing is to find a tree branch that you'd have to jump your highest to reach: squat down, burst up with your arms stretched out, grab hold of it, and then do some chin-ups. Also swing back and forth like a little kid to make sure you don't get too serious. I tried that the other night and my arms felt more fully stressed than when I use dumbbells in my room. I think I'll keep those just for times when I have no time to work out in a more natural setting, but otherwise will try to adhere to what natural selection designed my body to do in order to be in top shape. Guess that's an excuse for more dancing.

July 25, 2010

The anti-materialism of the 1980s, music edition

I've covered this theme in passing before, but we might as well set the record straight on this vile lie in full. The anti-materialist trend goes back through the '70s and '60s, too, of course, but there's no popular misconception about those decades. The main difference is between dangerous times when people rise above materialism vs. safe times when they indulge in it. Earlier we saw that the pastoral genre flourishes in dangerous times and is made fun of in safe times. Also, because gizmo worship is mostly confined to safe times, it's largely absent in dangerous times, even if they have pretty impressive gadgets like the Walkman, the Apple II, the cordless phone, or anything with a remote control.

Now for some examples from the broader popular culture. I'll begin with music and will probably cover movies and TV soon. I won't be touching on things that are merely not materialist -- that was most of it -- but that go against it.

Before covering individual songs, let's remember the charity record, which died out in the 1990s and 2000s (except in the U.K.). True there were some attempted revivals, but in order to count it had to have had a major impact on the culture. I'm ignoring things like the death of Princess Diana since that's not about the less fortunate. Rather than just pimp their ride, add on to their crib, and pile some more bling around their neck, pop musicians used to make charity records or concerts. I know this probably had little impact, but it's better than nothing, and in any case we're focused on what people's mindset was -- the common charge is not that celebrities used to be high-minded but not very effective at charity; it is that they were so materialistic, unlike today's celebrities. Aside from records, there were also huge international concerts like Live Aid.

Probably the best known examples are "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World," made by ensembles of hit-making pop stars. The name of the Canadian variation is a great reminder to the navel-gazing whiners of the '90s and 2000s -- "Tears are Not Enough." Even the heavy metal dudes stepped up for African famine relief with Hear 'n Aid. Now you can object that these songs stink, and they do. Still, one charity song not only raised money but is a great listen, too -- "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson.

Moving on, we have to get this out of the way first. "Material Girl" by Madonna -- it's a tongue-in-cheek parody of gold-diggers, not a praise. The Wikipedia article provides the detail, but you don't need to do anything more than listen to the rest of the album to see it in its proper context. Remember, when Like a Virgin came out in 1984, most people were listening to albums, not single mp3s. None of the other songs even remotely praise materialism, and one of the other hits, "Dress You Up," is explicitly against it. It's about a girl trying to win over a guy by pointing out that while he may possess lots of fancy material things, they can't compare to her burning love. It's the exact opposite of all this bragging you hear now about what designers some tone-deaf slut is wearing, how much bling she has, bla bla bla.

If only Madonna were British, she would've been given credit for recording a parody of materialist values. The Pet Shop Boys, who are British, had a hit song "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" that satirized the overly ambitious stock market quants. During the booming past two decades, we didn't hear anything like that, even though the bubble lasted longer and was more severe than during the '80s. After all, we only got out of recession in 1983, and the romance (such as it was) finished on Black Monday in 1987. Even that tiny stretch of exuberance caused culture-makers to remind enthusiasts not to be so arrogant.

Talking Heads had a hit with "Once in a Lifetime," which warned about the spiritual danger of coasting through your career goals and status milestones without thinking about the bigger picture.

For her breakthrough album, Cyndi Lauper covered "Money Changes Everything," whose message is self-explanatory. It broke into the top 30 in the U.S.

Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" features an unemployed dock worker and a diner waitress, but plenty of songs talk about small-status people. Rather than brag about how he still has enough money -- borrowed money -- to throw some d's on his car wheels, he reminds her that sticking together and being in love is more important than living a too-comfortable life.

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears isn't anti-materialist, but it was a hit song about the overly ambitious and power-hungry, which is close enough to the main theme here. "Everything Counts" by Depeche Mode fits in here as well.

"You don't have to be rich to be my girl. You don't have to be cool to rule my world."

From the Footloose soundtrack, "Let's Hear it for the Boy" plays down the boyfriend's faults on material dimensions since he makes up for them on social and love-related dimensions. ("What he does, he does so well -- makes me wanna yell!")

Rather than continue to glorify the razzle-dazzle of the fashion industry and inflate famous girls' fame-seeking egos even more, "Girls on Film" by Duran Duran says it's not all it's cracked up to be.

I'm sure there are other examples that I missed, but you get the idea. As I said earlier, these are only the ones that explicitly comment on the topic of materialism, and are against it. Most people were too busy having a life to seek refuge in shallow obsessions. And these are not trivial cases but some of the most popular musicians of the decade. Trying to find these strands in the '90s and 2000s would be a largely futile exercise, especially regarding Wall Street wiz kids during the recent 15 year-long boom.

July 24, 2010

Higher ed bubble increasingly going global

A new press release by the College Board warns that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in the percent of younger adults (aged 25-34) with at least a 2-year degree, whereas we used to be #1. To see whether this is even worth worrying about, let's see who's above and who's below us, which the press release and the various mainstream media regurgitations of it have not mentioned. It would only have taken them a few minutes by googling, but here is the executive summary of the report. The relevant graphs are on pages 5 and 7 of the PDF.

So who's dethroned us as the worldwide leader in higher education, who most threatens our global dominance? It's more or less a three-way tie between Canada, South Korea, and Russia. That fails the most basic reality check -- namely that none of them are nipping at our heels, whether economically, culturally, or otherwise. Especially not Russia. Following them are Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France and Belgium. Again nothing very frightening. Just a hair above us is Australia, and a hair below are Denmark and Sweden. After that it's Finland, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Estonia. Then comes Iceland, Slovenia, Poland and Greece. Even lower than those are Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Mexico, Austria, Italy, Chile, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Brazil.

It's hard to see any clear implications from this ranking, other than that some wealthy countries have stricter standards to get a post-secondary degree -- like Germany, where 23% do -- while others encourage colleges to scrape further down the barrel for students -- like Canada, where 56% do. This also shows that "college degree" is not the same thing across countries. It means less in Canada than in Germany because it's not as hard to get. Hell, we already knew that from within a country -- a degree from New Outer Podunk University doesn't count for as much as one from Harvard because it's a lot easier to get.

Obviously since the rise of the modern university, the smart and hard-working people got in somewhere and got their degree. Therefore, in order to push the percent of young people with a degree even higher, a society must shove more and more less-qualified students into the higher ed scheme. The only growth possible, after the hard-working smarties were already going to college, comes from students who will get their degree in a joke major or at a community college.

Those degrees coming from laxer standards will not contribute as much to the economy or the society overall as the earlier degrees did -- there's that downer of an idea again, diminishing marginal returns. In fact the process may weaken the economy by tying up roughly 40% of younger adults in classwork than in productive work. (Only about 15% of the population would do well in a meaningful college setting, whereas the goal of the College Board Advocacy is 55%.) Not to mention all the loans and subsidies that will be flooded into lower and lower-quality hands, all to make sure they get a shot at the American dream -- gee, where have we heard that recently? That didn't end up too bad, right? Just destroying the global economy for several years.

Just as with the crummy mortgages that were given to people who could never pay them back, students who will never work as executives or professionals or whatever will not be able to pay back student loans -- loans which will grow immensely as more and more students pile into higher ed, increasing demand and thus prices. That's been going on since at least the early 1980s, maybe a bit earlier. It doesn't matter if you aren't legally allowed to default on student loans -- that's just the law. If you're broke, they can't make you earn a professional's salary that they could garnish, they can't take anything of value since you don't have anything at that point, etc.

Aside from the issue of loan defaults, there's the negative return on investment. The government and private foundations are going to dump a bunch of money into students' hands on the assumption that they'll eventually get good jobs and be able to pay them back, and maybe then some -- even if not, they'll somehow make the society a better place to live by having the values and lifestyles of college-educated people, even if they end up with a working-class job and salary. Sorry, but that's bound to fail, too. They definitely won't be able to pay much back, so there's negative ROI in the narrow financial sense. And even in the broader sense, they're not going to pick up middle-class or professional values from college, as it's not really a grooming school for the elite (except at the top, where they will not be). There are far cheaper ways of getting them to learn the value of hard work, getting along with others, and so on -- namely getting a job as a young person and learning that you're nothing special, and that you'll be fired if you get too big for your breeches.

Just as the recent housing bubble was a global phenomenon -- and it's still going strong in China -- the higher ed bubble clearly threatens more than just the U.S. No country's citizenry wants to look like a bunch of boorish losers or elitists who only let the smart people go to college. We've all got to compete with each other to see who can scrape the bottom of the barrel and ensure that every one of its citizens gets a college degree. Some strong economies like Germany seem to have resisted getting into this self-destroying battle, but most have not. The ending of this story does not look happy.

July 22, 2010

The tiring homogeneity of mixed-use buildings

One of the stranger changes in elite culture is the recently received wisdom that life will be most dynamic and exciting if only we can return to the sleepy small-town ways of the 1940s and '50s. Now, you might argue for the overall greatness of those decades based on, say, how low the crime rate was -- that these and other features more than made up for the lack of wild fun that would only arrive during the '60s (and last through the '80s). But since when did we forget that the Fifties were boring, compared to other periods? Trying to sell a return to that era based on how stimulating it was is nothing less than stupid -- but if the audience likes the idea, don't count on its stupidity to slow it down.

In particular I'm referring to the growing New Urbanist cult and their fetish for high-density, mixed-use community blueprints. Unlike the suburban dark ages that characterized the '60s through the '80s, with their stretches of homes, malls, and office parks all separated from each other, the rebirth of the city will see these various uses all jumbled up on the same plot of land. Whereas sameness reigns in suburbia -- house after house after house, and one storefront flanking another throughout the mall -- diversity will rule in the city, where a single building might have retail shops on the ground floor, office spaces right above, and from there on up a series of apartments.

Except that in practice these mixed-use buildings feel more homogeneous, not less, and they induce a dulling familiarity with everything, rather than poke us awake with novelty.

The first confusion is how they define "mixed-use" -- for them, the mix is across the spectrum of basic land uses, such as retail, office space, living quarters, etc. But is that the dimension that real-life people pay attention to when judging how varied the place feels to them? No. As these buildings really exist, they have the same tiny number of retail stores, all selling indulgences to their urban professional neighbors -- the hairdresser's / spa / tanning salon, the small organic grocer's, the cafe, and... that's about it. Maybe a shoe boutique, too. The tenants of the apartments will have chosen to live in this building over others based on what stores are there, so they will all be remarkably similar to one another in tastes and lifestyles. And the building's office spaces will either cater to these tenants or perhaps be their places of work, again ensuring a higher degree of uniformity than you'd find in a suburban office park.

So, although the uses to which the land is put may vary widely, the walks of life that the people come from and the social air they create around the building will be incredibly monotonous. And that's the way they like it! I mean, really now, can you imagine if they allowed the full variety of retail stores that gave the mall and even the shopping center such an anything-goes atmosphere? Jesus -- locksmiths, pet stores, toy stores, gadget / comic book / video game boutiques, fix-it / repair shops, gift card and party favor suppliers, and purveyors of sporting goods, martial arts training, army surplus / survival gear, and camping / hunting / fishing equipment... the whole mess is all so, well, tacky! By restricting the retail stores to those listed earlier, the building owners can ensure that people will only see impressive shops when they pass by.

Beyond the greater homogeneity found in such places, the second confusion is over what would satisfy our desire for novelty. Again, for them it is the mere encountering of various uses for land -- omigod, I'm in my apartment and, step step step, now I'm in a bagel shop! And let me just step step step over here, and now I'm at my dentist's office! Crazy! In reality, of course, stepping through such a variety of land-use areas in such a short time, day in and day out, will result in habituation and boredom. You can't fall head-over-heels in love with a girl who's raised in the same family as you. The ultimate reason that people behave that way is the Darwinian advantage of incest avoidance, but on a here-and-now level people just feel that total familiarity is a boner-killer. To really drive us to want to tear someone's clothes off, they must have something of a mystery that tempts us toward them out of curiosity. And afterward, what pair of lovers wants to be joined at the hip?

Thus, the New Urbanists have forgotten the wise old sayings that familiarity breeds contempt and that absence makes the heart grow fonder. By carving out distinct zones for our living space, our work space, our schooling space, and our free-for-all play space -- as well as keeping neighbors close enough but still separated by outside walls, a yard, and a driveway -- the suburban ecology prevents us from taking life's daily variety for granted. Indeed, the whole of Western literature teaches us what a fogging effect congested city life has on the mind, and how trivial our obsessions become there, while we gain a fuller perspective on what it all means when our movements cycle between downtown and the idyllic countryside, whether to reflect in solitude or to socialize in safety. The only change is that, where before only the wealthy could afford these travels from one realm to another, even commoners today may enjoy the spiritual envigoration of moving between different worlds in suburbia.

Both of these dehumanizing aspects of the mixed-use utopia -- homogeneity and habituation -- compound each other to destroy the sense of specialness in "going out." Where will you run off to in order to escape the nauseating familiarity of the shops in your building? -- to another mixed-use structure with yet another bagel shop, yet another salon-spa, and yet another group of apartments filled with people just like you? You are never pushed out of your provincial comfort zone -- "all within a 15-minute walk" -- so you will not experience the contrasts that are required to marvel at the out-of-the-ordinary. Whereas caravans of suburbanites used to venture far from home to join in the revelry of the mall, New Urbanists tremble at the thought of having to emerge from their cocoon and possibly get jostled by a bunch of fun-lovers out there.

Really, how different are they from Al Bundy, who wanted a recliner, a toilet bowl, and a mini-refrigerator all in a single chair so he wouldn't have to ever get up?

Since the rise of safe times in the early-mid 1990s, these city-worshiping trends have spread from a small group of dorky academics to the opinion and fashion leaders of just about every metropolitan area. Therefore a lot of historical revision has been going on, so let's be clear about how numbing these mixed-use places are. They may offer more quotidian hustle-bustle as you flit from your apartment to the tea room below to the light rail stop at the street corner, but that will never match the mind-clearing sublime of a trek out to the supermarket, the megaplex, or the mall.

July 21, 2010

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

I didn't see these guys come up in a recent poll I ran about under-rated crowd-pleasing music groups of the past 30 years, so figured I'd give them a plug. I heard "If You Leave" in a supermarket late at night last week and sort of recognized it. After looking up the lyrics to see who it was, I picked up The Best of OMD at a used record store for seven or eight bucks, and I've been playing it every day since.

It's one of those greatest hits albums that the band struck before their quality started to flag, and there's such a variety of styles from nearly a decade of work, all of which sound great. With a greatest hits album whose songs all fit together, you figure there's one sound that the band did well, and this is its perfect distillation. But where there are several distinct sounds, as there are here, it only makes you want to track down the albums they're cobbled together from, since you've only gotten a brief taste of each of their sounds.

"Enola Gay" sounds like Joey Ramone and Vince Clarke teamed up to write the perfect dance-punk song. "Souvenir" is almost like a lullaby, except that the just-perceptibly-inorganic timbre of the synthesizers gives it a somewhat disturbing color. "So in Love" pairs a strong bass line with airy vocals (somewhat like "Avalon" by Roxy Music), making it ideal music for cruisin' around when you're in a pensive mood yet need to maintain a masculine, Stoic composure, as shown in the music video. (The YouTube clip's sound quality is not so hot, but it sounds great on CD -- not sure about lower-quality mp3s.)

Even if you think synth pop isn't your thing, you'll still like this if you've been searching the now-barren landscape of pop music for melodies and emotional sincerity.

Map of night owls across America

In the comments to the last post about how pastoralism should have selected for more night owlish schedules, pzed points to a study of American sleep patterns which shows that whites, Hispanics, and blacks follow similar hours but that Asians wake up and go to bed a bit later. I'm not sure this is the best test of whether pastoralism affects circadian rhythm since pastoralism vs. farming vs. hunting and gathering is a sub-racial distinction. That is, there are all sorts of other things that differ among the three major races that could affect sleep schedules. Ideally we'd want to compare pastoralist vs. non-pastoralists within Europe, within sub-Saharan Africa, within South Asia, within East Asia, etc., to try to compare apples to apples.

Luckily GameFAQS recently polled their users about when they wake up, so at least we can compare the different states of the U.S. I took the "noon or later" response as the cut-off for night owls. Nationally 13% chose this answer. Here is a map of how each state compared relative to this national average, where browner states wake up later:

This is pretty close to a map of Scottish, Irish, and Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) ancestry. (Type any into google images along with "map.") Pastoralism, of course, has historically played a larger role in these people's homelands than in most other European areas. For example, look at the regions featured at the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism.

The English Puritans in the Northeast -- aside from the heavily Scotch-Irish far Northeast -- wake up earlier than the national average, as do most of their ethnic off-shoots further out west. The Southeast and upper part of the Mountain states, along with bits of the Pacific Northwest, are late risers. But the most night owlish by far are the hillbillies in West Virginia, followed closely by their brethren in Kentucky. The various Celtic groups who moved to Appalachia found an ecology fairly similar to that of their homelands, and their pastoralist-influenced traits (such as the "culture of honor") have probably remained strongest there for this reason -- they didn't have to adapt to a wildly different environment.

When we take a finer-grained look at which groups keep later hours, it looks like the ones with a stronger history of pastoralism are indeed more nocturnal.

July 19, 2010

Night owls are an adaptation to pastoralism

In thinking about recent human genetic evolution, I've tried to wonder more about the brand new environment that pastoralists carved out for themselves, rather than looking only at how sedentary farming environments differed from our earlier hunter-gatherer ways. Most such discussion is about agriculture vs. hunting and gathering, but pastoralism is distinct from both and has been practiced at non-trivial levels for hundreds to thousands of years. Why not look there for signs of recent natural selection at work? (Of course the research on lactose tolerance in adults looks at pastoralists, but I mean changes in something other than digestion.)

Right now I'm just going on intuition, but I figure it's not so bad since I must be descended from fairly nomadic / pastoralist people, especially on my mother's Scotch-Irish hillbilly side. But I'm fact-checking on google just to be safe.

After going for a refreshing twilight / night-time stroll through green and hilly places, it occurred to me that a night owl schedule must be an adaptation to a pastoralist way of life, especially for those tribes that practice transhumance, where the livestock themselves are mobile rather than penned in, and where the young males tag along to tend to them. If you think about it, this is the group that stands the most to gain by staying awake, alert, and energetic during the night, and the least to lose by sleeping in or being awake yet drowsy during early bird hours.

First, the benefits. Farmers don't get any work done during the night, so all they would stand to gain is the ability to protect the persons, animals, and material stuff on their property from raiders, thieves, etc. However, since farmers are sedentary, they can scare a lot of these types off by building defenses -- fences or wires around their animals and crops, houses to protect the people and material possessions, and a place to store a variety of weapons to chase off intruders. Plus they live in large groups, so each individual can "slack off" and rely on at least one other person waking up in response to danger. Hunter-gatherers don't have much stuff worth stealing in the first place, so they would only benefit by not being surprised in a pre-dawn raid by a neighboring tribe. Again, they can rely on strength in numbers and slack off in guard duties since at least one person will wake up.

Nomadic pastoralists, however, do have plenty of stuff worth stealing -- their flock -- and yet cannot build stable defenses around it, as it doesn't stay put. They also have to worry much more about non-human threats like nocturnal predators (such as leopards and hyenas in Africa) picking off members of their flock. And a particular flock tends not to be looked after by a large band, so vigilance is more of an individual responsibility. Lastly, some livestock are not even asleep but engage in "night grazing" when they find the heat unbearable during the daytime. Here the flock could just wander off if you weren't awake to pay attention! Shepherds tending to such breeds do in fact stay awake during the night. For all these reasons, it would pay a lot to be a night owl in a nomadic pastoralist society compared to a farming or hunting and gathering society.

Then, the costs. You figure humans have a fixed amount of time or energy that they can be awake, so there's a trade-off between a daytime or night-time schedule. Night owls would have less time to spend working during the day, and for the same stretch of time they'd be more tired than early birds during the day. Farmers would lose big-time by sleeping in or being drowsy during the morning, given how essential sunlight is for planting seeds, threshing wheat, etc. Hunters and gatherers too would lose big-time, given how crucial sunlight is to see what you're hunting / tracking, as well as to identify safe-to-eat nuts, berries, tubers, etc. by visual signs such as color and shape.

Pastoralists don't stand to lose as much, though. They might have to be awake to watch over their flock, but they could stand being lethargic during the day. After all, most of the threats they face would prefer not expose themselves in broad daylight -- roaming thieves, animal predators (except for the lion), etc. Compared to farmers and hunter-gatherers, pastoralists can get by more easily on autopilot during the daytime, and so don't face as high of a cost by lounging around -- hence the ubiquity in pastoral poems of laying in the shade and playing the pipes.

With more to gain and less to lose by moving toward a more night owl schedule, pastoralists are the natural targets of genetic changes that would shift circadian rhythms toward such a schedule.

As a rough check, here is a list of traits found more in night owls vs. early birds. It sure sounds like night owls are more nomadic in their personality and behavior -- more impulsive, less conscientious, less agreeable (i.e., more confrontational), more independent and non-conformist, and more extravagant (use google images to compare flamboyant pastoral costume to drab farmer wear, e.g. the pastoralist Maasai vs. Bantu farmers).

So count this as another gift from pastoralist culture -- nightlife.

July 18, 2010

Faerie Tale Theatre

Young people are more well behaved today than ever in history, continuing a trend that began around 1992. And as a result, their lives are more boring. Hardly any of them tell urban legends, sing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," or indeed have subversive childhood songs at all. TV shows and movies geared toward them couldn't be further removed from the messy real world -- either sterilized like Barney, SpongeBob, and Harry Potter, or so exaggerated and overwrought that you're always conscious that it's fake and just a goof, like the Saw movies and first-person shooter video games.

I wonder how exposed children of the past 20 years have been to the canon of fairy tales, for example, given how unaware they are of even very recently popular urban legends. (And there I mean the "modern ghost story" type, not the broader "I heard a rumor that..." type.) Those tales can be pretty heavy for a small child, and in the age of helicopter parents and wimpy kids, you figure whatever exposure they do get is to Bowdlerized versions. HBO put out a series of cartoons starting in the mid-'90s, but they were politically correct remakes titled Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child -- you know, not just for those white devil children. And Disney and Pixar have become too family-friendly to scare children. The only exception to this worry-wart trend is the recent movie adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia, although that wasn't really a fairy tale.

Fortunately, though, Hulu has the entire series of Faerie Tale Theatre available for young people to watch. Made during the early-mid 1980s when the crime rate was still soaring and parents didn't try to shield their children from every tiny prick of pain, this series did not scrub off much of the harsh picture of reality that the stories paint. I just watched the episode on The Little Mermaid, and it retains the somewhat tragic ending of the original -- the prince falls in love with another human being, not the mermaid (and tells this to her face, breaking her heart), the sea witch offers her a way to return to mermaid form -- but only by stabbing the prince in the heart and letting his blood cover her legs -- and after deciding against this, she vanishes into a spirit form. There's also lots of kissing. You won't see any of that in the Disney movie.

As a toddler I had several episodes that we taped from TV, and I'd watch them over and over again because they actually scared me -- like the tense moments in Jack and the Beanstalk -- or hit me with harder stuff than I was used to -- like when the prince in Rapunzel is tossed from the tower, slams the back of his head on the ground, and goes blind. And they didn't shy away from wicked stepmother stories like Cinderella and Snow White, unlike the cruelty-free Disney movies of the past 20 years. When times are dangerous, parents want their kids to not be so innocent of the outside world, and therefore allow them to take in these kinds of stories. When times become much safer, they feel that these would unnecessarily frighten the poor dears, so we'll just keep them from knowing about sexual awakening, evil step-parents, and acts of heroism against monsters.

Hulu also has episodes from Tall Tales & Legends, a similar series produced by Shelley Duvall, although I haven't seen it and can't vouch for it. Still, given how insulated kids are today from folktales, aside from the recent Sleepy Hollow movie, they'd probably benefit from watching these as well.

U.S. maps for World Cup viewership, belief in ghosts, and belief in psychic powers

GameFAQS has had some interesting polls lately. They get tens of thousands of responses from video game fans across the nation and even the world, and they tend to be on the younger side (under 30). Admittedly this will give non-representative results if the questions have to do with video games or related aspects of their lives, like being shut-ins. But other questions would seem to get fairly representative results.

First, for the poll asking "Are you following the World Cup this year," I took those who gave any of three affirmative responses. These are expressed as deviations from the national average of 46% who followed along. Browner colors mean higher viewership, bluer ones mean lower.

This is more or less a Red State / Blue State or bi-coastal / inland difference. No real surprise there. Nevertheless, the lowest rates were still as high as 1/3 watching, while the highest rates gave a slim majority to soccer fans.

Next is belief in ghosts, allowing for either of two affirmative responses:

The pattern isn't so clear here. There's something of a Red State / Blue State picture, but not very strong. Most of the Eastern U.S. is around the national average of 32% who believe, with two exceptions -- Maine is very high and Vermont very low. The central strip of the country generally shows greater doubt in the north and greater belief in the south. The West coast is doubtful, too. The only area that fairly consistently believes in ghosts is the Mountain region, explaining their great interest in folklore.

Lastly, here is belief in psychic powers, allowing for either of two affirmative responses:

This is mostly an East vs. West difference. Nationally 17% belief in psychic powers. You might think it would resemble the pattern of belief in ghosts, since both are about the supernatural, but I think by now psychic powers falls into New Age beliefs, while ghosts belong to more traditional folk beliefs about the supernatural.

July 16, 2010

Fun culture of dangerous times even shows up on Radio Shack catalog covers

Here is a display of almost all of the annual Radio Shack catalogs from 1939 through 2005. If I'm right in all I've been writing about regarding how central the violence rate is in shaping the zeitgeist, you should be able to work backward from what the culture looks like to the crime rate. In particular, people are more social, including more sexual, when times are dangerous.

Do we see that anywhere in the Radio Shack catalogs? Sure: from 1961 through 1994, and since these catalogs are out at the beginning of the year, they represent the zeitgeist in 1960 and 1993. That is the period of rising crime, delayed by about one year (crime rose from 1959 through 1991). Particularly during the peak of the sexual revolution in the late 1970s and early '80s, not only are there people, but they look like young lovers who are only using technology to set the mood.

After 1994, there are people, but none are cute and they aren't interacting socially. Before 1961, there aren't even people on the covers except for 1950, but that just shows a "how it's made on the assembly line" picture, nothing social or fun. No one has noticed how that goofy "gee whiz, that's how it's made!" approach from the 1950s has become an elite status marker in the second half of the '90s and 2000s. During wild times, people just care about the quality and price, not the stupid thing's life history -- only when society turns trivial do people want to know, so that they can parrot it to their peers in a lame attempt to boost their status. ("Why Melinda, I never knew you were such a connoisseur of panini presses!")

So if they aren't showing people brought together socially, what do the covers from safe times show? Well, the gadgets themselves; at best there are shots of isolated individuals playing with their toys. This gizmo worship during safe times is a topic I'll take up in detail later, but it's worth emphasizing even briefly. How many times have we heard of the 1980s as the decade of materialism? That's real cute coming from the Money Magazine 1990s and the Bling Bling 2000s. Back on planet Earth, in the '80s no one gave a shit about gadgets for their own sake -- it was all about how they would bring people together socially and set the stage for wild fun.

After a transition during the mid-'90s, during the late '90s and 2000s gizmo worship really got out of control. Soulless morons wrapped around several city blocks just to get into a retail store and lay their hands on the next incarnation of the iPod, and now even your computer must "tell the world something about your personality" -- namely, that you're a loser if your laptop's brand is part of your identity. Throughout the '80s there were many new models of the Walkman, each one offering far greater improvements over earlier models than the new iPods do over earlier iPod models. And yet no one camped outside a Radio Shack to ensure they'd get one at midnight on the launch date -- young people only camped out for tickets to some exciting social spectacle like a rock concert. And your identity did not depend on who manufactured your computer or typewriter but again what mattered more were non-material experiences like what music you listened to.

Adam Smith catalogs plenty of contemporary gizmo worship in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was written during falling-crime times in an Apollonian environment, namely the Scottish Enlightenment in 1759. (See here, ctrl F "tweezer.") He even tolerates it because such rewards motivate entrepreneurs to excel in business and thereby make the world a better place -- sure, but so would a culture where entrepreneurs had a life like the yuppies of the '80s and were motivated to succeed by non-materialist experiences like getting in to elite dance clubs and doing some cocaine. So the pattern of gizmo worship during safe times vs. "what can it do for my social life?" in dangerous times is not new. You don't really hear the Elizabethans or Romantics, who lived in rising-crime times, praising doodads per se.

July 15, 2010

In comedy, when do we roast others and when ourselves?

Previously I looked at why comedies tend not to age well, namely that so many comedies are devoted to bashing other people, and only audiences who despise those targets will fall over laughing. At some point in the future, whoever was being skewered will be totally forgotten, so new audiences won't get it. Comedies that make use of more universal themes will age just fine. And since human nature doesn't change as quickly as does the list of who is persona non grata, comedies that poke fun at mankind's foibles in a sympathetic way have the greatest staying power.

For example, anyone can watch National Lampoon's Vacation for the first time today and split their sides with laughter because the motifs are timeless -- the exploits that a lowly hero subjects himself to in order to obtain something that will make his friends or family happy, his growing sense that reaching this goal will only amount to a Pyrrhic victory as each solution to some obstacle only throws up another in its place, his struggle to put on a happy face in front of his friends and family when all he wants to do is choke the life out of this goddamned frustrating world, pride brought low (when he tries to be smooth by jumping into the pool with Christie Brinkley but flips out like a sissy because the water's freezing), and so on.

I touched somewhat on when the universal / sympathetic comedies flourish vs. when the provincial / haughty ones do -- not surprisingly, the former in dangerous times when people feel humbled before such an intimidating world, and the latter in safer times when they are more in a mindset of "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, you can't touch meeee!!!" But it's worth taking a brief look at recent history because that will give people a deep-down feel for how massive these changes are. We could look at all sorts of media, but why not TV shows? Here are lists of the top 30 TV shows by ratings, from 1950 to 1999.

The iconic comedy show that belongs to the provincial / haughty genre is obviously Seinfeld -- no one will know the context for 95% of those jokes within a single generation, and the rest is just griping "about nothing," as they smugly admit. The show began in 1989 but failed to break into the top 30 because the society was still in wild and carefree mode. It was not until the crime rate fell in 1992 and the society switched to boring and self-conscious mode that it ranked 25th in ratings. The very next year it had skyrocketed to #3, and by 1994, it was #1. Although it slipped to #2 for the next two years, it regained the #1 spot in its final year of 1997. (When it left the air, it was replaced in the top ranks by the rapidly ascending Frasier, which was the next-best contender in the provincial / haughty genre.)

Going through some of the top-rated shows of the early-mid 1950s, another time of falling crime rates and boring culture, I couldn't recognize enough of the comedic styles to say for sure whether it was more in the Seinfeld direction or the Chevy Chase direction. Trying to glean this from Wikipedia, though, it does look like TV comedy was more Seinfeldian -- Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx hosting You Bet Your Life, etc. It sounds like it was driven by caricature, making fun of others rather than of everyone, etc. The crime rate had been dropping since the mid-1930s, and this entire period of falling crime rates was when The Three Stooges were active. They're slapstick, which has timeless appeal, but it still is in the vein of thinking you're better than some group of others who you slice into pieces.

Crime rates had been increasing since at least 1900 up through the early 1930s. The Marx Brothers straddle both sides of the divide -- dangerous times up through 1933 and safe times from then until 1958. I have little exposure to their movies, but my guess would be that their movies up through 1933 are more sympathetic than the later ones, even if overall they are in the Three Stooges direction of sneering at the boors.

What is clear to me, though, is that during the 1960s TV comedies switch to a more timeless approach. I remember watching Nick at Nite as a little kid in the late '80s, and even though most of those shows were decades old -- Dennis the Menace, My Three Sons, etc. -- I could still laugh along because I didn't need to know obscure facts about who they were lampooning, as they didn't go that route in the first place (although it would've helped to know who the Beatniks were before I watched Dobie Gillis). Again just browse through the ratings list for '70s shows, and you'll see the same thing -- even for comedies that made reference to current events like All in the Family, that background is now considered major history, and so new audiences will know that context. And of course this lasted through the '80s and the very early '90s -- Family Matters, the early Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, etc. -- before the crime rate finally peaked.

Finally, after sifting through all these shows (and also thinking of movies off the top of my head), I wonder how much our image of "the Jewish comedian" is historically dependent. They're present in every era, of course, but they really seem to rise in popularity during falling-crime times when the society becomes more complacent and trivial, and to fade (although not vanish) when the crime rate picks up and people have larger concerns on their mind than raking the rubes over the coals. The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and Jack Benny were high-profile during the safe period of 1933 through 1958, and the current safe period of 1992 to today has seen the rise of Seinfeld, the Harvard mafia who ruined the Simpsons circa 1997, the writers for Family Guy, not to mention the Seth Rogen circle of the 2000s.

I have no idea who was funny during the earlier crime wave of roughly 1900 to 1933, other than that Vaudeville was big. But for the recent crime wave of 1959 through 1991, the prototypical Jewish comedian seems much less visible, other than Mel Brooks. And even his movies try to show sympathetic characters and focus on timeless and universal themes. Perhaps the larger culture of being carefree and only going in for Big Themes served as a check on the prototypical Jewish comedian's inclination and transformed what, in another time and place, would have become Seinfeld: The Movie Series into something more like the early Saturday Night Live and Midnight Run.

For those who want a reminder of what TV sit-coms used to be like, or for those who have only seen those from the '90s and 2000s, Hulu has some episodes of Who's the Boss? The characters are sympathetic -- even that horny old broad Mona -- there's no topical humor, so they don't put the screws to some group or trend that you've never even heard of, and the themes and motifs are drawn from the common store of Western folktales, which means there's actually a story to be told in each episode. It occasionally gets a bit sentimental, but never sappy, and there's always some sincere conflict (rather than trivial annoyances) that needs to be overcome.

A good place to start is the season 6 episode called "Life's a Ditch." Not only does this one show what program was like in general, but it's valuable as source material for what was going on in the larger society in 1989. Aside from the act of ditching school, which today's wimpy kids wouldn't dare do, it features a teenage runaway who revisits and stays with a childhood friend for awhile -- to escape from her mother and her series of live-in boyfriends -- before being spotted by a model agency executive and asked to stay in a boarding house for models. (Apparently this was spun off as its own show, Living Dolls, but I never saw that.) As with all other forms of wild behavior, running away from home has fallen since the early-mid '90s -- google "finkelhor runaway" -- with its last major impact on popular culture being the video for Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" in 1993, although as late as 1994 My So-Called Life featured the ghost of a dead teenage runaway, played by Juliana Hatfield (here, episode titled "So-Called Angels").

Unlike these Generation X portrayals, where the sentimental outpouring is overbearing, the episode of Who's the Boss? treats it sincerely as something that might actually happen and that you might have to deal with, rather than something you only fantasize about in order to work up some tears for the suffering. (In this respect, it's like the Christmas episodes of Saved by the Bell where the affluent suburbanites befriend a homeless man and his daughter.) Still, despite this somewhat severe plot device, the episode as a whole is lighthearted and amusing. Plus it stars a 16 year-old Alyssa Milano with a 19 year-old Leah Remini -- and there are worse TV shows to be watching out there.

July 14, 2010

Among those whose looks we marvel at, are there more males or females?

Although the average female is more visually awe-inspiring than the average male, what does the picture look like at the extremes? In all sorts of traits males show greater variation, i.e. they're spread out along a broader spectrum, rather than being more closely bunched around the average value. Some examples are height, IQ, and number of offspring -- things related to surviving and reproducing. Certainly looks are relevant to mating success, so why shouldn't we see greater male variation in looks too?

Think of people whose looks are so disgusting you have to turn away -- I'm sure there are more men than women here. But what about at the other extreme, those whose looks arrest our attention even when our mind had just been somewhere else a moment ago? I have very little intuition for what counts as "good looks" in males, but here is some suggestive although impressionistic evidence that males outnumber females in the upper range too.

- Most sculpture that focuses on the perfection of the human form shows males. That's true of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and other Mediterranean cultures. Also true during the Renaissance and even the Baroque periods (although girls get a fairer shake in the latter). This isn't some bias against showing females in such an artistic context, since they abound in paintings. Nor is it due to a distinction between sculpture vs. painting, as though the softness of paint better suited female forms, while the hardness of sculpture better suited male forms -- look at all of those obese Venus figurines from thousands of years ago. It looks more like a difference between what's more fantastic or imaginary (painting and caricatured figurines) vs. what's more realistic (the other types of sculpture mentioned). In conveying a sense of wonder at the human form, the closer we get to realistic copies of human bodies, the more the male form dominates.

- There are all sorts of figures from Classical mythology who belong to the category of "male youth whose beauty causes the world to stop whatever it's doing." Adonis, Hylas, Hyacinth, Ganymede, Narcissus, Paris, and so on. There are females like this, too, but they don't seem to number as many. Also, many of these males figures' looks are so powerful that they even attract the male gods, whereas the females' looks don't attract scores of other female mortals or goddesses. That seems to have continued through at least the Elizabethan period, considering how much Shakespeare dwells on the "Fair Youth" in his sonnets, and how Marlowe details at length how striking Leander's own looks are, while mostly talking about the adornments that Hero wears rather than her body.

- Doesn't it seem like there are more males who provoke girls to say "He looks like a god" than there are females who provoke guys to say "She looks like a goddess"? Sure, guys are more likely to say that some girl is "hot," "cute," "sexy," etc., but I'm talking about where they're left speechless and in utter awe. For example, I'd bet that girls are more willing to say "He looks like a god" about male underwear models than men are to say "She looks like a goddess" about their female counterparts. If you asked men who their biggest crushes were as teenagers, would they describe them as marvelous goddesses? I mean girls like Phoebe Cates, Kelly Kapowski, Lacey Chabert, Miley Cyrus, etc. Definitely Audrey Hepburn and Paulina Porizkova, but not sure about the other usual suspects. I think girls would be much more likely to ascribe marvelous godlike qualities to their crushes -- Harry Belafonte, Leonard Whiting, Johnny Depp, Michael Hutchence, Zac Efron (who resembles Whiting), and so on.

Again, just impressions, but they are suggestive. Aside from greater male variation, which would put more men than women at both extremes even if the averages were pretty similar, I think the appearance of a "dreamy guy" conveys something both of the beautiful and the sublime. The males I listed above all have some elements of feminine beauty -- a babyface, luxurious flowing hair (usually "unshorn curls" among the Ancients, and with Michael Hutchence), mostly hairless bodies, bouncy resplendent skin, etc. Yet they also have masculine brows, cheekbones, and jawlines, little body fat and decent musculature, shoulders noticeably broader than the waist or hips, and so on. These signal to us that the guy would do well in hunting and combat, and that strikes a sublime note among the viewers.

"Dreamy girls," on the other hand, usually show only beautiful qualities like a smallish rounded face, not sublime ones as well. Height and long legs are OK -- again look at Audrey and Paulina -- but much more masculine than that, and they look off-putting. For whatever reason, we -- both male and female spectators -- marvel more at androgynous males than androgynous females.

July 12, 2010

Moral atrophy due to safer social environments

Earlier we saw the pattern that heroic values die off in safe times, but I think it's more general than this. Dangerous social situations, broadly defined, strengthen the moral part of our brain in two ways: 1) they increase the chance that we'll actually feel an impulse to consult wise men about how to behave, whereas when we're coasting through life bare of any bruises, we feel we're doing well enough not to have to seek their counsel; and 2) they give us real-world practice in acting morally, whether on the basis of the advice we've gotten or through purely personal trial-and-error. That is the way that natural selection or "survival of the fittest" works, of course: try a bunch of things and keep what seems to work better than the alternatives. As with digging into the book smarts of morality, we're not very likely to get practice with our street smarts unless we have good motivation -- and dangerous times are when the big themes of morality are most palpable (trust, betrayal, revenge, jealousy, death / murder, and so on).

So, I am not using the rates of horrible crimes to estimate how moral a society is. For that, I want to know instead how strong and toned is the moral muscle of man's mind. If we see homicide rates plummeting, does that mean that people developed a stronger moral sense? Not necessarily: maybe they've just become wimpier, or maybe people stay at home more often, rather than expose themselves to risk by wandering around the area. Same if we see rape rates falling: maybe men have lower libido levels than earlier, or maybe women don't wander around alone in public at night as often as they used to. Or if rates of swindling fell: maybe people became less trusting of strangers, thereby preventing the possibility of getting bilked out of big bucks in the first place. You might say that the new societies were more desirable to live in, regarding basic safety, but you couldn't say that they were morally stronger than what they used to be.

Thinking of morality as a "use it or lose it" muscle, I remembered what two economists / evolutionary fitness practitioners have pointed out about exercise. * Namely, for almost all of human existence, we didn't go to a gym at regular intervals, do the same routine, and all at fairly constant intensity. Rather, there was a more chaotic schedule -- we'd never know exactly when we'd need to move around, lift objects, throw things, pull ourselves into a tree, etc. Also, the distribution of intensities would not have been like a symmetrical bell curve, where most activities would have been around average intensity, and where below-average and above-average intensities would be equally likely.

Instead, most of our activities would've demanded little intensity (walking over to speak casually to someone), a fair amount would've required more than that (hauling your stuff from one campsite to another), a handful still more (hurling a large rock or heavy spear), and a tiny number would require a huge burst (lifting a fallen tree off of our brother's leg). And as you know from personal experience and observation of others, light jogging alone is not going to give you large leg muscles -- you also have to subject them to high-intensity stress, like sprinting or doing squats with heavy weights.

The development of our moral sense throughout our lifetime is a complex system, where information about the social world comes in, influences our thought processes and behavior, and our behavior will have similar effects on other people's moral sense, and we'll use that to check and see if we did the right thing the first time around, and so on. There are lots of information feedback loops here.

And so, in Taleb's view, the stressors of our moral behavior, as well as our moral-related behaviors themselves, will have a highly skewed distribution of intensities. Most stressors -- or perhaps "challenges"? -- will require little activity from our moral sense (that old lady with a walker dropped her purse, so should I help her pick it up?), some requiring a bit more than that (your best friend invites you to go for a joyride that could endanger your lives and those of others, so should you?), and a tiny number requiring some real flexing of your moral muscle to grapple with the issues (your brother beats up your wife, so how strong should the revenge be?). And remember, I'm talking about actually having to work through these in real life, not merely reasoning through them in a thought experiment.

As with beefing up your biceps, here it is the challenges that are rarer but more extreme that are needed for our moral sense to be in top form. Otherwise all we face are "should I help the old granny" problems that anyone short of a sociopath can easily master, and we'll wind up with a puny moral sense.

Soon I'll provide some more in-depth examples of how this pattern makes sense of the greater moral orientation we saw from the '60s through the '80s compared to its flagging during the past 20 years, but the big ideas should sink in first. The key link between the muscle view of morality and the level of violence in society is that when the latter is shooting up, so are other wild behaviors like promiscuity and general recklessness (e.g., driving without a seatbelt), and it is these more extreme circumstances that make the social world more morally ambiguous and call for a far greater moral strength to get through it all.

To conclude, notice the parallel between a person who never exercises for fear of spraining an ankle or bumping into someone else while jogging and a person who never wades into morally murky waters for fear that they'll do the wrong thing. In a sense, you're making yourself and others safer from injury by never exercising, but that only leads your body to waste away. And though you may be protecting yourself and others from feeling hurt or wronged by insulating yourself from social situations that throw up extreme moral challenges, this only causes your moral muscle to atrophy. Earning vigorous health requires getting banged up now and then, perhaps giving others a bruise or two in the process, just as a necessary cost of figuring out how to behave morally is to occasionally let yourself down or do wrong by someone else. Those are just the risks we have to accept in order to develop our full potential.

* Here is Nassim Taleb on how lack of extreme stress leads to fragility in complex systems, and an EconTalk podcast with him in which he discusses the idea. Here is another EconTalk podcast with Arthur De Vany in which he talks about these ideas too.