March 30, 2011

"Fat is beautiful" is dead

From the NYT:

Alexandra Brewis, executive director of the university’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the study’s lead author, said she fully expected high levels of fat stigma to show up in the groups tested in the United States, London and New Zealand, as well as in body-conscious Argentina. But what she didn’t expect was the strong negative attitudes about weight in the other cultures. The results, she said, suggest a surprisingly rapid “globalization of fat stigma.”

“The change has come very, very fast in all these places,’’ said Dr. Brewis. “Of all the things we could be exporting to help people around the world, really negative body image and low self-esteem are not what we hope is going out with public health messaging.’’

Surprisingly, scores were high in Puerto Rico and American Samoa, as well as along the Mexican border and in Paraguay, places that have historically held more positive views of larger bodies. These cultures traditionally view bigger women, in particular, as fertile, generous and desirable, said Dr. Brewis.

About half of the people who get really into some foreign culture are full of wanderlust and find themselves too bored to sit still in their home region, while the other half were the losers in high school who are holding out hope that there's "still" someplace left on Earth where they would be enthroned at the apex of the popularity pyramid. ("Still" because celebrating the dork squad was part of the Garden of Eden way of life that civilization has corrupted.)

So, by ramming the carbs-good/fat-bad message into their culture, not only has the Western medical establishment worsened the prevalence of type II diabetes, heart disease, and blimpy body shapes in poor countries, but they're also responsible for the consequent "epidemic" of feeling rotten about the way you look.

Don't expect the experts, whether Western or the locals trained in the West, to start preaching the wonders of low-carb/high-fat eating, though. For the short and medium term, the holiness of grains is beyond question. And never under-estimate the power of human beings to rationalize poor choices -- like, all we need to do to help out the poor fat third-worlders is get them a greater supply of organic sweet potato chips, gluten-free pizza crusts, and vegan double-fudge brownies. Nothing unhealthy about any of that stuff.

After we fine and jail the hucksters of "financial science," we should go after those in "nutritional science" next.

The different cultures of periods with a warm vs. cold climate

In the post below on playful, amorous females in Disney movies of the late 20th C., I noted that you could have found similar characters in Chaucer or Boccaccio. However, you would be more hard-pressed to find them in the two other great periods of originality and boldness, the Elizabethan-Jacobean and the Romantic-Gothic ages.

They certainly showed females who were openly erotic creatures, a feature of every period of rising violence levels (for reasons I've detailed before). Still, the shadow of the Sublime always looms over their appearances -- the rendezvous between Bel-Imperia and Horatio in The Spanish Tragedy, Faustus' encounter with Helen of Troy, La Belle Dame sans Merci, and the various exotic beauties in Vathek and the Episodes of Vathek.

In contrast to this darker and more tempestuous eroticism, that of the 14th-century and late 20th-century explosions of creativity was much more carefree. Interactions between hormonal boys and girls were more of a roll-in-the-hay, hippie love-in, '80s porno orgy variety. (Stripes will give you a better picture of this in recent times than those Disney movies.)

What's going on?

The 14th C was right at the tail-end of the Medieval Warm Period, when average annual temperatures in Europe were higher than earlier and just after. Then in the later 20th C there was another round of sustained warmer temperatures. The periods of 1580-1630 and 1780-1830, however, were characterized by the much colder temperatures of the Little Ice Age.

So, even though the rising violence levels of all four time periods resulted in a rise in sexually adventurous girls (and in cultural portrayals of them), the emotional quality was quite different. Perhaps it's no surprise that those belonging to periods of warmer weather feel more like a Maypole/Summer of Love festival, while those from colder times feel more like a thrilling-yet-unsettling masquerade ball held during Carnival.

March 29, 2011

Why females stay in abusive relationships

Today in class the professor was lecturing about sex differences in jealousy, and how males are more likely than females to use physical violence in these contexts. Some students brought up the topic of why females often stay in physically abusive relationships, dumbfounded that anyone could follow such a seemingly irrational path.

These were Millennial undergrads, and mostly from middle or higher class backgrounds, so they couldn't see that in a different environment than the one they grew up in, staying with a boyfriend or husband who slaps you around once in awhile may be the lesser of two evils -- namely, compared to the far greater exposure to violence that she'd face if she didn't have a protector, someone who had at least some incentive to watch out for her (like having someone to sleep with).

To put more real-world detail onto that generalization, let's have a look at a young girl who kept choosing real bad boys as her partners. It's from a 1990 ethnography, Runaways: In Their Own Words: Kids Talking about Living on the Streets. The subjects were people living in a Los Angeles shelter for teenage runaways, and the interviews were conducted in 1988. Ally, a 16 year-old white girl from Louisiana, describes her home life when she was a child:

My mom got back into heroin, and she started drinking heavily too, and that combination got her up for beating on me. It took her a couple years to get like that but my stepdad had been beating on me ever since I can remember. . . I can still remember how [her stepdad] Frederick used to kick me down the hallway with his steel-toed boots -- his biker boots. Some dads send their kids to their rooms, but my stepdad kicked me to my room.

After she pilfered one of his candy bars, he went to beat her, and when she tried to break away, he threw her on the ground and messed up her ankle:

That was the only time I went to the hospital, and that was the last time I sneaked one of his candy bars out of the freezer.

When she was 14 and in a foster home:

A few weeks after I got there, I met some bikers who were hangin' around the neighborhood, and I ran away so I could hang out with them. And then I did some serious drugs. These guys were all about three hundred pounds and real hairy; and they did lots of drugs.

Why did she stay around guys who robbed for a living and clashed with other biker gangs?

I stayed on with 'em for a month though, because they took care of me. Whenever anyone messed with me I just ran to [her biker boyfriend] Peter and other boys and they took care of it. Once I was hanging out in this big parking lot where all the young people who did drugs would go to, at night, to do drugs or sell drugs and talk about drugs. [Laughs.] This guy came over to me and talked some shit to me, and then he started trying to kiss me. I pushed him away, you know, and then he was yelling, "I've seen you around and I know you're a sleazy bitch, so what's stopping you now?" He just kept on with the shit.

Lucky for her, someone had her back:

I went to a phone and called to a bar where I knew Peter was at, and I told him what the guy said and everything. About five minutes later Peter and one of his friends come cruising in on their Harleys -- they just jumped off their bikes, asked me which one of the guys it was, and beat the shit out of him. Those guys were the best protection you can ever have. No one would ever want to mess with them.

Although she didn't explicitly say so, her boyfriend sounds like the kind of guy who probably exploded at her verbally now and then, and probably hit her when he lost his cool. But even if it happened, she did not find it worth mentioning in comparison to the larger threats she faced from her stepdad, her drugged-out mom, and random strangers trying to push themselves on her in an evidently lawless area.

A boyfriend or husband has a sexual incentive to dial down the violence and protect her from the violence that others would do to her -- he wants a partner who he can continue sleeping with. Other abusers have a more financial incentive, like pimps who occasionally rough up their prostitutes, but who want to keep them in a certain degree of health because otherwise they can't work and bring him any money. Again, try putting yourself in her shoes and see if maybe the pimp's abuse isn't the lesser of two evils compared to the sick shit that a john might carry out, whether physically or psychologically.

In a 1981 fictional account of teenage prostitutes that was however based on the author's fieldwork, Children of the Evening, case worker Trudee recognizes a murder victim in the newspaper as one of her former girls. She then asks Frank, the policeman assigned to the case:

"Who did it? Who cut off that girl's legs and slit her throat?"
"We don't know, Trudee," he answered softly. "There's plenty of sick ones out there. They haven't found her legs."
"I know, Frank. Oh God, I don't feel so hot."
For a few seconds the line was silent.
"Frank, this had to be a sick, crazy trick. It doesn't sound like a pimp's style, does it?"
"No, I think it was a trick, definitely."
We both knew that pimps use mental cruelty and beatings to teach their girls a lesson, but when they kill, it's more often by accident.
"Sex and murder always make me think of tricks, Frank, not pimps."

All those potential and actual tricks could care less if a prostitute gets hurt or dies after he's had his way with her, so any of them that's prone to violence won't hold back at all -- and you can imagine what type of guys she's likely to see. That's a far greater danger than the pimp, who wants to see that she's healthy enough to keep working.

So, a closer look at the different world that these females live in makes their choice to stay around abusive males look not so stupid or self-destructive, given the more violent alternatives they face without some kind of protector.

March 28, 2011

Amorous females in Disney movies

While watching The Sword in the Stone for the first time in probably 20 years or longer, I was shocked to see a long sequence showing a pair of hopelessly boy-crazy squirrels chasing after Merlin and Wart in squirrel form (see here, and continued here). It's not shocking given the year it was released -- 1963, the same year that "He's So Fine" became a #1 hit. It jumped out because today a "birds and the bees" scene for children would be unthinkable -- especially the part where the little girl squirrel is giving Wart a come-hither look over her shoulder while closing him in with her luxuriantly bushy tail!

The Disney movies that I have seen, I haven't seen for awhile, so I don't remember minor scenes like this one. In other ones, have there been females this forward? I don't mean that there's merely a love story -- those squirrels are straight outta Chaucer. There was Jessica Rabbit for sure, and I vaguely recall Maid Marian being pretty hormonal, though that is a sketchy memory.

Just outside of the wild era defined by the soaring level of violence, there was Lady and the Tramp and Pocohontas, but I don't remember those females being so aggressive. There were smitten-yet-coy females within violent times, too -- Ariel, Belle, and Princess Jasmine -- but it seems like the ones who could have appeared in the Decameron only showed up during the rise of violence from 1959 to 1992 and its attendant sexual revolution.

In general, if you want to see how different things are during safe vs. dangerous times, look at children's culture. We expect the culture of adults to have some amount of sex, violence, drug use, etc., so that's not too surprising. But when it shows up even in stuff that children are taking in, that's a sure sign that the world has changed -- and similarly, when it vanishes, that the world has changed back again.

March 27, 2011

The threefold death of Mola Ram in Temple of Doom

Returning to the topic of how some of the strongest Proto-Indo-European themes and motifs have survived through the most recent wave of mythmaking, let's take a quick look at Indiana Jones' enemy in Temple of Doom -- Mola Ram.

At the end he dies a triple death of falling hundreds of feet off a cliff, getting ripped apart by crocodiles, and drowning in the river at the bottom of the chasm. This is just like the "threefold death" motif in PIE mythology where a person suffers a falling or strangling death for offending against the first social order (the priestly / political class), a wounding death for offending against the second social order (the warrior class), and a drowning death for offending against the third social order (the producer class).

Sure enough, Mola Ram has sinned against all three of the social orders. First, he has brainwashed political and royal leaders by making them drink the blood of Kali Ma, and he has used his priestly power to subvert rather than to uphold the proper structure of the world, sins against the more mundane and more spiritual sub-groups within the first order. Second, in trying to use the five sankara stones to spread rather than contain evil, he has betrayed Shiva, who served as a warrior / storm god in Vedic mythology. (He also ducks out through a trap door when Indiana Jones is about to have it out with him mano a mano, a violation of the warrior code against cowardice.) And third, he has kidnapped and enslaved dozens of children, a gross violation of patron-client norms, and their disappearance from the village of Mayapore has left their crop fields barren from drought.

It's too bad that this character didn't get fleshed out more, and instead only appears as a caricature of the bad guy. His lust for power is already at 100% when the movie begins, so we don't get to see his gradual unraveling on account of his tragic flaw. Also, it would have been neat for Mola Ram to reveal that he is Indiana Jones' true father when the two are arguing over what cause the sankara stones should serve, good or evil. Indiana himself is often too ambitious for his own good (which almost gets him killed at the end of Last Crusade, when he nearly plummets to his death in reaching for the Holy Grail). It would be more satisfying to see where that came from -- certainly not from his perhaps overly cautious and bookish father as he appears in Last Crusade.

As we saw in the case of Chewbacca the berserker, the new mythology does not simply try to revive an interest in the themes, motifs, and other conventions that are common to all or even most of the world's mythological traditions. Rather, some of the most memorable pieces of it derive, whether consciously or not, from a uniquely Proto-Indo-European source. The fact that the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies have proven so popular with audiences worldwide suggests that the original spread of PIE mythology was not merely the strong forcing their religion upon the weak, but that a good deal of people within the invaded group found these particular outsiders' narratives much more fascinating than what their second-rate local storytellers had come up with.

March 25, 2011

"Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life"

As a follow-up to two posts about today's young males' inexperience in dominance and how that will eventually get them crippled, last night at '80s night yet another college-aged dork tried to start something but couldn't follow through.

I had been dancing in one of the cages there, nubile babes piling in, when some guy burst in front of me, held on to the cage bars, and used them to back his ass up into my crotch, trying to push me back. As with the other incidents, he was about 20 years old, about my height or a little taller, a gym rat but not athletic, and crucially not having the balls to face me. Guys get a visceral thumping when they're standing face-to-face with another guy that close, so the fact that every one of these chuckleheads hasn't faced me shows how unfamiliar and uncomfortable they are with just standing up to someone, let alone actually escalating it into a fight.

Maybe it was the cramped space or the higher testosterone levels that begin during springtime, but I couldn't let this guy get away with just the usual pecking-order pat-down. He was too over-the-top and reckless, and needed more of a rude awakening. After a courtesy pat on the shoulder that went nowhere, I wrapped my left arm around his neck area, although I didn't apply pressure to choke him -- just close enough so he couldn't move around, and gripping his right shoulder / collarbone area, while leaning over a bit to tell him, "Watch where you're moving, bro." (I think that word sounds gay too, but sometimes you have to speak their language to get through.)

He lightened up a little, but still kept at it, so I resulted to giving him a couple hard knees to the butt so that he wouldn't be able to move his legs so frenetically. At that point I was expecting him to turn around and hit back instead of letting me beat up on him like that, but nope. Shortly after, a security guard was right next to us and took him aside, basically telling him to stop acting retarded and to go away. Then he called me over and told me that I shouldn't act like a dick just because they're acting like dicks. If it were something small, I'd agree, but this guy was too cluelessly extreme and needed a stronger correction.

Unlike the other times, I couldn't see what other people's reactions were, since they were either just out of my peripheral vision or behind me, although I did see a couple girls looking on in amused shock that he didn't even turn around to face me, let alone return what I'd done. I didn't hang around that area after being called over by the security guard, and instead went to take a piss and cool off. On the way back to the dance floor, two other guys gave me high fives, so they may have seen it and approved, given that I normally only get high fives when I'm in the middle of dancing and they're trying to keep me pumped up.

This series of encounters goes to show just how foolish people act when the violence level starts to plummet, as it has for nearly 20 years. When the rest of the society is becoming more violent, you figure that it won't take much to set someone off -- merely walking over someone's shoe by accident could wind up getting one or both bar-room brawlers killed -- so you watch your step. In contrast, when you see the rest of society getting less and less violent, you figure there won't be very heavy consequences for your anti-social actions, so the handful of guys who do start shit will go way farther right up front than they would have during the '60s, '70s, or '80s.

As with other "Black Swans," these wannabe bullies' lack of punishment lasts longer but is illusory -- eventually they'll run into a big problem, and unlike those who have gone through a tougher and more volatile upbringing, they will be utterly unprepared for the impact. (Like not learning rule #1 -- don't give your back to someone.) Thus, instead of a downturn in the housing market giving businesses a bad quarter or so, they get wiped out entirely, unless they get bailed out of course. Similarly, someone who's faced so little consequences for being physically confrontational will not just wind up with a bloody nose when they inevitably get into a real fight. If they're lucky, someone will be there to bail them out, like a security guard, but they could just as well wind up crippled like that shrimp in the second link at the start of this post.

That's one reason why violence levels cycle: when violence levels crash, then a handful of people who did grow up in more brutal conditions, and who therefore are better experienced at defending and aggressing, will easily mow down even the self-styled tough guys, who have never had any real experience. This causes the violence level to rise. Once it swings too high, though, people will find it more advantageous to just stay out of the arena altogether and shut themselves off from the outside world, as we've seen during the past two decades. As more people adopt that strategy, the violence level falls, but that makes the average person sheltered and weaker, setting up the invasion by hawks once again, completing the cycle.

Where is the '90s nostalgia?

One of the earliest mainstream successes that took a look back at the 1980s was The Wedding Singer, a movie released in 1998 that was set merely 13 years earlier in 1985. Then 2001 saw Not Another Teen Movie (satirizing movies from throughout the '80s), Wet Hot American Summer (set in '81), and Donnie Darko (set in '88). More recently there was Adventureland in 2009 (set in '87) and Hot Tub Time Machine in 2010 (set in '86). Even in the first run of Family Guy during the early 2000s, about half of the pop culture references were to the later '70s and '80s.

None of these are very good movies or TV shows, but that is not the point. The key is that there's been a steady record of '80s nostalgia that began not even 15 years after the target year, encompassing music, clothing, slang, current events, cars, leisure activities, and everyday behavior -- the entire zeitgeist.

Even the Coen brothers, who made better movies than the ones above, chose to set their most successful movies during rising-crime times, although it is not out of nostalgia and therefore the emphasis on music, etc., is usually lacking. Fargo was released in 1996 and set in '87. No Country for Old Men came out in 2007 but was set in 1980. And The Big Lebowski from 1997 was set on the other side of the 1992 peak in the violence level, during the 1991 Gulf War (and of course many of the characters are pulled straight from the late '60s through the mid-'70s).

So, it's now been 12 to 18 years since the portion of the 1990s that came after the decline in the crime rate radically changed the culture, about the same delay after the '80s ended and the nostalgia for them kicked in. And yet there is zero interest in setting a movie during 1993 (or even '92) to '99 to cash in on nostalgia. It's not that there was not a zeitgeist for people to remember -- just that it was boring and annoying, hence of no nostalgic value for those who lived through it, and of little recruiting power for those who are too young to remember it very well first-hand.

I know there are pockets of '90s nostalgia, for example a '90s music channel on Verizon's FiOS cable selection. Still, even that looked to be majority early '90s. Virtually all of VH1 Classic's programming focuses on the '60s, '70s, and '80s, with a token recognition of the early '90s. And people still watch blockbuster movies from the '90s, whether or not they liked the music from the same time. Also, most people still wear very bland-colored clothing, chop most of their head-hair off and keep what's left plastered close to the scalp, again regardless of what they think about the music and movies of the '90s.

But just try to imagine a movie or TV show or whatever that tried to revive interest in the full zeitgeist during that time -- wearing oatmeal-and-mud plaid skirts (with brown Frankenstein shoes), going out to see Titanic or staying in to catch Seinfeld, driving a fat shapeless sedan, piling into a chatroom on AOL instead of getting a life, saying "word" and "all that and a bag of chips"... not even to mention the soundtrack of mopey-dopey alternative (if set in '93 through '95) or fun-starved pop (if set in '96 through '99), plus trying-too-hard gangsta rap throughout. That project would be dead in the water.

Looking forward, I doubt the 2000s will elicit much nostalgia either, aside from the housing bubble years of 2003 through 2006, and then not so much the music, movies, or anything tangible at all, but just the general euphoria that everyone felt.

And looking backward, there has been a steady stream of '60s and '70s nostalgia for awhile now. Baby Boomer audiences did not drive that trend, since people who weren't even alive then have still been fascinated. Just look at how many people born after 1975 were tuning in to The Wonder Years.

There is occasional '50s nostalgia, although typically it's the late '50s when the crime rate began rising (like Stand By Me, set in 1959). The world of 1955 in Back to the Future is exciting enough because it was right on the cusp of blowing itself open, and that's palpable in the joyriding, booze drinking, hanging out unsupervised, and boy chasing. Happy Days was mostly the later part of the '50s and the early part of the '60s. M*A*S*H is technically set during the Korean War, but for all anyone knew and could tell, it was about Vietnam.

The portion of the falling-crime era of 1934 through 1958 that wasn't right on the edge of exploding, like the mid-to-late '30s and the 1940s, have never gotten much nostalgia either. As I pointed out in another post, that was an earlier period of helicopter parenting and young people just taking their parents' orders. That's emphasized in the three main movies set in that period that come to mind -- A Christmas Story, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Radio Days. Pretty unexciting stuff compared to the '60s, '70s, and '80s, not to mention the earlier wave of soaring crime from roughly 1900 to 1933, in particular the later half of that wave known as the Jazz Age -- Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather Part II, Inherit the Wind, The Untouchables, and so on.

People may feel nostalgia about the childhood and adolescent parts of their lives no matter when they happened, but that has more to do with the changes in human development, not necessarily the broader culture. When it comes to nostalgia for the whole zeitgeist, it looks like only those from rising-crime periods bring out a yearning to return even decades later on.

March 22, 2011

Some reflections on the now "majority minority" state of DC suburbs

While I've been visiting home for my nephew's birthday, I've tried to get a rough feel for how things have changed -- asking about things that normally don't show up in statistics. However, the other night my mother mentioned casually that Montgomery County, MD (the middle and upper-middle class suburb of Washington) now has fewer than 50% whites.

I knew it had been getting bad lately, but did not figure it would reach that point so soon. The 2010 Census figures, though, do show that most of the major DC suburbs are either majority minority now or soon will be. Most of that is due to a relatively greater influx of (I believe Central American) Hispanics than whites, and their relatively much higher birth rates.

We're witnessing the end of the era when people of any social class in the Bos-Wash corridor could ignore the Mexification of southern California because they had nothing similar in their own neck of the woods to compare it to. But when only 41% of local young people (18 and under) are white, as in Montgomery County, you can't help but start to take notice.

Unfortunately the full realization won't come for another 10 or 15 years, during which time people will hope that the problem will somehow just go away. Even when crunch time comes, given the current nadir in group solidarity (as exemplified by the Stuff White People Like crowd of in-fighters), individuals will only abandon their former communities for a better place rather than try to defend their turf. After all, when that time comes, what will be worth defending?

As I've been detailing for about a year now, great culture comes during times of a sustained rise in the violence level, so naturally I'm anxious for the next one to begin. But that assumes something like the population structure we had during the previous waves, where a good deal of rowdy pastoralist-descended people mixed in with some finish-the-job-properly farmer types. That was true whether it was in Europe or North America.

When the loss of whites and (to a lesser extent) of blacks is made up for by growth of Mexicans, though, don't expect anything exciting to come out of a crime wave. Just look at the cycles of violence in Mexico and how they've produced nothing like The Godfather or Macbeth, let alone the long-lasting works that are a more indirect product of a rise in violence.

Mexicans have virtually never practiced pastoralism, and so lack the restless and entrepreneurial spirit needed to create jazz or rock 'n' roll. All "Latin music" that has found success outside its native country is either straight-up European pop music song by white South Americans, like Shakira, or comes from places with heavy southern European and western or eastern African influence, while lacking a strong Amerindian influence, whether genetic or cultural, like Brazil or the Caribbean.

Rather, they were one of the more extreme forms of a sedentary farming society, like ancient Egypt or China, and have been as culturally static and boring as both of those. There has been occasional interest in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Mexican visual art, but mostly as it was re-interpreted by Western artists during the Romantic and later Academic periods of Orientalism, then during Art Deco, and once more during the era of the original Indiana Jones movies. As for narratives -- even worse, and not for want of material. Far less materially advanced cultures like the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the Semitic herders have spawned far more fascinating and enduring mythologies.

This rude awakening will take even longer because East Coast elites are conditioned by their experience with poorly performing minority groups to expect a certain cultural dynamism from greater contact with them. However, they are mostly used to interacting with blacks, few of whom come from societies as extremely sedentary-farmer-centric as Mexico.

As a result, only carb-scarfers will appreciate the Mexification of the DC area, as they bring in more and more exotic forms of empty sugars and starches. Anyone whose horizon of cultural excitement extends beyond carbalicious junk food will be pretty disappointed when the next wave of danger and frenzy only brings out cultural efforts a la Univision from the numerically dominant Mexicans.

There are lots more things to say about the spread of southern California through the rest of the country, but others will have more to say than I will. Next time I think I'll go over some personal recollection of how much the white-black-Mexican structure has changed over the past 20 years, since it wasn't that long ago that things were very different, and that was evident in daily life, not just something that could only be seen in statistics.

March 16, 2011

Chewbacca as a present-day berserker figure

All accounts that I've read on the mythology created in the Star Wars movies focus on the more or less universal features, such as the archetypal characters (the hero, the mentor, etc.), rites of passage, the role of both natural and supernatural forces in shaping the world, and so on.

Yet there's quite a bit that is very specifically from the Proto-Indo-European cultural heritage, although some quick googling doesn't turn up anything on this topic. It would not be very PC to point out that not only have Indo-European languages spread to dominate most of the world, but so has a lot of their narratives, obviously because it's more fascinating than drama-drained animism or sterile ancestor worship.*

To begin with one example, Chewbacca embodies the dual qualities of the warrior class in Proto-Indo-European society that made the average person grateful for, while also somewhat afraid of, their existence. On the one hand, the warrior can protect in-group members from outside threats, such as the Imperial stormtroopers, or even help out in a raid of an out-group in order to enrich ourselves, as he had been doing when he was smuggling with Han Solo. He never violates the warrior code by acting cowardly toward enemies or by deserting his allies. Rather, he is intensely loyal, showing real grief when Han must be locked out in the freezing cold overnight, as well as when he contemplates the loose skull of C-3PO after he's been blasted to pieces. And it's not just in the will-do factors where he excels -- you can count on his skills at shooting projectiles, navigating a course, and fixing whatever technical problem you've got (although it may take him a little while).

On the other hand, the warrior needs a certain level of, well, warrior-ness to get those jobs done. Thus, when we try to absorb him back into the normal world of the in-group, he may go a little haywire and harm some of the rest of us too, whether the political/priestly class or the producer class. He may not even be able to function socially on his own in an alien world of peace. Of all the protagonists, Chewbacca has the most difficult time keeping his short-fused rage from exploding, often howling and growling, nearly choking the life out of someone, or enjoying his reputation for ripping people's arms out of their sockets if he loses a chess game. Again it's only through the intervention of his socially well-integrated friends that his hair-trigger temper winds up not hurting anyone seriously.

Now, this figure showed up in lots of great movies made during the last wave of mythmaking -- Travis Bickle, Rambo, Ripley, Sarah Connor, Riggs, even Nancy from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What makes Chewbacca stand out as an even purer example of the berserker, despite the emphasis on his order-preserving side, is that he's depicted as a wolf-man, with shades of a bear-man, both in his outward appearance and his vocalizations, a textbook case of the Proto-Indo-European link between young male warriors and wolves.

(This will be a continuing series that I'll add to whenever I get the time.)

* The other blockbuster mythological tradition has been the Near Eastern monotheistic religions, and they too were dreamed up by a bunch of rowdy pastoralists rather than a mellowed-out camp of hunter-gatherers or risk-averse full-time farmers.

March 15, 2011

No exposure to violence cripples

Speaking of how aggression is good, have a look at what kind of trouble kids these days get themselves into because they've never experienced violence, assume they're immortal, and inevitably run into a big fat reminder that they are not.

Pint-sized spazz of a bully gets dropped by junior viking

YouTube keeps taking the video down, but see this fan site that has the video in the top right. Here is a permanent description.

This is just like the lack of exposure to toxins and pathogens while growing up -- your immune system is completely clueless what to do when it eventually does encounter them, goes haywire, and makes you allergic to everything.

Bone fractures are also more common among kids today, and probably not just because of their grain-only diet which robs them of calcium and vitamin D, but because of the lack of rough-and-tumble play. In such a world, their bones get the signal that they don't need to be particularly robust, so why waste the resources in making them strong? Again you can run but you can't hide from bone-fracturing situations, so eventually they'll find themselves in one and get hurt a lot worse than if they'd been toughened up years beforehand.

In a world with so little rough-and-tumble play, so little bullying, and so little violent conflict in general, young boys don't develop a mature sense of when, who, and how to fight. This little nerd probably only picked on kids just as wispy as himself. It may take longer than in a more violent world, but eventually he'll run into someone who won't take his shit, and instead of "merely" getting a bloody nose or maybe even knocked out, he is so unprepared that he gets bodyslammed and finds himself so hobbled that he can only gimp around.

March 14, 2011

How aggression is good

Last week at '80s night I was grooving along on one of the stages when I heard two guys settle down behind me, and caught one of them saying "No, you something something, I can't something." About two seconds later, I felt a push from behind that wasn't very forceful, but enough that I had to hop off the stage ledge that I was close to, landing squarely and easily on both feet about four feet down.

Without thinking or even trying to get a glance at who they were, I reflexively climbed back on the stage and began the pecking order routine. Because the violence level has been so low for so long, I don't think this stuff is as widely known as it should be. In that situation, you use simple body language to remove losers from your territory, naming touching them frequently and forcefully.

I half-thought of socking the guy in the gut and shoving him off the stage, but there were two of them, they had a wall to back them up and I had my back to the dance floor below, plus there was a security guard nearby. But in a species like humans where direct brute force doesn't play as large of a role as somewhat subdued physical dominance, you don't really need to lay into somebody like that very often.

All I needed to do was start giving the one guy a fairly strong series of open-handed pats on the shoulder closest to me, while telling him that you don't do that to me because I'll get you kicked out of here. Usually they'll be caught off-guard and say they didn't hear you, so that gives you another opportunity to give them a good series of strong pats -- or almost like pushes -- on their shoulder while you repeat what you said. Just patting them isn't good enough; distracting them with some bullshit lines makes it go over more smoothly. And make sure to stand up straight and to never break eye-contact.

The first guy ended up saying that he didn't do anything, so get the fuck back, giving my arm a little push away. Again don't let anything like that go; use that as another opportunity to heavily pat him on the shoulder while smoothing it over with something like, "it had to have been one of you two." His friend was standing right next to him, closer to me. Because the first series of pecks was on his farther-away friend, I'd already invaded his personal space by reaching across his body to peck his friend. I didn't think about it at the time, but maybe that's a good idea of who to start with -- the one who's a little farther away, so you can invade the nearer one's space right off the bat and marginalize him before dealing with him directly later on.

Same basic procedure with the second guy, and he too was caught off-guard and asked what I'd said. Since he was closer, that gave me the chance to go for the around-the-back pat on the opposite shoulder, where you're almost closing them in with your arm. I told him the same basic thing -- that you don't do that because they know me here and I'll get you kicked out. He must have been the one who did it because he didn't get worked into righteous indignation, just giving a lame and unemotional "well... I didn't do it..." And unlike the first guy, who at least gave a single token wimpy push-back, the second guy didn't return my pats at all.

I didn't run off to tell the security guard what happened or even try to work anything out with the two guys -- just turned back around and kept up my energetic pace at dancing. Standing your ground when you're encircled is an honest signal that you're more ready and willing to give it to them, unlike moving off or running away. They looked pretty demoralized after getting called on their cowardly behind-the-back stunt and given a lengthy pecking order pat-down in front of a crowd, up on stage where they're even more visible no less, and within ten seconds or so they climbed down from the stage and walked away with their tail between their legs. Not just off-stage while in the same area -- they sulked off the dance floor entirely, and I didn't see them the rest of the night, so they may have left the club altogether. I made sure to give them a good "gotcha" smile and wave good-bye as they were walking away.

The whole episode must have lasted long enough for others to see because when I looked across the room, there were a couple girls on the stage over there who were smiling devilishly over at me, like yeah, that'll show those two losers! good job, dude! It's not as though I tackled an armed robber in a crowded supermarket, but even an everyday instance of flushing the scum down the sewer where they belong goes appreciated. Girls especially respond to that because they can guess how those chumps would behave around females.

And they weren't weak-looking guys either. Both were either late teens or early 20s, somewhat muscular but not athletic -- gym monkies -- between 5'11 and 6'1, black, and again there were two of them. But with violent conflict being so rare these days, that was probably the first time they'd ever gotten into a potentially violent situation, and certainly the first time they ever got the pecking order pat-down. They had no clue how to navigate the situation, so it all rushed by them and they had to call time-out and leave the game.

Oddly enough, something similar happened a little earlier that night. That time it was just one dude, a white guy about 6'3 and also muscular-but-not-athletic around 20 years old. He tried to butt into my space on the right side, trying to move push me aside with his butt while facing away from me. Again when you start off by not even looking me in the face, I know you're not for real. In a dance club situation, all you do is dance with your arms swinging so that your elbow catches him in the back or sides, like you spur a horse to get moving.

He didn't respond, so I kept it up. After about five contacts, he whipped around like a spazz and said, "yo bro, knock it off. like, why don't you just go down over there," pointing off-stage. It's best not to try to argue with someone, because you only need to signal that it's your space and not his. I usually go with "I'm cool, dude" or "I'm good, man," or a condescending, "You're cool, dude," as the line to use while initiating the series of pats on the shoulder. I resumed dancing, and sure enough he hopped off the stage and shuffled away annoyed. Guess you're not king of the hill after all, eh spazz boy?

I only recall this happening twice before last week. One time the stage was not even one foot off the ground, and someone gave me enough of a push from behind that I had to step off (I was already on the edge, since it was crowded). When I turned around and saw a World of Warcraft nerd, I instinctively went with a more aggressive move -- gripping one shoulder with my left hand and using the right one to pat him hard and open-palmed on the chest. The chest is more vulnerable than the shoulder or arm, so your gut tells you to do that only when you're not facing a real threat. He pretended not to care what I was saying, but nevertheless spun around and walked off with his group of friends without returning my pats with any kind of physical contact. He was around 20, white, and about 6'3 or 6'4 but totally out-of-shape, again like a 7-11 diet-eating WoW addict.

The other time it was roughly 20 year-old guy who butted into me pretty hard from behind with his ass. Most young guys these days approach girls in dance clubs by backing their ass up into the girl's crotch, as an ironic reversal of sex roles that's supposed to be disarming yet sexy. In reality they wind up looking like colossal fags. It was one of those moves, yet again from behind my back, although this was only off of the one-foot-high stage. I turned around to see someone shorter than me, probably 5'6 or 5'7, which gave me the unusual opportunity to surround him physically and stare him down. Always fun when I get the chance!

I began to squeeze him from both sides with my hands and upper arms around his shoulder area, and he tried to act indignantly like "hey man, get the fuck off," even trying to push my arms off of his. That's when you squeeze even harder to signal that you want it more than he does. "Don't let me catch you doing that ever again," I said while leaning over into his face and still squeezing him. The second time he didn't even bother trying to wiggle free, and had to split with an embarrassed look on his face, like "you didn't have to do that, man." He had either his girlfriend or a female friend with him, and as she trailed him off the dance floor, I saw her looking at him with a little pity but mostly disgust. He was white and also muscular-but-ineffectual.

As in all primate politics, these kind of conflicts tend to involve one or usually more low-ranking males trying to overthrow the male who's getting more attention, taking up more territory, and so on. But a dance club is more of a lek than a battle arena, so it's the wrong place for them to topple someone from their throne -- the other onlookers won't tolerate brute force in that context. The male onlookers will come beat the shit out of them if they really try to take me down a peg, while the female onlookers will banish them as a bunch of cowardly losers who are just jealous of the attention-getters.

Plus I myself will shut them down with standard pecking order touching, which is never violent enough so that the male onlookers will start in on me. In fact, they'll look on in approval at a guy who is able to clear others out of his space in a physical but not a pugilistic manner. If they want to gang up on me, don't they know they're supposed to do it in an alley or somewhere with no witnesses? Morons.

I rather like these encounters, rare as they may be nowadays. One, I get to help younger males grow up -- I'm part of the real world that doesn't give a shit about them and will squash them if they try to step on my dick. Most guys today never get to learn how to behave around strangers until they get their first full-time job between 25 and 30. They should thank me for giving them a little lesson in growing up.

For the same reason, I really do appreciate being pushed and shoved every once in awhile. Otherwise you become one of those children who never gets exposed to toxins or other harms in the environment and who winds up allergic to everything. Your body, mind, and soul need to be stressed in a test now and then to give them the signal that they need to stay in shape. Without any pressures from the outside world, they figure it's not worth the cost of maintaining themselves, and they start shutting themselves down. And just like with tickling, it's not something you can replicate on your own, no matter how hard you try to imagine. It has to come from a real outside pressure.

Plus the energy boost it gives you is one-of-a-kind. And as I mentioned earlier, girls take notice when you control people physically but politically. Best of all, though, is the feeling that you're actually doing something meaningful. Earning a wage is being useful but rarely feels meaningful. Spending time helping to rear your younger kin feels meaningful for awhile, but that's more fulfilling an obligation than it is rising to the occasion. Driving the foxes out of your pasture and keeping them out of everyone else's is one of the few things you can do to satisfy that desire for meaning in your life.

Konrad Lorenz was correct to call aggression "the so-called evil," since the standard thinking back then was that the aggressive instinct (i.e., not including self-defense) was uniformly bad. He pointed out that some material good came of it, for example by causing hostile individuals to spread out from one another and keep the population density lower than if they were all crammed next to each other, thereby allowing a higher standard-of-living for all. (Documenting this public benefit from individual behaviors doesn't require us to assume that the public benefit caused the individual behaviors to evolve, a point overlooked by everyone who poo-poos Lorenz for his naive group selectionist views.)

We need some degree of violence and evil out there to spur forward our growth, external as well as internal. Otherwise we end up as weak and bored as a sheep dog in a world with no wolves.

March 13, 2011

What's behind the movie quality doldrums?

Via a Tyler Cowen post, here's another article about the recent decline in movie quality.

I agree with Cowen that movies will eventually recover their storytelling power, but it will have nothing to do with economics because material prosperity, whether of the median person or level of inequality, and technological change do not affect the power that verbal people wield when telling a story, nor the degree of novel and associative thinking they undergo before the idea is executed. They also do not affect audience tastes for compelling vs. boring stories.

Rather, as I've been detailing for almost a year now, those effects are more or less invisible when you zoom out and look at the history of cultural production. Instead what dominates is the effect of whether the level of violence in society is rising or falling over a generation or so.* So, when we experience another wave of rising violence, we can expect another round of spellbinding narratives. The only uncertain thing is what medium they'll appear in -- during the last violence wave from the '60s through the '80s, the best storytellers felt that there wasn't much left to do in the media of poetry, plays, or novels, so they made movies instead. Maybe there will be some new medium the next time around.

I've written enough on that topic by now that there's little left to add, so let's focus instead on clearing up a few misconceptions in the otherwise decent GQ article, and highlight some of his better points that don't get spoken widely enough.

The first is that the current vogue for endless sequels and prequels, and remakes and reboots, is a sign of how moribund the movie industry has become. Instead, whether a movie is a continuation or a re-telling of an existing story has no relation to its quality, but whether the second effort is made during falling-crime times, when it will stink, or rising-crime times, when it will be good or great.

The entire original trilogies for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future, are all engrossing narratives. The Star Wars trilogy made during falling-crime times has uniformly stunk, the new Indiana Jones movie was greeted with shrugs, and thank god no one has taken a stab at a new movie with Marty and the Doc. John Carpenter's The Thing is a fascinating re-telling of a boring movie from the falling-crime era of the 1950s. The sequel to Alien was even better than the gripping original, but the successive ones made during falling-crime times were all horrible. This is most apparent in the horror genre, where the same basic variety of monsters keeps appearing, such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and serial killers. However, despite these all being covers of the same underlying song, only those made during rising-crime times (1900 to 1933 and 1959 to 1992) have survived. There are a few exceptions, such as The Wolf Man (1941) and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), maybe even Scream (1996), but the fit is strikingly close.

Next, the author picks Top Gun as the movie that started the steady decline in narrative quality. This is a standard but incorrect move when people try to reconstruct history -- they see a bright line between two periods, in this case the early 1990s, and look for an example of the later period in the former period, often presented as "sowing the seeds" for what was to come. Top Gun is a nice movie, by the way, where the good guys who die are real people, not just faceless cannon fodder like in the WWII movies of the past 15 to 20 years, and where the tough guys have a vulnerable side to them (which you also see in Rambo, Rocky, Kyle Reese from The Terminator, and even Dirty Harry somewhat), unlike the cartoony ape-men of recent action movies. No one is totally safe from being undone physically or psychologically in those older movies.

Even if he did pick a good example of a lousy movie made in 1986, such as Howard the Duck or Raw Deal, there's still the fact that storytelling quality didn't fall into decline over the next few years. 1987 was a blip year that had not so many great movies, but it did give us The Princess Bride, Lethal Weapon, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and RoboCop. 1988 was a back-to-business year, with the top 10 box office movies including Coming to America, Big, Die Hard, and Beetlejuice; not to mention Child's Play. And 1989 was bursting even more with great stories: Batman, the third Indiana Jones movie, Back to the Future II, Ghostbusters II, and When Harry Met Sally were all top 10 box office movies, and that's not counting Heathers.

Next is the idea that today's target audience, males under 25, are "the same ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie." In reality, young males today are a bunch of dorks. If they had ADD, they would not veg out for 5 to 10 hours a day leveling up their silly Pokemon or Final Fantasy characters, or roaming around SoCom or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto worlds in search of something -- anything -- to shoot. They are never out and about, don't hop from one physical location to another, and don't go cruising.

If you've ever talked to one about anything exciting -- rock music, girls, classic cars, or movies from a better time -- you will have noticed how sluggishly excitable they are. Even the ones who have non-dorky tastes can't get very energized when talking about it with you, and you can hardly blame them since there's no broader culture of fun for them to plug into. When you're basically alone in wanting to live life, your mindset is more in the "under siege" than the "how exciting!" direction.

And they are anything but testosterone junkies. Testosterone levels have never been lower in young males, and it is completely bogus to suggest that they are merely channeling their high T into activities that the older fuddy-duddies just don't recognize, such as first-person shooter video games. Sorry, but if you're not actually exposing yourself to physical danger, taking part in a daring raid, and maybe having to throw a punch or two in the process, you're just a wimpy and deflated couch potato. Calling some 13 year-old boy a "noob faggot" over an internet connection isn't macho at all -- try doing that to someone your age or older, in person, and to their face. Then you'll get credit for youthful recklessness. Until then, even a 12 year-old girl who mutters "slut" under her breath to another sixth-grader passing in the hallway has bigger balls than you.

Those corrections aside, I give him credit for not whining about the death of New Hollywood during the mid-late '70s like the film nerds tend to. That was when shaman-like storytelling and mythogenesis began to hit its stride, with all the movies I've already mentioned, including the Star Wars trilogy that thankfully gave us something meaningful to gorge our minds and our souls on, not some low-cal, fat-free cuisine of imitations of French New Wave silliness. Nothing against foreigners: Italian Neorealism would have been pretty cool if we'd imitated it, since they were also heavily focused on the sublime and the eternal, though I'm still glad we chose to imitate the best myth-makers -- the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

He's also right to emphasize how childish mainstream movies have become both in content and tone, in contrast to all that whining you used to hear during the family values revolution of the mid-'90s and somewhat afterwards about how violent, overly mature, and family-unfriendly the movies were. He mentions that even adults today eat this junk up, but he should also have pointed out the converse -- that when movies were geared toward coming of age, experience, and doing something with your life, even children wanted to grow up fast (as in the movie Big). Although I lived through the golden age of children's entertainment in the 1980s, even kid's programming was much more mature in content and tone. Plus every boy in those days was obsessed with Rambo, Aliens, the Terminator, Freddy Krueger, cops and robbers, and other grown-up themes, even cowboys and Indians (I think that was the last time that boys wore Davy Crockett hats at some point while growing up).

Finally, he's on-the-mark in excusing the movie industry figures themselves from a lot of what's gone wrong. They can only work with what they're given, and as they say, so much of the difference between a good and a bad movie lies in the execution. During falling-crime times like the present day, even the conceptualization stage looks like a dust bowl. But you can always fall back on time-tested ideas for the raw material. Still, the execution is almost always destined to fail because people who live in overly safe times cannot put themselves into the vulnerable state-of-mind that you need to get into in order to give the audience a reason to care about them. Just look at how easily Mark Hamill can show real confusion, anxiety, and anger in the original Star Wars movies compared to Hayden Christensen in the later movies. He can only plumb the emotional depths of a sheltered momma's boy, whose anger never rises above the kind of whining and shouting at his parents to "get outta of my room!"

At the other end of the spectrum, the grotesquely exaggerated anger of heroes is not surprising. The ambiguity of using violence and warfare, and need to keep your cool while your heart's racing a thousand miles an hour, can only be portrayed by people who know what it's like from their everyday lives here and now. Still, this may be somewhat easier today for Baby Boomer and Generation X actors, who can at least draw on their experiences back when the violence level was still soaring. With someone born around 1985 or after, even that indirect route of channeling of the past will be impossible.

As I said earlier, all of these huge changes over the past 15 to 20 years are a consequence, whether in a direct or a roundabout way, of falling violence levels, just as the surge in creativity during the '60s, '70s, and '80s reflected the greater danger that people met in their daily doings. So we should stop complaining about how hard it is to make new compelling stories, as though All We Have To Do is pull some lever in the Hollywood system or dial some knob in the audience's mind, and presto, we'll get the next Ghostbusters.

Rather, recognizing that attempts at new gems will almost entirely fail, set aside a lot less money for them, and instead re-release all of the classics -- not remakes or reboots, but the originals as the gods intended them, maybe with cleaned up picture and sound quality. Just think of how many people in the key movie-going demographic groups today have never seen them -- let alone on the big screen and in a public space. Plus that would be an easy way to get some of the 25+ demographic back into the theaters. I won't pay $10 to see any movie for the foreseeable future because it is almost guaranteed to go to waste. But I would gladly set aside $10 in my weekly leisure budget to see the greats, especially ones whose focus on the grand and sublime demand that they be seen on a gigantic screen, and that the viewer be part of a crowd where individual self-consciousness has been washed out and a pervasive tension binds you all together.

That's more or less the recipe for orchestral music -- nuts to recent junk, and keep re-performing the classics -- and at least until we see another burst of innovation in storytelling, we might as well adopt it for movies too.

* I'll post something more detailed on why changes in prosperity don't affect us whereas changes in security do, but very briefly it's because we evolved in a world where there were no large-amplitude, long-term trends up or down in our prosperity level, as we lived in a Malthusian world. There were irregular subsistence crises, such as random famines or plagues, as well as one-time large and steady movements up or down when we changed modes of subsistence, such as abandoning hunting and gathering in order to farm.

In contrast, there have been recurring cycles of violence as far back as we can tell. Even among the Yanamamo, a group of warlike hunter-horticulturalists in the Amazon, there are waves of greater and lesser warfare and raiding -- after a major wave, they leave about two generations of cooling off, during which the successful warriors can convert their battle success into reproductive success. Constant, or non-cyclical, high levels of violence are very rare, and those groups that do show them, such as the Waorani (a nearby group in the Amazon) appear to be killing themselves off, whereas the Yanamamo are an expanding population.

March 10, 2011

"Actually kind of" retarded

Soaring violence levels lead people to use more potent language.* Greater insulation from harm makes them more mealymouthed, as their minds turn from the tragic to the trivial.

One consequence of not being able to say what you mean, either because you don't trust others or because you're afraid of them glaring at you for speaking openly, is that you must smother your words with qualifiers. "I was just thinking, if you could maybe just possibly..." -- What? Spit it out, man!

We saw the first clear signal in 1995 when Deep Blue Something scored big with "Breakfast At Tiffany's." They took a stab at writing an energetic rock song, but the chorus only turns up the lame lines "And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it."

Since then things have only gotten worse, so that you frequently hear people orgasming about how bla-bla-bla is "kind of awesome," or that yadda-yadda is "kind of a big deal." The stupidest sounding is the attempt to re-intensify the phrase with the word "actually," as in "Dude, have you guys tried that free-range toiletpaper from Whole Foods? It's actually, kind of amazing."

I shudder to think what extra layers of namby-pambyness people will have wrapped around their exclamations in five or ten years, but it will undoubtedly be something more disgusting than we can now imagine.

* E.g., the 14th C., ca. 1580 to 1630, 1780 to 1830, 1900 to 1935, and 1960 to 1990.

March 8, 2011

Greater verbal creativity during rising-crime times: Compound names

When you're coining a new name, you can try to be abstract and intellectual or you can be more concrete and intuitive. The later type of consciousness is called many things -- primary, primordial, etc. -- but it has to do with drawing associations or noticing similarities between seemingly unrelated things, while the former has more to do with drawing distinctions and having a narrow focus of vision.

When people are in a more creative, mind-wide-open state, they're less likely to use existing names or take an existing one and put some new spin on it -- they're going to take two things that didn't used to go together, fuse them, and there's your new name. One way to do this is to make a bahuvrihi compound, which is a modified noun but where the thing being named is not an example of the noun. For example, a low-life is not a kind of a life but a kind of a person. The modified noun describes the named person through synecdoche, or through suggesting other qualities that the person has or things they tend to do.

To create such a compound word out of nothing, you need to be in a more primordial state of mind, although to use one that someone else invented long ago, you don't need to think at all. So when these bahuvrihi compounds come into the language, that's a good sign that people are in a more creative mindset.

I used Google's Ngrams tool to see when the common English ones came in, and they were almost all during rising-crime times: ca. 1780 to 1830, ca. 1900 to 1935 and ca. 1960 to 1990. There was another crime wave from ca. 1580 to 1630, when Shakespeare introduced a ton of words and phrases, although I'm not sure if any were bahuvrihi compounds off the top of my head. Chaucer wrote during a rising-crime period of the late 14th C., but again memory fails me about whether or not he coined lots of these compound words.

The only exception is "flatfoot," which was coined during the falling-crime Victorian era. I've detailed before how waves of violence lead to greater creativity, so this result is no surprise.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans were especially fond of this way of making new names, and that's no accident because they were also among the most creative and successful myth-makers that have ever lived. Bucephalus means "ox-head," Alfred or Aelfred means "elf-counsel," just to mention two of the many famous examples. They were nomadic pastoralists who made a good living by raiding and warfare, so they clearly lived in an environment with a high violence level.

For the most recent violence wave, lasting from roughly the 1960s through the '80s, did the storytellers return to this way of bringing in new names? They sure did. After browsing Wikipedia's various lists of characters for cartoon shows, etc., I could only find a handful of examples from the falling-crime times of the mid-'90s through today -- Mrs. Buttloaves from Ren and Stimpy, Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and lots of the cast of Metalocalypse (in general, metalheads -- a bahuvrihi compound itself, and the only one referring to music fans -- have a higher baseline level of interest in myth-making). None of the others, whether the newer Hanna-Barbara ones from Cartoon Network, the Nick Toons, or the Adult Swim ones.

Finding ones from the cartoons of the '60s and '70s is also tough, but that's when Bigfoot was created in the wider culture, not to mention the names that counter-culture parents gave their kids, like Moon Unit. Perhaps the mythogenesis only begins during the second half of the rising-crime period, when things no longer look curable and instead look apocalyptic (like from the mid-'70s through the early '90s). In contrast to the slim pickings of the past 15 to 20 years, here are plenty of very popular examples from just the 1980s (check Wikipedia for more extensive lists):

Transformers: Starscream, Ironhide, Skyfire, Fireflight, Steeljaw, Razorclaw, etc.

G.I. Joe: Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Quick Kick, Dial Tone, Crazylegs, etc.

He-Man: Mekaneck, Snout Spout, Trap Jaw, Scare Glow, Snake Face, perhaps also Castle Grayskull.

Rainbow Brite: Moonglow, Starlite, Monstromurk.

My Little Pony: Sundance, Starnose, Rosedust, Sunshower. (Jesus, the things I'll read about for my research...)

Silverhawks: Steelheart and Steelwill, Hotwing, Windhammer, etc.

GoBots: Flip Top, Screw Head, etc.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Chrome Dome.

Then there were popular toy lines that were based on unwatched TV shows or unread comic books.

Madballs: nearly every one has this kind of name. Hornhead, Dustbrain, Wolf Breath, Lock Lips, etc.

Starriors: Sawtooth, Clawgut, Flashfist, Twinblade, Twinhorn, etc. (NB: twins are big in Proto-Indo-European mythology.)

I also wonder whether kids in the past 15 to 20 years have invented new bahuvrihi names to insult other kids -- barf-breath, shithead, yellow-belly, furburger, needle dick, brown nose, fatass, four-eyes, etc. The new ones that I recall best are not descriptive, through synecdoche or any other figure of speech, such as ass clown or asshat. Like much else, the form has persisted somewhat, but the meaning is lacking.

Well, you get the idea. You have to admire the extra effort the creators took to also make the names alliterative (Starscream), rhyme (Chrome Dome), show assonance (Fireflight), or do several things (Snout Spout).

This shows that what moves people in the more grand, sublime, mythogenesis direction, and away from the petty, cutesy, nihilistic direction, is rising violence levels. No other variable shows such a tight and regularly occurring relationship. And it also shows that it's not just a greater preoccupation with coining badass-sounding names for warriors, as you might think based on the boys' cartoons. Even girls wanted magical names for their cartoon characters. The change in people's psychology was toward a more primordial way of thinking in general.

March 7, 2011

Great music at Starbucks

If you don't normally go, it's worth stopping by sometime soon. For about the past week, Starbucks has finally caved in and dumped the sappy singer-songwriter and emotionally empty conceptual jazz music that's usually on, and started playing music you can sympathize with and just can't help but sing along to. It's hip, educated white folks music from 1979 to 1985, back when that demographic group was more about having fun than preening about Stuff White People Like.

I can't remember everyone who's shown up so far. Talking Heads, Pretenders, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins (for the This Mortal Coil project, and I think one of their own too), Depeche Mode, U2, The Smiths, The Cure, XTC, Roxy Music, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Clash, Yazoo, Eurythmics, Soft Cell, Simple Minds, Genesis... and lots more.

Even better, they aren't just repeating one song by the group over and over -- although I wouldn't mind grooving along to "Stop Your Sobbing" every time I dropped in. About half of those bands have played two songs so far.

It would be a real treat to hear more from the girl groups... like "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Robert De Niro's Waiting," and The Bangles' cover of "September Gurls." In general it's males who make and obsess over music, so when there's a good number of all-girl groups, that's a real treasure. The culture must have been pretty wild for that to have happened.

It really does make a difference if you get to hear your favorite music somewhere outside your house or car, where it feels like it's part of something larger than your own little life. Human beings are not adapted to the internet, so online forums cannot at all substitute for hanging out at a record store listening and talking to people, or dancing with a club full of kids. Even hearing it while reading in Starbucks or walking the aisles of the supermarket gives it a broader presence and makes you temporarily lose that "under siege" mentality you feel when silly or annoying music is on.

The only thing that's tempted me into subscribing to cable TV is one of those spin-offs of either MTV or VH1 that I saw when I visited home for Christmas. (VH1 Classic, I think.) We are aware of the invisibility of any internet discussion to the majority of internet users, so when you see an online discussion about a favorite topic of yours, you don't think to yourself that lots of people are also into it -- could just be some niche thing, or an echo chamber. Turning on cable TV, however, and seeing music videos by good performers convinces you that enough people have resisted trivial music that this one is surviving in the market for TV channels.

It will never be as exciting as it used to be, but all of these little sanctuaries are keeping alive some sense of community among music-lovers, against the atomized dorks downloading thug rap or indie junk on iTunes.

Some random thoughts on the arts

- Evolutionary models of artistic creation mirror Darwin's idea of natural selection: there is some source of variation, some of the variants are fitter than the others, and whatever gives them that edge can be passed on to their "offspring."

Is there a source of variation like the copying errors in genetic evolution, where a target sequence of letters, say PLUSH, is mostly copied faithfully except for one slip-up, like BLUSH? We all know about these errors in copying a cultural thing whenever we try to reproduce a target like a story or an image, where the "game of telephone" effect spits out a very different output from the input, all by a series of many small changes.

Colin Martindale in The Clockwork Muse says he doubts there is much role for this source of cultural variation because artists are never trying to exactly copy some target work of art that already exists. They are trying to create their own new thing.

However, even if they're not trying to copy an existing work of art, what about the initial flash during the inspiration stage of creation? During the elaboration stage, they're trying to faithfully reproduce what it was that sprung to mind. Perhaps the same embryonic core of an artistic idea springs to many minds, but in setting it down each artist makes their own slight copying errors.

Assuming the idea was a good one in the first place, the variants that stick very close to it will do well with the audience. Most of the mental fumbles in working out the idea will result in a degraded product. But some will, without the artist having intended it or foreseen it, lead to a superior rendition of the widespread inspirational idea.

So, copying errors akin to random genetic mutations are important after all. Martindale says that we rightly distinguish between the mere typesetter and the poet. Yet every poet is the typesetter for his muse.

- How long until video games become the next big thing in storytelling? Right now no one with narrative-crafting talent will go anywhere near them, preferring to stick with books, magazines, TV, and especially movies. Successful modes of storytelling never hit their peak right away, so it could still happen.

And it also seems like the time from birth to maturity of new narrative media is getting shorter: on the order of 1000 years to get from Gilgamesh to the Iliad and the Odyssey, from ancient Greek plays to Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, and from ancient Egyptian religious texts to the Old and New Testament; then on the order of 100 years to get from the first novels to the Romantic and Gothic novels in Britain or Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia; and currently on the order of 10 years to get from the earliest TV shows and movies to Twin Peaks and Back to the Future. The best video game stories, then, may show up in less than 100 years.

Still, that's assuming they ever do make for great storytelling. They would be a fundamentally new medium, given how interactive they are compared to the closely related TV and movie media. But no one likes audience participation in storytelling, least of all the audience. They want to be taken on a journey by the storyteller, not engage the logical and rational part of their brain in order to navigate menus, instruct the characters to do this or that, or frequently pause and resume the story (to check the player's status, change the settings, or save or load a game). That's why improv isn't funny but stand-up is, why the "choose your own adventure" novels always fail next to standard novels, and why key outcomes in a movie aren't put up to a popular vote in the theater, as though whichever outcome got the loudest applause would be played out.

March 5, 2011

How broad is the preference for colors during dangerous times? A look at cereals

I've been thinking that the preference for a wider variety and greater vibrancy of colors during dangerous times is a lot more general than clothing (see below for that). For example, cars used to look fairly dull in coloring from the mid-'30s through the late '50s. It wasn't until the '60s that cars turned yellow, lime green, baby blue, etc. I remember that lasting through the '80s. Then the '90s and 2000s ate the cars' colors and by now they're all silver / gray, white, black, and a handful of red or blue.

But cars would go under the broader class of "public signals," so maybe during dangerous times people want to send more colorful signals either to intimidate others or to help their courtship effort. What about private signals, where neither of these would apply? If we can find lots of those examples, that suggests that it's a deeper preference for colors that develops during rising-crime times, not just a showboating behavior in public.

How about cereal? Few in your non-kin social circle are going to see how colorful your cereal is, so it's a fairly private signal. I remember as a child in the 1980s that every other breakfast cereal was exploding in color, both in variety and intensity. It was a real treat to look at, especially when it turned your milk that color and you got to drink purple milk -- something not available for purchase in stores. In fact, the kaleidoscope of colors was often a key selling point in the advertising, as in the TV commercial for Rainbow Brite cereal (one that I never ate, but whose ads I still remember).

I looked over the cereal aisle at the local mega-market today, and I could only count about 6 or 7 brands that were pretty colorful (Trix, Lucky Charms), and maybe one or two others that had a little color but either not a wide variety or high intensity (Apple Jacks). Everything else is some shade of beige or brown, perhaps with white if there's frosting.

With the exception of Alien cereal, we had all of these cereals in the '80s (a trend that began sometime in the '60s or the '70s at the latest). Just to list some that were pretty colorful but no longer exist: Fruity Marshmellow Krispies, Smurfberry Crunch, Nerds, Circus Fun, Ghostbusters, Franken Berry, Boo Berry, and Yummy Mummy (all three were part of a horror movie themed line; only the bland-colored Count Chocula has survived), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pac-Man, Strawberry Shortcake... and probably a lot more.

These were not all available in all years -- in any given year, maybe 3 or 4 would have been in production. But still, cereal used to have a much wider variety and intensity of colors.

It's even stranger since there has been a huge shift away from obviously sugary food for kids, and that has involved making everything "fruity." That way it's still loaded with sugar, but the parents feel less guilt because Fruity Pebbles has a more natural feel than Ice Cream Cones (a real cereal back in the '80s). You'd think this would have resulted in a lot more fruit-themed cereals, and so an even greater explosion of color. But it has gone the other way.

Other ideas for private signals of color preferences? Ideally you only consume them in private (or close to that), and they shouldn't be very durable -- not furniture, for example, since any guest you ever have will see what color your chairs and blankets are, but probably not how colorful your breakfast cereal is. Band-aids, maybe? I remember when they used to come in bright, multicolored varieties, and not just the ones aimed at kids, but also adolescents or adults who liked wearing neon clothing and accessories.

March 3, 2011

Colorful tuxedos

In groups with high levels of opportunistic violence, men (and women) dress more colorfully. This may act like the vibrant warning colors that some insects show, perhaps an example of the handicap principle -- only those who are prepared to fight are going to sport loud colors that make it impossible to hide. It may also have to do with people in these groups putting more into mating effort, where looking colorful makes you a bigger hit with the opposite sex. Whatever the reasons are, that's how it is.

In a future post, I might go into more detail cross-culturally and historically within a group to show the contrast between drabber and daper males. Briefly, though, contrast the Chinese farmer with the Mongolian pastoralist, or the Somali-Bantu farmer with the Masaai pastoralist, or King James I with David Lloyd George.

When violence rates began shooting up in Western countries around 1960, everyone began dressing more colorfully right on cue, in contrast to the sober dress of the previous three decades (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit). This included brighter and more varied colors in general during the '60s, and not just the tie-dye and paisley of subcultures. It spread further during the '70s, again not just the fruit-toned leisure suits of a marginal group. And of course it reached its zenith during the '80s, extending well beyond the neon costume of the New Wave and Danceteria scenes. As violence levels began plummeting in the early-mid 1990s, everyone burned their colorful clothing and returned to the '50s pattern of only wearing black, white, gray, and maybe navy blue (or olive, oatmeal, brown, etc.), a trend that has persisted up through the present.

Just how much of the cultural canvas did this explosion of color manage to coat? Surely some forms of dress remained beyond the sublunary forces of fluctuating tastes? No, even the most formal clothes that most American males would ever wear -- the tuxedo -- said What the hell, and joined the party.

To track the rise and fall of the colored tuxedo, I did a google image search for "prom 19xx" or similar for every decade or year since 1950, and looked at the first 10 pages of results to see roughly what fraction of men were wearing one to their high school prom. It looks like the prom was not very big during the '40s or before, so I could only get one decade of falling-crime times at the beginning, although all proms since the crime rate peaked in 1992 show up, so that's roughly another 20 years of falling-crime times. What follows is impressionistic, since any quantitative look would require a more rigorous selection method in the first place.

In the 1950s, the guy either wore a traditional black tuxedo, perhaps a navy blue one, or black pants with a white or cream jacket. The cummerbund and tie are almost always black. During the mid or late 1960s, the colored tuxedo begins to be born, although it hasn't quite gotten out all the way yet. The pants, cummerbund, and tie are still black, but some guys, like this one, have started to wear a light blue jacket (along with the still popular white jacket).

The heyday of the powder blue tuxedo (and other non-traditional colors) seems to have been the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s. Here are three guys in the same group of friends all in blue for their 1978 prom. Most people associate this look with the '70s, but it was alive and well even through most of the '80s. Here is one from 1984; also see the makeshift prom scene at the end of Footloose (also from 1984), where there are red, blue, silver, tan, and other colored tuxedos.

By the late '80s the black tux begins to come back, although on an absolute level the non-traditional one is still common enough. Here is one from 1989 (although from the looks of it, maybe his parents bought it for him back in 1977 and hoped he'd grow into it). The zeitgeist of 1990 is still part of the '80s (and '70s and '60s), and even then there were some holdouts of the non-black tuxedo, such as this one. Even those who wore black ones tended to wear very colorful tie and cummerbund pairs.

As in the culture generally, the party was basically over by 1991. I couldn't find any evidence that colored tuxedos were still in, although there's a guy here or there with a light blue tie. Same goes for 1992. After that, it's back to the black tuxedo, and it has stayed that way ever since. The only places that you saw a colored tuxedo after the peak of the crime rate were in snarky-satirical-meta-ironic movies like Dumb and Dumber or period movies like The Wedding Singer.

Celebrative clothing is supposed to look more alive and carefree, so I don't find the black-and-white look the most fitting. Again, even within European history, that overly sober costume is very new, so it's hard to champion the look based on tradition. Rather it seems that it's the dull and too-serious look that represents a radical break with our own past and with most of the rest of the world too.

To be honest, for people like me who were teenagers during falling-crime times, it's hard to look at guys in powder blue tuxedos and not split our sides laughing -- laughing at, not with. But upon reflection, that was an understandable piece of the larger pattern of having fun and not being paralyzed by self-consciousness. I'm not sure how I'd feel if light blue tuxedos come back in style when the crime rate begins to soar again, but I'd gladly trade that for a boring world with overly solemn clothing.

One of those images came from a page of old high school photos that had "Pictures of You" playing in the background. Didn't know they made a video for that one. Even the goth crowd used to have enough of a light side to just let go and get into a nice snowball fight.

March 1, 2011

Why mating dances but no mating deadlifts? Is it about symmetry?

If you have lots of people perform a wide variety of physical tasks, and then look at how performance on one task predicts performance on another, it's not that whoever is good (or bad) at one tends to be good (or bad) at the others, as though there were a single trait like "athleticism" that was being tested in a bunch of different ways.

Rather there are two clusters of traits -- strength (like how hard you can grip something) and coordination (like how long you can balance on one leg). People who are good at one type of strength task tend to be good at the other strength tasks, and those who are good at one type of coordination task tend to be good at the other coordination tasks. However, strength and coordination are not strongly positively related.

We often use "physically fit" or "active" or "athletic" or whatever as a shorthand for some trait that tells us how healthy a potential mate is, whether due to their good genes, good diet, or something else. Yet it's striking how little of a role strength plays in courtship behavior, and instead how much emphasis we place on coordination.

Sure, the guy will often lift the girl off her feet and spin her around, conspicuously carry some heavy stuff, or strike something really hard with his hand or foot (say, hitting the TV or car to make it work). Obviously girls make strength displays even less frequently, aside from sprinting and then leaping into your arms when they spot you from far away, or slamming their hands on a surface to show excitement ("Yes! Yes!").

Far more common are displays of coordination. Girls do all sorts of little but noticeable balancing acts when they're trying to catch a guy's eye -- standing on one leg with their free foot resting on their straightened knee, pushing themselves up on the balls of their feet, standing with their lower legs crossed over each other and their feet close together, spinning around on one leg, bending over to pick something up without bending their knees, and even doing cartwheels.

But even guys do lots of coordination displays, at least the ones who do well in courtship. Not really any of the above things that girls do, but solo dancing, couples dancing, and performing as a musician or actor. The high degree of coordination needed for both types of dancing is obvious. Even the lead singer of a rock band and a captivating actor have to move or jump around in ways that threaten a loss of balance, so that staying on foot and not coming off as a clutz look impressive.

Girls occasionally dream about guys doing feats of strength, like socking someone who deserves it, carrying her in his arms, or opening the applesauce jar. Still, the majority of their fantasies and the displays by real-life males that they pay most attention to involve coordination, mostly musicians and actors, along with some dancers. Employing once again our test of who shows up on the wall of a 15 to 24 year-old girl, i.e. those with highest reproductive value, we see guys who are strong enough to throw a good punch, pick a girl up, and open a jar, but who on the whole cannot make a living by lifting up, transporting, and putting down seriously heavy things all day. Yet they can keep their balance pretty well while throwing their limbs around in complex ways -- Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, Tom Cruise in the beginning of Risky Business, Michael Hutchence, Mick Jagger, Mario Lopez when he showed off his ballet moves on Saved by the Bell, and so on.

And of course this is not unique to humans -- all of those complicated mating dances that males of other species do involve throwing around their body parts in hard-to-control ways while maintaining their balance (or if they're in flight, while keeping from spinning out of control). Showing the female how heavy of a branch or pebble they can pick up shows up far more rarely.

Girls seem to laugh more at a guy who attempts a daring coordination display and then loses his balance or otherwise comes off as clumsy or a clutz, than a guy who attempts a daring feat of strength but can't pull it off. Male spectators would laugh the other way around, another suggestion that strength is key to male-male competition, while coordination is key to courtship of females.

What's behind this pattern? I think it's symmetry. There is a very extensive literature showing that both sexes in any species are attracted to more symmetrical individuals (not just to their faces, but also to their voices and even the smell of their sweat), that symmetry is a good signal of health, and that symmetry is heritable, meaning that if you mated with a symmetrical person, your children would get a boost in symmetry than if you mated with a less symmetrical person. It's something that is a big deal to us, and to non-human species, even if we're not conscious of it.

How are we supposed to judge another person's symmetry, though? One way is to get a look at them in a still position. Again even though we're not conscious of it, we can tell from a still image if a person is very symmetrical or not. But we don't always have the luxury of looking at a person head-on and while they're still; judging symmetry at any other angle is pretty dicey. If we were close enough, we could smell their scent or hear their voice, since these are more pleasant if the person is more symmetrical. But we can't always get right up next to a person like that.

Coordination displays work as symmetry displays because it's harder for an asymmetrical person to even stand still, let alone throw their limbs and torso and head around. Deviations from symmetry are so minute that they have to be detected with calipers, so I doubt that someone whose right foot is ever so slightly longer than their left foot will be able to sense this (again unconsciously) and to compensate in order to maintain balance while spinning around, etc.

Better yet, coordination displays are visible at a distance and while the judged person is moving, unlike other cues of symmetry. Of course, they work well up-close too, so they're overall better than scent or voice to detect symmetry, and also better than a still image if it's not viewed head-on.

That's why coordination works well to detect symmetry. Why can't strength displays work just as well? Imagine a less symmetrical person lifts a heavy weight, and so does a symmetrical person. The less symmetrical one will probably have a harder time because they have to make special adjustments to stabilize themselves. But this difference will be very hard to detect at any distance -- it's not like the less symmetrical person is going to keel over on their weaker side. If asymmetry between their hands gives them a stronger grip in one hand than the other, that will be hard to spot too.

Not impossible, but hard. And nowhere near as easy as watching an asymmetrical person go for a spin and fall all over themselves, or try to swing their arms to a beat but fail to coordinate them in time with the rhythm and look clumsy. When throwing yourself temporarily off-balance, e.g. by standing on one foot instead of two, you have a lot less room for error because the base area within which your center of gravity can safely go is a lot smaller. So even small imperfections in symmetry can cause a very noticeable mistake in coordination.

One final thought on which trait girls are more worried about. In popular depictions of the last guy in the whole school that a girl would want to go out with, some measure of his repulsiveness is due to his weakness, but much more emphasis is given to what a clutz he is (like Screech or Skippy). Not just hand-eye coordination, like if he can't catch any projectile thrown at him, but a more basic proprioception or kinesthesia. (And of course, equally heavy emphasis is given to how ugly he is, the point of a post a little ways down below.)

And what about what guys themselves worry more about? I've never asked around, but just listening in on their spontaneous remarks about their anxieties, it's rare that you hear a guy get sweaty palms imagining attempting a feat of strength in front of a girl and failing, but extremely common to hear them get worried about how coordinated vs. clumsy they'll look if they try to dance with her or, even worse, solo dance in front of her. Even if there's no one else watching but the one girl. Sure, he'd feel embarrassed if he tried to open a jar but couldn't, but he'd be mortified if he lost his balance or otherwise came off as clumsy, even for a moment.

If the guy is imagining himself in the presence of another guy, clearly it's the opposite: doesn't want to look weak, and isn't so concerned about looking like a clutz. More evidence that strength is for male-male competition, while coordination is for courtship of females, as well as for female courtship of males.