June 30, 2012

Chinatown and de Chirico

In my research over the past several weeks on the changes in visual style during rising vs. falling-crime periods, the two strongest things that jump out are the greater use of chiaroscuro and the restricted depth perspective of rising-crime visual culture. I'll flesh those out in a more in-depth post when I can gather enough pictures together, and toss out some ideas about why these cycles regularly happen, from the Renaissance through today. The basic effect is to endow rising-crime art with greater theatricality at the expense of more photorealistic displays.

At any rate, for now I thought I'd take a quick look at one of the exceptional cases, where rising-crime art shows an incredibly deep perspective -- not to lend greater illusionism to the image, but to evoke a kind of bottomless pit that the solitary or small arrangement of characters are hovering in. Thus, it looks anti-realistic in a way: the figures look like they're in between dimensions or worlds connected by an incredibly long corridor.

There are several examples of this exception, which I'll cover later. Now I'll just look at two that I could not have put my finger on before looking over so much of the visual culture of the past 600 years, but which seem to me strikingly similar now. And that is the movie Chinatown and the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

First, though, a quick reminder of how perspective, and placement of figures at various lengths along that depth, was used to give a sense of harmony, of being immersed in a perhaps bustling yet still orderly world. Here's Raphael's School of Athens (1510) and Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656):

Moving to the rising-crime period of the early 20th C., de Chirico borrowed deep perspective portrayals of Renaissance plazas, but nearly emptied them of people (or other objects) and made the depth recede so sharply that it's unsettling. Here's Piazza d'Italia (1913), Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914), and The Disquieting Muses (1918).

There are too many shots in Chinatown with a similar composition of deep perspective and few, isolated figures; below are only those that were easy to find images of. Like de Chirico's paintings, they also tend to be shot around twilight, casting very long shadows. This heightens the uncanny effect of viewing a space that seems to span two different dimensions.

You really have to watch (or re-watch) the movie to see it. The pictures here don't always show the effect at its strongest, but they'll show you where to look in the movie. For instance, the first image below looks even better a few moments later in the scene, when the car is even further away.

You get the idea. Other movies from the most recent rising-crime period, such as The Shining, use even more sharply receding depth shots with isolated figures to suggest that they inhabit a space between two distant but linked worlds. However, those are mostly claustrophobic interior shots, whereas Chinatown does so with agoraphobic exterior shots like de Chirico.

Again, the point is not that they look identical, that one directly quotes another, etc. Rather, just that they employ highly similar compositions for similar effects, and that their use of the technique was different or opposite of the way that falling-crime artists used it. Rising-crime artists used strong depth perspective to provoke an unsettling feeling, and to draw subtle attention to the stylized nature of the work, whereas the falling-crime artists used it to draw out a more harmonious feeling, and through sensory immersion to try to hide cues that it was a stylized work.

June 28, 2012

Nineties music worth saving from a fire

[Updated with comments on songs, except for '92 and '93, which I'll do later. Nah, that'd take too long, and I think you get the point already. And added one by Mazzy Star.]

It was only the beginning of the downward spiral, so there were still some good songs being made, especially if the group had cut their teeth during the high-point of popular music from the previous 15 or so years. This is not meant as a Best Of list, but more as an exercise to show that cultural change usually is not a 100% overnight thing, and to show that although it was a dark age, it wasn't completely without its little joys.

Regardless of what you'd add or subtract, it does look like the overall pattern is one of steady decline after 1993. By the end there's only a couple of chick songs really. I'd say that little of this would stack up in a look at a broader period -- I just mean that this is the good stuff compared to the rest of the '90s.

This period is the junk I heard new as an adolescent (born in 1980), so I remembered a good deal off the top of my head; to fill in gaps I've consulted the Billboard Year-End Hot 100, and the weekly #1s for Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock / Alternative. Not exhaustive. I'm leaving out 1990 because that year is so '80s. It's really '91-'92 when things are grinding to a halt and changing direction. Years listed are when they charted, not necessarily when they were recorded (so some pre-'91 songs may sneak in here).

For now there aren't any comments on the songs, although I'll edit it later and say a word or two about each. Just want to finally get this thing up first.


"Unbelievable" by EMF. This took the early '90s minimalist dance music like C+C Music Factory, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," etc., and gave it enough of a melodic vocal line to make it fun to follow along with, where the rest (derived from rap) were more spoken or shouted like some lame slam poetry reading.

"Losing My Religion" by R.E.M. Great melody, and it manages to use slow instead of breakneck pacing to keep you a little tense and on the edge of your seat. Plus a prominent, yet surprisingly non-pretentious use of a mandolin, rooted in the not-so-well known about peak of folk music in the later half of the 1980s.

"I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls. How did they make a song about masturbation without coming off as campy or self-conscious? Turn the focus outward onto the person they're picturing, and the power they have over the singer. Even the moaning climax during the bridge sounds about as chaste as abandonment possibly could because up to that point, she's told about how much she wants a real connection, so that she's only resorting to wasteful self-love as a last resort.

"Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, remixed by DNA. More minimalist dance music that acquires life from the breathy lilt of a capella singing that's been sampled into the mix.

"Something to Believe In" by Poison. One of the best power ballads, for not focusing so much on a rift in human relationships, but on a feeling of heartbreak between man and a seemingly aloof deity. Still, it's a yearning like in "Higher Love" for a connection with God, not a bitter atheistic resentment nor glib dismissal of the idea of a divine protector.

"Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak. Great contrast in vocal delivery, mellow during the verse and more uncontrolled in the chorus. This feeling of chiaroscuro shows up in the darker counter-melody on the bass, contrasted with the more shimmering sound of the guitar. A wonderful way to evoke through sounds the lyrics about a person's facade vs. their inner self. (The music video adds another dimension to it through use of high-contrast black-and-white lighting.)

"Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite. Like "Unbelievable," it wakens up the minimalist dance music with a little melody, and this time some good syncopation on the bassline. The last time we'd have a good disco groove that sounded of-the-moment.


"Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"To Be with You" by Mr. Big.

"Black or White" by Michael Jackson.

"Finally" by CeCe Peniston.

"It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" by Boyz II Men.

"Mysterious Ways" by U2.

"Friday I'm in Love" by the Cure.

"Drown" by Smashing Pumpkins.

"Not Enough Time" by INXS.


"Can't Help Falling in Love" by UB40.

"Dreamlover" by Mariah Carey.

"Show Me Love" by Robin S.

"Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum.

"Two Princes" by Spin Doctors.

"Come Undone" by Duran Duran.

"All That She Wants" by Ace of Base.

"Hey Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms.

"Livin' on the Edge" by Aerosmith.

"Are You Gonna Go My Way" by Lenny Kravitz.

"No Rain" by Blind Melon.

"Today" by Smashing Pumpkins.

"Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows.

"Creep" by Radiohead.


"The Sign" by Ace of Base. Lots of pleasant building up and release of tension in this infectiously charming dance hit. It could've used a little more intricate of a beat, but it's still well before techno / electronic music bifurcated into march-step rhythms or un-coordinateable complex ones.

"Because the Night" by 10,000 Maniacs. Another cover, but distinct enough, and the emotional delivery feels genuine, not like the overly emo mainstream of the time and after.

"Linger" by the Cranberries. Very melodic, with a nice Celtic level of vocal inflection and vocal harmony.

"Found Out About You" by Gin Blossoms. Great gradual, dramatic build-up and release of tension. This may be the last song that has an accusatory tone of voice that is meant to ultimately reconcile a rift in a relationship, not the bitter whining the comes with passive acceptance, nor the see-through indifference that goes with junking someone you still care for.

"Spin the Bottle" by the Juliana Hatfield Three. The bouncy tempo and boy-crazy lyrics give it a child-like feeling, not like an infantile regression, but also not like a brooding fixation on how awkward or painful puberty can be. It's about the anticipation and thrilling unpredictability of that age when you first start playing kissing games (back when kids still played them, I mean). You can't write a catchy song like this about detached, at-a-distance "activities" like sexting or posting on your crush's Facebook wall.

"The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" by Morrissey. This is from a transition period from when gays were more in the closet and had to appeal to normal people, to when they came out in all their hideousness. If recorded today, it would probably sound like the epitome of clinging queer-ness. But it's more restrained emotionally -- just a basic unreciprocated love song -- as well as vocally (no paroxysms like in some of his Smiths songs). Very catchy and melodic, fitting the "don't ignore or forget me" lyrics.

"Basket Case" by Green Day. About as melodic as pop-punk ever got, not mindlessly repetitive, a nice upbeat take on the "I'm such a weirdo" song.

"Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. Along with Smashing Pumpkins, Mazzy Star is about as far as you can go into the '90s trippy, sound-scapey heroin jag music and still be able to pick out a melody and riffs to catch your attention and ground your memory. Otherwise you just float off into the landmark-free void and feel different sound textures washing over you, like one of those lazy river rides at the water park, remembering nothing afterward.


"I'll Stand by You" by the Pretenders. Most power ballads came from already very expressive hard rock bands, but here's one from a group with relatively lower-key college radio roots. ("Eternal Flame" by the Bangles is another, earlier example.)

"Misery" by Soul Asylum. Upbeat, lean-on-me tune about loneliness that I find impossible not to sing along to with a smile when it plays in the supermarket.


It seems like "Cruel Summer" by Ace of Base should have been good -- great original song, and not a bad group to cover it. But it's lifeless, the syncopated bass sucked right out of it.


"...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears. Catchy enough, not annoying like all other late '90s music, and the lyrics are those of a torch song rather than an "I'm so hot, get out of my face, scrub" kind of song.

"Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer. Only picks you up during the chorus, but still pleasant, and like the Britney Spears song it's got a boy-crazy rather than bitchy or mousy tone of voice.

June 27, 2012

Helicopter pet owners?

Since people treat their pets a lot like their own children, have they started to confine their animals indoors all the time too? I walk all over several neighborhoods in a typical week, and I almost never see the critters out anymore -- unsupervised, I mean. There's the occasional yip-yip dog on the other side of a fence, but even that's pretty rare these days.

People hover over their dogs a whole lot more than before, and not just walking them around to do their business. Even if it's just out in the yard, the owner feels compelled to be there, and right over them too, not merely keeping an eye on them from a distance and letting them do their own thing.

You see the same behavior at dog parks as you do at kid parks, with the owner or parent hovering over the pet or kid the whole time. And no dogs or kids can approach each other without the owners also approaching each other, just to make sure they check out. Such an abysmal lack of trust where one dog can't just go over and sniff another dog's butt without a chaperon.

Cats should be even more out and about, and I see them only rarely. My cats when I was little used to roam all over. One really fat one preferred to flop right on the sidewalk all day long. Once the animal rescue people picked him up because they thought he'd landed there after getting hit by a car. Another cat actually did get killed by a car, although at the time our parents didn't have the heart to tell us and said she had run away.

I can't remember the last time I saw a cat outside dodging traffic... or even having to get rescued down out of a tree. That used to be such a cliche, right? Last time I had to climb a tree to get a cat down was sometime in the mid-'90s. I guess if children aren't allowed outside to climb trees, neither are cats.

What made me really wonder about this is that I passed a cat on the way home tonight a little before midnight, and it was really affectionate. Almost aggressive in rubbing the side of her mouth on my knuckles, sometimes trying to stand herself on my knee when I was crouched down, and so on. One good turn deserves another, so when I got home I mashed up some sardines for her, and headed back (just a couple minutes away).

By then she'd gone up to rest on a bench that stood on someone's porch, so I figured that was her owner, and felt relieved that she had a home. She didn't wolf down the sardines as though she had been starving, so someone has been feeding her, or perhaps she's a good hunter and scavenger. Anyway, on the way home I thought how little sense it made to see her outside so late at night, when just about everyone keeps their pets indoors all day, especially at night, or only allows them out with supervision. She probably was an alley cat after all. Sometimes a pattern doesn't jump out until you see an apparent exception.

Too bad my landlord doesn't allow pets. She'd definitely make an eager and appreciative lap cat, and those are hard to find. I decided to call her Seenie, after the Senior Center I found her in front of. Maybe Seenie Sardini if she takes to me feeding her.

June 26, 2012

Gay Peter Pan-ism, part 34586: More boyish builds

My realtalk buddy and I got onto throwing out some dead giveaways that a guy is queer, things that are clear once you've seen enough of them, but that might not be obvious to the average person. He said a very narrow waist and hips, without realizing that what he really meant was a boy's proportions instead of an adolescent's or a man's.

Only pre-pubescent children have waist-to-hip ratios around 1.0 (that is, each being equal length). Men don't have hourglass figures like women, but they are closer to 0.9 (slightly in the hourglass direction), rather than 1.0 like a bean-pole. And 0.9 is the ideally attractive male ratio, as judged by females.

That would totally fit my reduction of all gay weirdness to two principles: 1) having the mind of an addict, and 2) Peter Pan-ism, being stuck in a child-like state mentally. Well, why not stuck in childhood physically?

Unfortunately, there are no studies of waist-to-hip ratios in homo and heterosexual men. So there's a free study for anyone who wants to get published. But this guy sounded pretty certain about it, and it sounds about right to me. They do have boyishly narrow hips.

Luckily, though, there have been many studies that looked at simpler measure like height, weight, and BMI. Overall it does appear that gays are more physically developmentally stunted than normals. I'll skip reading them and doing a full lit review, and instead copy the key findings of some recent large studies.

From Bogaert (2010). Physical development and sexual orientation in men and women: an analysis of NATSAL-2000.

Results indicated that gay/bisexual men were significantly shorter and lighter than heterosexual men. There were no significant differences between lesbians and heterosexual women in height, weight, and age of puberty. The results add to literature suggesting that, relative to heterosexual men, gay/bisexual men may have different patterns of growth and development because of early biological influences (e.g., exposure to atypical levels of androgens prenatally).

These size differences show up even at birth. From Frisch & Zdravkovic (2010). Body size at birth and same-sex marriage in young adulthood.

For same-sex married men, birth year-adjusted mean weight (-72 g, p = .03), length (-0.3 cm, p = .04), and BMI (-0.1 kg/m(2), p = .09) at birth were lower than for other Danish men. Same-sex marriage rates were increased in men of short birth length (IRR = 1.45; 95% CI = 1.01-2.08, for < or =50 vs. 51-52 cm), although not uniformly so (p (trend) = .16).

Of course they don't always find these results, but from skimming through a "previous research" section, none have found the opposite result -- that gays are taller, heavier, or bulkier. A recent national, representative study in Britain found no differences. From Bogaert & Friesen (2001). Sexual orientation and height, weight, and age of puberty: new tests from a British national probability sample.

Men with same-sex inclinations (particularly bisexuals) had an earlier first sexual experience relative to heterosexual men (approx. 3 months). Homosexual men did not significantly differ from heterosexual men in height or in weight, although there was some evidence that bisexual men were taller than heterosexual men (approx. 1 cm). The results challenge some prior research on sexual orientation and physical development using nonrepresentative samples.

I have no idea whether all these many studies use the same measure of homosexuality (e.g., preference or behavior, only once or regularly, etc.). And I can't say which study looks like it was done the best. I just don't care enough about this topic to dive in. Still, the take-home seems to be that queers are shorter, lighter, and slimmer than normal men, and that this may be apparent even at birth.

Sadly but predictably, all of the discussion in this literature is about pre-natal exposure to hormones, bodily feminization, and so on. It's not feminization -- gays have no nurturing instinct, most obviously -- but rather infantilization. Since females are more neotenous than males, it accidentally looks like gay deviance is a case of feminization. Really, though, it's a syndrome of infantilizing traits. A study on waist-to-hip ratios would be a good test between the two -- feminization says more like an hourglass, infantilization says more like a bean-pole.

I don't think they pursue those ideas out of political correctness -- it's hardly PC to call gays a bunch of girly men. It's just an internal academic thing, where hormones and digit ratios and all that are just sexy topics du jour, so why not work gayness in there as well?

They need to stop looking at hormones in the womb that could put gays toward the female side of the male-female dimorphism spectrum. Instead they need to work on how a Gay Germ (in Greg Cochran's theory) could injure the young brain so that it matures incredibly slowly, including harming areas of the brain responsible for releasing signals that tell the body to grow to a certain size at a certain time.

How that results in homosexuality, who knows? Perhaps finding girls yucky is another case of Peter Pan-ism. I know, finding girls yucky doesn't mean wanting to go out and suck a dude's cock, but I'm just talking about who they're into. They obviously do not get stunted in sexual maturity -- if anything, they mature earlier. The pathogen leaves that part of the brain alone. So what you end up with is a hypersexual 8 year-old boy who thinks girls are gross. From that, most of gay deviance follows.

Well, add in their addictive tendencies, too, but I'm starting to think that some or all could be subsumed under Peter Pan-ism. Small children have much more addictive personalities than grown-ups, after all, from the cravings to the temper-tantrums thrown if it's taken away or they don't get it to begin with. Just imagine if an 8 year-old boy could get his hands on party drugs -- it's no wonder that substance abuse is endemic among faggots.

Yeah yeah, another victimless crime. But we're still going to have to pay for their fucked-up behavior, not just financially as tax-payers picking up the check for health care etc., but also as friends or neighbors or co-workers who become collateral damage from the sewer-drain explosion of My Spectacular Alternative Lifestyle.

June 24, 2012

Heterogeneity of appearance erodes a group's moral growth

When a society is heterogeneous to the naked eye, it winds up stunting their moral sense, or corrupting it if it was already developed. There is simply too strong of a temptation to equate all that's going wrong in the world with the people who don't look like us. They clearly have some kind of inner, essential difference -- and maybe that's also causing them to be so screwed up. It's the same way we distinguish a poisonous from an edible species of plant.

We see this most depressingly in racially diverse countries, where people of one group complain about the other groups, whether justifiably or not. That removes the impetus to examine your own group and your own self, which is the basis for the concept of sin and redemption. For those concepts to take root, it needs to be an ethnically homogeneous group that nevertheless shows a range of behavior across individuals, from helpful to harmful.

As far as I can tell, Zoroastrianism was the first religion to develop the themes of sin and redemption, and not surprisingly that was when the Iranian pastoralists saw that some of their own kind were choosing to make a living by exploiting others, by raiding on horseback, rather than devoting their energies to tending their livestock. To their eyes, the criminals had the same inner essence as the stewards, and so both would have seen the pay-off of a life of crime. However, since some did and some did not follow that path, it must have been an act of free will on both of their parts. And likewise, they could return to the proper path by freely choosing to leave behind their exploitative ways.

Christianity perfected these concepts, also during a time when the cause of Jewish suffering was not so much those from outside, but the mutually antagonistic factions within the Jewish population. Rome did not turn Jewish women into prostitutes, and it was a sub-species of Jews -- not outside occupiers -- who had welcomed the money-changers into the Temple. Seeing that they were capable of bringing ruin upon themselves, some Jews lent their ear to Jesus. He did not obsess over repelling and expelling a foreign evil, but persuading every individual to check their internal temptation toward sin, to prepare for the coming end of days, when their repentance would save them.

At the other extreme, the Han Chinese have never discovered the concepts of sin and redemption as described above. Most of their moral systems are based on filial piety or at most an elaborate code of etiquette to maintain harmony. The closest they got was Taoism, which although very cryptic still cannot conceal its preoccupation with an individual swerving off of the right path and acting to get back on track. Not coincidentally, this philosophy or religion was developed during the Warring States period, when the Chinese had plenty of evidence right under their noses that evil didn't just come from some wicked band of foreigners.

Throughout their history, though, it was outside tribes who looked and acted very differently that brought misery to the Chinese -- namely the numerous pastoralist Steppe groups, whether Hun, Mongol, or whatever. This unrelenting pressure from raiding foreigners has fed the primitive equation of evil with foreign substances. Aside from the civil strife that gave birth to Taoism, they have not experienced enough internal breakdown to over-ride man's instincts toward chauvinism.

We can hardly ignore the parallels in the present day. Anyone who does openly think or talk about crime and depravity in America tends to focus too much on the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics among criminals. Well that's true enough, and it is worth reminding people of, given how politically incorrect it is to mention. But it's not as though Wyoming and Vermont were spared from the crime wave of the '60s through the '80s. Ditto the European countries with virtually all-white populations -- that wave of violence was international. And obviously the previous two international waves of violence had nothing to do with non-European groups, taking place from ca. 1580 to 1630 and then again from ca. 1780 to 1830.

Indeed, the best academic work on the heritability of crime comes from lily-white Scandinavia. They know that there weren't enough dark-skinned people there to have launched and perpetuated the most recent crime wave. It must have been some of their own. Their behavior genetics research has uncovered differences across individuals, not groups, in criminal tendencies.

As America grows ever more diverse, I fear we're heading in the direction of the Chinese, where eventually whites will, however secretly, think of and put the blame on blacks, Mexicans, etc., for what's going wrong with the country, regressing away from the focus on sin and redemption. In the good old days, not many white Americans lived near large concentrations of more criminally prone racial groups. Pretty soon we'll feel like the Mongols are storming in from the Steppe, and adopt the pack moral mentality.

To end with an example not at the level of race or ethnicity, just look at what's happened between economic classes, with the erosion of fellow-feeling under a tide of antipathy. That's happened in all civilizations before, but this time it's even nastier because class differences are visible to the naked eye -- namely how fat or lean people are. Obesity is caused by carb-scarfing, widely promoted by the know-nothing health experts, but some people are hit worse than others.

In particular, lower-class people have more addictive tendencies, while upper-class people are better able to defer gratification. So when the experts encourage us all to chow down on an addictive substance like carbohydrates, the lower-class people will fill up their shopping carts with cookies, chips, ice cream, pizza, soda, beer, etc. Upper-class people today are more likely than their counterparts 30 years ago to buy granola, fruit juice, rice pilaf, and so on, but most of them (except for the vegans) have an aversion to loading up on only sugar and starch. They don't have as much of a sweet tooth. They'll work in non-starchy vegetables, cheese, fish, chicken, sometimes even red meat -- but at any rate, real food, not just junk food.

So, just as alcoholism and the crack epidemic have been mostly lower-class afflictions, so has the obesity epidemic. Now it's not so hard for upper and lower-class people to tell who's who, even from far away. This stark difference in average appearance once more leads us to equate degeneracy with some out-group, like poor fat hicks. As with the Chinese viewing the Mongols, or whites viewing blacks, it's not that this equation doesn't have a strong basis. Lower-class people do have poorer impulse control and are fatter.

But now we've shifted focus away from our own addictions, like being plugged into one glowing box or another all day long for no good reason, just to feed our brain a steady flow of informational morphine. I mean, hey, no need to turn our lives around even a little bit -- it's not like we're poor fat hicks or anything.

This obesity-based hostility has become most visible at Disneyland and Disney World, two places formerly associated with bringing Americans from all walks of life together. Unlike most other public spaces, the classes still do mix there, but not very amicably.

I haven't been since the late '80s or early '90s, but my two brothers took my nephew two summers ago. By far the most remarked about thing was how many fat people in scooters there were clogging the space of pedestrians. Lots of others on the internet have noticed this too; one even said that he couldn't go on the "It's a Small World" ride because fat people broke it. By now they'll need to rebuild it as "It's an Extra-Extra-Large World".

Some sources of class divisions we just won't be able to do much about, like those that are part of very long-term historical trajectories. But cleaning up the place of addictive substances is worthwhile. They devastate the lower classes so much more than the upper classes, that it exacerbates the other class divisions, and makes it easier to tell who's who at a distance, luring us into equating deviance with outsiderness. I know the top-down approaches haven't worked much in the past, so maybe a grassroots appeal to leave behind their self-destructive ways is more in order. Whatever it is, though, it would go a long way toward minimizing the alarming between-group hatred.

June 22, 2012

Why don't portmanteau words catch on?

Going over many sources of slang, one thing that pops out is how abysmal the success rate is for portmanteau words. That's where you cut out pieces from two words and splice them together, the new word suggesting some combination of the two original words. Like "Rethuglican" from "thug" and "Republican" -- won't last.

Here we see the main problem with these words: they're too self-aware, and every use is an overly eager attempt to make the listener laugh. "Huh-huh, Rethuglicans -- get it?" Yeah, we get it, you moron. Oral communication is not very conscious, since that's the mode we're adapted to, and so anything that halts the flow of speech in a conversation won't take off the ground. That's why you find those obsessed with portmanteau words in the nerdy parts of the literate culture.

The few good portmanteau words are totally transparent as for the two words joined in surgery, and also what is implied. "Stagflation" works because only one word will come to anyone's mind that beings with "stag-", and only one that ends in "-flation". If you were paying attention to the economy in the '70s, it wasn't too hard to see what was meant. And unlike "Rethuglican," the term isn't meant to be a self-aware joke every time it's uttered. It's not a put-down of the out-group by the in-group, but a term that united everyone who felt like the economy was the worst of both worlds back then.

Even a seemingly straightforward combo like "netiquette" requires a moment's pause to get what they mean. Obviously one of the words is "etiquette," but lots of words begin with "n-". Oh wait, it's the entire word "net" that's been spliced in. OK, so you mean like etiquette on the internet? Damn, though, why did you have to make me think so hard about it -- just say "online etiquette" or "internet manners" or something simple.

Pleasing ornamentation makes the thing easier to recall (for example through repetition), and most portmanteau words do the opposite, making us reflect consciously on the derivation, rather than retrieve it automatically, and even more quickly than we would if it lacked a nice little ornament. "Back-breaking" work, a "ball-busting" wife, or some fat "cockblock" with a "tramp stamp" -- those are reliable repetition-for-memory devices at work, giving these neologisms an infectious quality.

This highlights a key weakness of portmanteau words -- they are designed for self-aggrandizement (look at how clever I am), whereas alliterative and rhyming phrases are designed for the benefit of the listener (easier to recall). Oral culture tends to be pretty egalitarian, so new words that violate that ethos are doomed from the start. They'll only be successful, if at all, in a literary context, and even then only when there's a personality cult -- why else would you help to regularly boost someone else's status?

(That distinguishes them from another autistic favorite, the acronym, which as nerdy as it is, still does not pretend to be a clever turn of phrase. Its total lack of imagination maintains the egalitarian ethos of the group that uses it.)

So, the more self-regarding and the more cut-off from other people you are in real life, the more likely you are to rely on portmanteau words. That has to be why they litter just about all science-fiction writing. The enjoyable and empathetic ones like Philip K. Dick try to keep them to a minimum, although even he can't help himself sometimes, like "mentufacturer." A transparent compound like "empathy box" works so much better.

Skimming through a list of words and phrases coined by Shakespeare, I didn't find any portmanteau examples. There's plenty of alliteration, though -- bated breath, dead as a doornail, fancy-free, kill with kindness, lackluster, primrose path, short shrift, and so on.

It would be hard to study pormanteau coining over time, since they are so unsuccessful. Still, it seems like over the past 20 years we've gotten more carried away with them -- netiquette, e-tail, Rethuglican, glibertarian, etc. One clear consequence of our declining oral culture is our growing inability to coin infectious new words, which relies so much on the sounds of speech. We think that just because a bunch of dorks use some buzzword on Twitter, it's got legs. Unless it's technical jargon, though, a word like that with little use in speech has little chance of survival.

June 21, 2012

Historical pattern of slang words with sound repetition

Let's follow up with some harder data on the decline of our oral culture. I took the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (2005) and checked each entry for rhyme, alliteration, or reduplication. An example of each: nitty-gritty, dirty dog, and mau-mau. These stylistic devices all put more sound repetition into our speech, so that we can remember them more easily. They also satisfy our taste for ornament, which is what we call those stylizations that enhance memorability.

Oral communication relies so heavily on memory, unlike texts that are off-loaded to a storage medium. So, the coining of slang words that have repetition is a good barometer of how thriving the oral culture is.

Turning to the data, I excluded overly technical jargon, military jargon, criminal underworld slang, and arcane drug references (although I kept slang about alcohol, cigarette, and general drug use). I also excluded words that were listed as only or primarily non-American English. Last, I kept only words coined from 1900 or later. The point is to look at popular American folk slang during a time when we can compare it to the homicide rate. The entries contain both still-current terms as well as those no longer in use but highly common in their day.

This left 115 terms, and below is a graph showing how they're distributed over time (according to the date in the entry). They're grouped into 5-year bins, plotted by the mid-year of the bin. Click to enlarge.

The most odd-looking thing is the lack of terms from the late '70s and after. I think this just reflects the minimal coverage that this period got overall in the dictionary -- I scanned every entry, and didn't notice a whole lot that was common in the '80s or '90s. The book came out in 2005, so most of the entries were probably chosen even earlier. If we were to correct each time-period's count of repetition slang by dividing by the total number of entries from that time in the book, I think you'd see the later '70s and '80s up near the level of the late '60s and early '70s. I think the creators were simply too cautious about committing to perhaps too-recent slang words.

So, comparing the falling-crime era of the past 20 years to what came before will have to wait for another data-set. For now we'll look at the rest of the pattern.

The coinages increase from around 1900 through the '29-'33 chunk. That perfectly reflects the trend in the homicide rate, which peaked in 1933. Then coinages plummet through the early-to-mid-'50s, again reflecting the falling homicide rate almost down to the year. Still, there is an apparent blip in coinages during the latter half of the '50s, whereas the homicide rate doesn't start rising until 1959. Since it's just a rise from 2 to 5 words, it may not be worth making a big deal out of. On the other hand, it may be part of the broader late '50s pattern of people starting to come out of their cocoons a little bit, like the spread of rock 'n' roll. As the crime rate rises after this, the coinages are clearly rising as well. I already explained why I think the picture of the later '70s and after is lacking.

Just about perfectly, then, the rise and fall and rise of the oral culture tracks the rise and fall and rise of the crime rate. There are two ways this happens. First, criminals prey on people who are out in the open, so a rising crime rate reflects a rising sociability in the non-criminal population, which obviously leads to greater face-to-face speech. Also, there's a response to the rising crime rate itself: we need to band together more, look out for each other more, and so on, when threats to our security are rising. And banding together boosts our face-to-face communication.

The most interesting part of the picture is the falling number of coinages during the mid-century, suggesting a declining sociability. We've seen that in all sorts of other places that I won't link to because it'll take too long, but that you can find by searching this blog for "mid-century". Because that period was a lot more stable, we tend to think of it as ideal in every way -- or at least in many other ways. Isn't that back in the good ol' days when people related to each other so often face-to-face and enjoyed a thriving oral culture? Evidently not.

There was a previous golden age of social life, but that was the earlier Jazz Age. For anyone familiar with basic aspects of social or cultural life in those two periods, it can't be surprising to see that the 1900s through the early '30s saw greater interest in creating slang meant to be enjoyed in up-close-and-personal interactions. The naive views that things always get better or always get worse are usually wrong. Social-cultural life seems to go more in cycles, although sometimes there are longer-term steady trends as well.

But in the interest of reminding ourselves that even a relatively more staid period can still have its occasional departures, consider that the first half of the '50s gave us the terms gang-bang, ball-buster, and party pooper (a term used by party animals). And the mid-late '30s gave us drop dead, juke joint, hanky-panky, and killer-diller. The '40s do look like more of a wasteland, though, aside from the coining of "culture vulture".

It's fascinating how familiar much of the Jazz Age slang is -- nitwit, heebie-jeebies, bring home the bacon, two-time, blah-blah, down the drain, fat cat, jeepers-creepers, dime-a-dozen, to not know shit from Shinola, worry-wart, and the construction X schmX, like grammar schmammar. Not to mention phrases that aren't included in the repetition group, such as "sex appeal". Their language just packs more of a punch than the mid-century. It's more memorable. Even the iconic novel of the era has an alliterative title -- The Great Gatsby.

I don't know about you, but digging into all this stuff really does give me hope that things will get better (before eventually getting worse again). The Gilded Age gave way to the Jazz Age, the Mid-century Modern Age gave way to the New Wave Age, and the SWPL Age must give way to whatever Age is waiting to welcome our next awakening.

June 20, 2012

Bright mid-week music

By the '80s, ideology had mostly withered away, although the drive away from conformity continued unchecked. This opened up a non-dogmatic kind of non-conformity, full of fellow-feeling, that was much more enjoyable than the later rigid strains of out-of-the-crowd-ness. Those fed an apathetic, misanthropic attitude toward others, and really killed off the sense of community that used to exist even within the various groups outside the mainstream.

Here's a great example of a song that sounds vaguely African, though without the my-cool-black-friend, winking awareness of "I'm a white New Wave dude channeling Africa," and that has lyrics that are political, yet lacking in resentment or divisiveness. Who'd ever heard of political music that was upbeat, uplifting, and shimmering?

June 19, 2012

Are wimpy Millennials behind the rise in military suicides?

My realtalk buddy and I were trying to make heads or tails of the fact that suicides in the military now outnumber combat deaths. He was in Vietnam and said that, while soldiers always love to bitch about their assignments, there was nothing like the wave of suicides that there's been recently. And the people he's talking about faced far tougher stress in Vietnam than today's military has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I'm still waiting for him to say, "The man in the black pajamas, Dude. Worthy fuckin' adversary.")

It looks like the government began collecting data in 1980. Here's the number per year:

A report shows that the military suicide rates paralleled the civilian suicide rates during the 1980s, '90s, and earlier half of the 2000s, then began surging sometime during the mid-2000s and up through 2008. They attributed a good deal of this to the deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, more recent data show that suicides have continued to rise up through 2012. (They're comparing the Jan-May period for each year, to be able to include 2012, and say that the rate during this time-frame predicts what happens for the entire year.) Combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq in 2010, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. So mere exposure to combat seems to be unlikely to explain much of the rise, which has only gotten worse even after steady de-escalation of the war effort.

What changed around 2006 and has continued through now? I think it's the generational structure. Most military suicides are males aged 18-24. But a 21 year-old Millennial is not the same as a 21 year-old Boomer or Gen X-er was. It looks like the suicide rate began climbing once Millennials started to make up a larger portion of the young adults in the military, right through today.

Having been sheltered by their helicopter parents all their lives, including being socially isolated from their peers, not to mention growing up during a falling-crime period, the Millennials never faced much of a test of survival and independence. They locked themselves indoors playing video games all day instead of gathering together in a group to play football in the park, or manhunt in the woods.

In the same way that regular stressors build stronger bones and muscles during development, regular rough-and-tumble play, even the occasional encounter with real violence, toughens a person mentally to handle the load as an adult. Violence doesn't even have to face you first-hand -- just seeing it happen to others via the news, word-of-mouth, and so on, reminds you that it could happen to you too. That alone can begin the process of building up mental defenses to such stressors later on.

It would hardly be surprising, then, that when the younger soldiers in the military are drawn from this generation, the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide would begin soaring. Presumably they're tougher on average than a random group of Millennials, but still wimpier on average than their young military counterparts who were born before 1985.

That fits with the impression my younger brother gives me of what Army life is like in the 2010s. He entered basic training in his late 20s, and said the typical guy there was more interested in screwing off and complaining about minimal demands. Those guys were born in the early '90s, while he was born in 1982. He probably notices the pre-Millennial vs. Millennial differences more than I do, since he's even closer to their age, yet still on the not-too-fucked-up side of the generational divide. Just 5 years younger than him is a wide chasm.

I didn't hear too many stories like that from my other brother, also born in 1982, who went to Iraq once or twice during the mid-late 2000s, and has been out of the Army for several years now (I don't recall exactly when). Maybe the troop composition was only just getting screwed up when he got in, or maybe he just didn't feel like offering stories about them. I'll have to ask next time we're yakking on the phone.

Here we see another case of helicopter parents crippling or at least stunting their kids' healthy growth as "adults," in the name of (over-)protecting them as children.

June 18, 2012

With so little face-to-face anymore, our oral culture is evaporating

The main weakness of culture that is transmitted by word-of-mouth is that if the chain breaks in enough places, it could die out for good, unlike culture that can be stored in a medium.

Normally, we think of such threats to oral culture as pressures to assimilate to some other culture, such as a linguistic minority group. Growing up, the young people will pay little attention to the language of their parents, and more to the language of the world they will actually have to make it in. Slowly but surely, the language disappears.

I think, though, that there's a whole 'nother source that drains an oral culture from a community, namely when the members begin cocooning themselves from one another. We never need an outside threat to undo our culture -- we're perfectly capable of undoing it ourselves. Once we stop speaking so often to each other, there it goes.

It may not ever go quite that far -- like, we still speak to others now, but it's much more guarded than it used to be. There's an unspoken understanding not to just let it all hang out anymore. It has to be more canned, superficial, and delivered at an emotional distance. A thriving oral culture requires not being so alert, allowing spontaneity, and letting your guard down, as well as accepting it when others let theirs down. It takes two to tango.

Think of something as simple as telling jokes -- if the other person doesn't trust you or feel like being on the same wavelength as you, they might not respond at all, or give a polite social laugh, signaling that they will not spread the joke on to anyone else. And not because the joke isn't truly funny -- if you heard it from someone, they probably heard it from someone, who heard it from someone, and so on. By the time you hear it, it's passed a survival of the fittest test. For your own inventions, of course, your mileage may vary.

And don't you notice how hardly anyone tells jokes anymore? Let alone within a larger "cycle," like the dead baby jokes, Polack jokes, and blonde jokes of the not-so-distant past. You're allowed to make sarcastic remarks, rant about what pisses you off, etc., but you can't actually participate in the give-and-take of joke-telling in real life these days. I remember one day a few years ago, some of the cashiers at Whole Foods were asking customers to tell them a joke -- any joke -- as though they were begging travelers to share the details of the exotic lands they had only heard about.

Then there's the decline in legend-telling and folksong. Those were some of the first things I noticed when I stumbled onto the cultural effects of a rising vs. falling crime rate. Here are quantitative data on the death of the urban legend culture, and here is a qualitative review of the disappearance of children's subversive rhymes and songs.

There are actually even more telling signs at a more fundamental, phonological level. In a rich oral culture, the participants employ all sorts of devices to make sure that the items will be remembered later on -- they can't just be looked up, re-downloaded, or played back. As predicted by my theory that ornament is for memory, this need for easy recall leads to linguistic ornamentation in the form of repetition (with variation). The most common examples are rhyming (repetition of the sounds in the stressed vowel and everything after), alliteration (repetition of the initial consonants of stressed syllables), and reduplication (repetition of an entire syllable or word).

Right now I'm combing through a dictionary on mostly 20th-century English slang, and will have quant data to relate in a day or so. But in the meantime, try to think of how rare it is for current, commonly used slang to involve rhyming, alliteration, or reduplication. It's there, but just rare -- cockblock, Facebook friend, bling-bling... not a whole lot more.

I read through a book on youth slang as heard from 1972 to 1989, and what a reminder it was! It's hard not to find a page that didn't have some kind of repetition-for-memory device. Pedal to the metal, balls to the walls, space case, take a chill pill, bodacious bod, boom box, Suzie Sorority, stylin' and profilin', fake and bake, and on and on. Even us kids were being as creative as we could -- witness our playground game called smear the queer, and our use of metonymy in names like barf-breath, fart-face, and metal-mouth.

After the early '90s, I can only think of a couple examples, aside from the 2000s-era ones listed above. There was, Ain't no thing but a chicken wing, See ya -- wouldn't wanna be ya, Chillin' like a villain (or like Bob Dylan)... and that's about it. I read through a historical overview of 20th-C slang (organized by decade, not the dictionary mentioned earlier), and didn't come up with anything else either. There's probably a bit more from the '90s that doesn't spring to mind, but in any case way less than from the '80s.

To wrap up this scattershot examination, let's look at pop song titles. They usually are what's repeated the most, whose sounds have to pique our interest before even hearing them, and that afterward stick in our minds the most. Maybe I'll go through the decades more systematically later, but keeping for now to the recent shift, I'll just compare 1984 to 1994.

That's long enough for the decline to have really set in after the late '80s / early '90s, and it isn't even that far-apart of a time-frame. This should show just how fast the signs of a rich oral culture vanished into thin air. Those years are also emblematic of what people think of as '80s and '90s music. And most importantly, it prevents the lame technological argument that this is all due to widespread adoption of the internet and text messaging (which anyway is a free choice, and itself a sign of cocooning). The decline began well before that stuff.

Going to the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles chart, for 1994 we find 4 titles with repetition: Any Time Any Place, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia), Gin and Juice.

Turning to the good ol' days of 1984, we find 12 titles: Say Say Say, Karma Chameleon, Dancing in the Dark, Time After Time, Hard Habit to Break, Caribbean Queen, Sad Songs (Say So Much), Miss Me Blind, Dance Hall Days, Round and Round, Head Over Heels, New Moon on Monday.

Have things gotten better since 1994? No, there are only 5 titles from the 2011 year-end charts: We R Who We R, Tonight Tonight, 6 Foot 7 Foot, Barefoot Blue Jean Night, God Gave Me You.

This has only scratched the surface, but you see what I mean, jellybean. I'll have more quantitative and in-depth posts up later -- at least that's the plan, Stan. Till then, see you later, alligator.

June 15, 2012

Jews less sociable, even in secular settings

At Starbucks there's another regular who I realtalk with, and it's a lot more enjoyable and productive than writing and reading about the same non-PC topics over the internet. Oral communication is more conducive to getting into the flow of a conversation and tossing out ideas, whereas literate culture tends to be more conscious, deliberate, and edited (and less humble). We're just not adapted to it, so it takes more conscious effort. It's a reminder of how valuable it is to seek out people in real life to talk about stuff, even if you could find more of them on the internet.

Anyway, we were shooting the bull about Jews yesterday, and we got onto the issue of how much they participate in community life -- specifically the kind of regular, face-to-face gatherings that bond a community together, as opposed to infrequent, mediated communication at a distance, which is more for cohering an ideological group of fellow-travelers around their abstract common beliefs.

It made me think how, all the time I've lived around Jews, they not only didn't seem to participate as much in overall community life, but didn't even hold similar gatherings for their own ethnic-religious group. The data below answer only the first part, about how involved they are in overall community life.

But it's striking how there's very little Jewish-only communal life either, as though they were merely keeping to themselves but showing the same level of communal behavior. Most of their organizations are for abstract principles, don't meet perhaps at all or only infrequently, and relate adherents to each other only at a distance -- writing letters, donating money, etc., rather than sitting near each other and talking, holding dances, and so on. Not only can't Jews stand to interact personally with Gentiles, they can't even stand one another. It has to be abstract, impersonal, and mediated.

The only exceptions are the very thriving organizations aimed at Jewish youths. They go to Hebrew school, have a bar or bat mitzvah, go to a Jewish summer camp, travel to meet other Jewish teenagers through the B'Nai B'rith Youth Organization, attend Hillel functions at college, maybe even fly to Israel to connect with their roots while their minds are still impressionable. It looks mostly like ethnic indoctrination -- isn't that what you'd call it if it were German-Americans instead of Jewish Americans? Once they're grown-ups, however, they don't really associate with one another very much in real life, it seems.

Now for some data on overall community involvement. The General Social Survey asked four questions about how often you spend an evening socializing with different groups of people -- by going to a bar, being with a friend, a neighbor, or a relative. To focus on the ties that bind, I only counted responses that were "almost daily" or "several times per week." I restricted respondents to white liberals with an IQ of at least 120. This controls for some of the major demographic differences between Jews and non-Jews. Also, because we're looking at frequently meeting other people, population size of the respondent's area was restricted to anywhere up through 100,000.

Here are graphs showing the percent of each group that frequently interacts face-to-face in the four settings. "None" doesn't necessarily mean atheist, but no religious preference or identification.

Overall, Christians interact personally more than Jews, although the none-religionists are a bit above Christians. Not surprising, given that these are secular settings (I'll add in church below). To do a factor analysis, I had to lump the two Christian groups together, but again they seem similar enough anyway. There's a single factor underlying all four measures of sociability, meaning if you tend to relate to people in one setting, you tend to relate to people in the others as well. On this general factor (in standard deviations), Christians score 0.4, Jews -1.1, and None 0.8. That's a 1.5 s.d. difference between Christians and Jews, as though Jews were on average 4.5 inches "shorter" than Christians, if we treated sociability as a kind of "height".

Now we'll throw in church attendance, since people don't only meet in secular settings. I only counted responses that were "every week" or "more than once per week" to keep it in line with the secular questions. Now the factor analysis can maintain the original four religious groups. A single factor still underlies the pattern, although going to a bar doesn't load on it. Thus, sociability is more about being with friends, neighbors, relatives, and church members, and not so much about going to a bar.

On this general factor, Protestants score 0.5, Catholics 0.7, Jews -1.5, and None 0.3. This is more or less what we saw above, only now the None group is a bit less sociable than the two Christian groups. Jews are still remarkably anti-communal compared to Christians, as though they were 6 inches "shorter" than Protestants and 6 1/2 inches "shorter" than Catholics. Those gaps are astounding, more like chasms.

Unlike some of the other studies I've done comparing Jews to other groups, here they're not part-way between the Christians and the None group (i.e. Jews as a mostly non-religious people). Here even the group that professes no religion still relates a lot more to people in real life than Jews do, standing nearly 5 inches "taller" than Jews. You know this from your own experience -- the people who say "None" will still hold a cook-out, throw a party, go camping, sit around and get stoned, or find other ways to hang out with each other regularly. However, being drop-outs from the religious culture, they don't also meet in a sacred setting.

Jews are in a class by themselves when it comes to walling themselves off from people, though. They just can't stand them. As detailed earlier, it has to be mediated communication, and about something abstract rather than palpable. They do have a reputation everywhere for being extraverted, pushy, and talkative, but that must be mostly from their penchant for striking bargains and sealing deals, an adaptation to the managerial niche that the Ashkenazim have occupied for most of their history in Europe.

Their extraversion then is more opportunistic -- what's in it for me, let's find a mutually beneficial arrangement, etc. Gentile extraversion is instead more communal and egalitarian -- let's all have some fun and help each other out, without worrying about exact terms and counting who may be enjoying the interaction more than who else.

As Gentile societies become more managerial, we can only expect to wind up more like the Jews through convergent evolution. That should be one of the strongest warnings that we don't really need to go any farther in that direction. Look what happened to the experimental group that really went with managerialism -- they may be smart and inventive in math, technology, and hard science, but we're smart and inventive enough ourselves. Plus they're quasi-autistic, and hate interacting with other people in real life, not just from the out-group but even their own kind.

Even putting aside the very real dangers of what a brainy, managerial group can create that would wipe us out or send us back to the stone age, and only looking at what good could come of it -- putting 1% fewer man-hours into production, or paying 1% less for our basket of goods, is not worth trading in man's defining sociability.

GSS variables used: relig, socbar, socfrend, socommun, socrel, attend, race, wordsum, polviews, size

June 14, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven

After seeing Prometheus, I figured I'd finally get around to checking this one out (in the DVD director's cut).

The cinematography and composition alone is worth it. The overall impression is Jean-Leon Gerome (the clinical Orientalist), mixed with some Georges de La Tour (the pensive Baroque candlelight painter).

I've noticed that during falling-crime times, exoticism goes for a more ethnographic, clinical, documentarian, touristic approach, like Gerome during the Victorian era, the Jimmy Stewart version of The Man Who Knew Too Much during the mid-century, and... well, I didn't know quite what the example would be from the last 20 years, but now I've got one.

In rising-crime times, exoticism turns more toward the subjective, supernatural, stepping-into-a-different-dimension approach, such as just about every gothic novel from the Romantic-Gothic period, the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Bagdad from the Jazz Age, and the Indiana Jones movies from the New Wave Age.

In Kingdom of Heaven, the supernatural part of religion is entirely absent; instead it's shown as a social-political means of holding together a faction or larger group. We assume that there is some supernatural element to the beliefs that hold them together, but the focus of the movie is just on the social scientific fact that it does hold them together.

There's some pretty good basic ethnography of pastoralist people, like their obsession with honor, reciprocity (both an eye-for-an-eye as well as kindness repaying kindness), and the sanctity of guest-host relations. Too bad they didn't show any livestock, though -- their subsistence is shown to be irrigated agriculture in a desert. Perhaps they felt that showing herds of sheep, goats, and cattle would've lent too romantic or idyllic of an air to the place, even if it would've been more authentic.

Combat scenes were the same unthrilling stuff I've come to expect, but it wasn't primarily a war movie, so that's not a big deal.

The one major historical inaccuracy that actually does affect how it should have been written and shot is the zeitgeist of circa 1200 AD. That was during the Medieval Warm Period, when it was hot enough that the Vikings could sail iceless seas toward a then-habitable Greenland. Warmer weather invariably makes people more restless and hot-tempered, as seen by the surging popularity then of young dudes wandering off toward Jerusalem to do battle against the Muslims. That was also around the height of the Troubadour and courtly love culture, full of fun-loving men and boy-crazy girls.

Only a bit of that comes through in Kingdom of Heaven, which opens up in what looks more like the Little Ice Age, and continues to show relatively cool-headed and passion-delaying main characters throughout. Queen Sibylla in particular comes off as far less excitable and fiery-blooded than a young woman would've been back then. (Whether or not the real-life Queen was this way doesn't matter, since they already chose to fictionalize her story.) She's played more like a stereotypically frigid JAP.

For a better look at what the time and place probably felt like, check out The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron by Pier Paolo Pasolini. They depict the later 1300s, but the zeitgeist then was similar enough to the late 1100s -- hotter, rowdier, and bawdier than what we think of as Ye Olden Times. Since the look and feel of the movie is clearly the high point of the experience, they should have chosen a story from a time and place more suitable to the reflective and clinical aesthetic.

No end in sight to mowed lawns

Last year I showed the disappearance of bush among Playboy centerfolds that began sometime around 1990. But that way of measuring the trend can only go so low -- once it hits 0 out of 12 women in a year, as it has over the past decade, how can we tell whether or not it's becoming even more popular?

Going to Google Trends, here's the pattern over time for searching for "brazilian wax" and "bikini wax" (U.S. results only):

There was a pretty steady search volume up through 2009. But it's been rising even higher still since then. I have trouble imagining that lots more women are getting it done than before, since it had been adopted by just about all of them under a certain age. So either those over that certain age have given in as well, or the same amount of women are searching google more intensely. Like, before they would've searched a few times before summer, and now they're even more neurotic about it and on average search twice that number.

Whatever the reason, this bizarre grassroots movement shows no signs of abetting. I know it's not the biggest problem facing the society or anything, but it's yet another in a series that makes you wonder what planet you've landed on. It's like if all women under 40 were walking around with their lips painted to look razor-thin instead of full.

The female body is already so hairless that it risks looking pre-pubescently innocent without a little animalistic reminder of her maturity. Especially if her other secondary sex characteristics don't leap out at you. Nothing wrong with not having T&A, but that girl more than any other can't afford to remove the one clear sign of maturity that everyone gets.

June 12, 2012

Yet more signs of the re-segregation of the sexes

Picking up from here, let's start with something quantitative, then move on to two qualitative cases.

3. Less frequent sex within marriage

From all the examples of greater cocooning I've gone over, you might expect that what used to take place among people who were more loosely connected has simply moved into closer relationships. So boys and girls don't hang out with each other as much, don't slow dance, etc. -- maybe that just means that there's less sex going on outside of a monogamous relationship. But once you get married, then you've got it made in the shade, right?

Well, that's become less and less true over the past 20 years.

The General Social Survey asks people how often they had sex in the past year. I restricted the answers to people who were married, white, and aged 18-35. So, these respondents' hormones should still be in good-to-excellent working order, and their marriage should guarantee sexual access. Then I lumped responses into three easier to look at categories: "rarely" is not at all, 1 or 2 times, or 12 times during the last year; "moderately" is 2-3 times per month or weekly; and "frequently" is 2-3 times or 4+ times per week.

Here is how often youngish married people had sex over the past 20-odd years, with the red bars showing "rarely", the blue bars showing "moderately" (maybe that color should've gone to the "rarely" group...), and the green bars showing "frequently".

The rarely group was under 5% in 1989-'90, and rose to 13% by 2010. The frequently group was at or above 50% in '89-'90, and fell to 38% by 2010. The moderately group shows no real change.

Even people who are not just in a monogamous relationship but are actually married, and who are somewhat young and presumably horny, have steadily withdrawn physically from each other over the past 20 years. True, we haven't entered bizarro world where they don't do anything ever, but you'd expect this group to be very resilient to cocooning trends. The fact that even they have been noticeably affected by it shows how pervasive the change has been -- just pull away from everyone.

4. The cuddle party

This is not at all a common event; it made headlines in the mid-2000s and now appears to be an even more fringe phenomenon. Still it's worth considering because there was nothing like this at all in the good old days, and the very idea would have been laughed at.

Basically a bunch of people show up to a cuddle party to touch and be touched, but not in a sexual way, and only after explicitly asking and receiving consent for each touch, and all supervised by a busybody "facilitator". (You wonder if these people needed a facilitator to guide them through their first kiss or what.) It's supposed to improve your communication about touching, and provide you with the Platonic touch that has become less common.

How is this an example of greater cocooning, then? Sounds like they want to reach out and touch someone, in however awkward of a way. First, their prohibitions -- also including one against wearing shorts -- reflect the profound distrust that everyone present has toward everyone else. Normal, trusting interactions don't need long lists of explicit rules and facilitators to intervene if they're broken.

That's common sense that even adolescents used to understand. For slow dances at school functions, if anything you told the chaperons to go "mind your own beeswax," and you didn't hammer out a list of rules beforehand.

Not surprisingly, as detailed in a female testimonial, cuddle parties are where females go to get showered with free attention without facing the risk of being asked to make-out. The guys are sex-starved dorks who are frightened of being in a situation where they might actually have to make a move on a girl. Both parties are relieved to not have to let their guard down and try to truly connect with another person, and they get in a bit of Platonic touching to boot, albeit regulated and supervised like they were a toddler on a play date.

5. The rise of the "non-boyfriend"

I thought I had coined this term myself, referring to guys who appear to be the boyfriend of some girl, but are actually being denied full status in one way or another. But then I heard others already using it -- all Millennials -- so I looked it up on Urban Dictionary, and there it is. I wasn't the only one to notice this pattern.

Getting it straight from the horse's mouth, here is a Millennial chick discussing the phenomenon from personal experience, along with over 100 comments from other Millennials mostly agreeing with her. She notes that a non-boyfriend is, if anything, the complete opposite of "friends with benefits" (i.e., no-strings sex between acquaintances). It stops short of any physical activity, and is basically the girl stringing along the guy to do all the other boyfriend activities besides making out and getting it on. And the guy is content to be her emotional tampon.

He's the guy you go out to dinner with twice a week, she's the girl you vent to and go to concerts with. Yet the other person isn't aware that you've dubbed him/her your non-whatever, or you guys have been friends for too long to become an actual couple. You're free to date other people, but you don't really want to because of your feelings for this person.

I wonder if they'll make a new heading for the gift card aisle -- "From Your Non-Whatever".

The weird thing is that unlike "Platonic friends," they're probably attracted to each other, hang out, etc., but are just too wimpy to move forward. They're paralyzed, too afraid to just open up and let the other person in. With Platonic friends, one or both just isn't into the other. The non-boyfriend, however, is someone she's kind of interested in, and should be dating in a normal world, but she won't let it progress.

It's like the dating version of the "less sex within marriage" example above. And as in the other examples, it's the females who are holding back more. There are nearly twice as many Google results for "non-boyfriend" (72,000) than for "non-girlfriend", and most of the comments to the above post are about non-boyfriends, whether from the girl's side or the non-boyfriend's side.

Both the writer and the commenters are incredibly fatalistic about it, too. There's just some set of forces or circumstances that won't let the non-dating move on to actual dating, and though they may not like it, there's nothing they can do about it. Lack of trust in others and social avoidance lead to this kind of hopeless fatalism, which is high enough in the general population, but is the norm among Millennials.

All three cases here show that you have to be careful when comparing behaviors over time that go by the same name. "Getting a phone number" used to mean you'd eventually meet up and likely do something, whereas now it tends to mean get stuck on a texting treadmill. "Marriage" for young people used to mean "enjoy your exclusive sexual access," whereas now it means she putters around with the panini press while he cocoons in his man-cave. And "boyfriend" used to imply you were at least holding hands, kissing, maybe more, whereas now a girl may well in fact mean "non-boyfriend." I even heard one girl correct another who referred to "my boyfriend" -- "uh, you mean your NON-boyfriend..."

It's a sick twisted world, but give it a decade or so and the pendulum will be swinging back in the other direction, as it has before. In the meantime, try to find the minority who aren't cocooning weirdos and enjoy each other's company.

GSS variables used: sexfreq, year, marital, age, race

June 11, 2012

Prometheus and man's origins

I see very few movies in theaters anymore because they're so invariably unenjoyable, but this one was watchable -- the story wasn't boring, most of the visuals were eye-catching, and at least a few of the actors could act worth a damn. That may sound too harsh, but my habit is watching DVDs of good movies; if I were a regular movie-goer, I don't doubt I'd be ecstatic to finally catch a break.

Rather than review the good and the bad, I'll just ramble off some thoughts on what some of the tantalizing bits may have to do with. There'll probably be spoilers if you don't know anything about the movie.

Certainly the question of where mankind comes from should fascinate everybody, although I fear a lot of viewers only see this in the genetic sense -- like, did we evolve from other primates, did aliens seed our planet with their DNA, etc. But in Prometheus, this nerdy focus only occupies a sliver of the narrative, where scientists match 21st-century human DNA to that of the Engineers, an alien race whose colony they are studying.

The opening sequence shows a titanic humanoid sacrificing its own body to bring forth life on an otherwise desolate world. As mentioned here, that is a typical creation-of-the-world myth. The oldest form of this myth in Proto-Indo-European is thought to involve one being, whose name means Man (*Manu), slaying another whose name means Twin (*Yemos), then using his various body parts to fashion the oceans, mountains, grass, etc. The self-sacrifice narratives probably developed later, although even as late as Roman mythology we still see the creation myth of Rome involving the progenitor of the race slaying his twin, whose name, Remus, derives from *Yemos.

This original ancestor of mankind is shown in deep contemplation and nerve-steeling as he prepares to execute the ritual. It's not something you notice until after the movie is over, but this bold, deliberate, and altruistic act that gave birth to human beings is not at all like the process whereby we invented another sort of beings, such as the robot David. The inventors of those robots did not trade their own lives, and kind of stumbled into it -- yeah, looks like we could invent another life-form, so why the hell not? It'd rock! It was more of a random hobby for us to create robots, and we patted ourselves on the back for it, whereas the Engineers saw their creation of us as a goal whose achievement would serve some grand purpose beyond boosting their own self-esteem.

At one point, the robot asks a crew member why he thinks the Engineers created human beings, to which the crew member says something like, "Well, I guess it was like why we created robots like you -- they did it because they could." Here he blithely assumes that the Engineers must have shared his own species' vainglory and lackadaisical attitude toward creating life. But that opening sequence proves that they weren't just puttering around their workshop and thought, yeah got nothing more promising to do, might as well get around to creating those human thingie-dingies I've been mulling over.

The fact that one of the lead researchers into human origins would hold such a cynical view of his creators underscores the profound lack of faith among most of the crew. It's not hard to see why the Engineers might have planned to undo their creation, if that's the thanks they get. Imagine if you found out your child thought you only conceived them by accident, hence didn't really care for them or love them, hence they were just some blob the parents didn't feel like getting rid of after bringing into existence. Wouldn't you at least smack them across the face for believing that?

By contrast, the protagonist wants to commune with the sources of her bloodline, not selfishly seek out eternal life from the Engineers like Weyland does. She is the only exception in starting out with faith and maintaining it throughout her trials, and this ensures that she survives to the end, almost like Noah. And hey, speaking of which, why don't they make or replay good music in movies anymore? Someone at some point near the end could have played this over the ship's PA system, or at least over the ending credits, to strengthen their resolve:

Taking us even further away from the narrow and boring question of where our DNA came from, the movie follows the god's self-sacrifice by showing 21st-century humans discovering images and symbols that are common to several independent ancient civilizations. They didn't just give us the genetic basis that we evolved from, but more importantly they sowed the seeds of our culture -- what makes us more than just brute animals.

Creation myths used to always address that question, such as the Tower of Babel story to explain the origin of linguistic diversity, or Prometheus giving fire to man, sacrificing his own well-being to improve ours. But we have such a debased view of our species now that we primarily think about genetics when it comes to the evolution vs. creation debate. We hardly even smile, let alone marvel, at how our culture came to be -- did it just evolve piecemeal from the culture-like ways of our primate ancestors, or is it so wondrous that we're tempted to look to an introgression from outside our species?

That has happened genetically, you know: Neanderthal genes have "introgressed" into the human genome, kind of like how useful loan words might take hold in another language. Who's to say that key pieces of our culture don't ultimately derive from some cultural "genome" belonging to a non-human species? Sure, invoking extra-terrestrial aliens is stylizing it for dramatic effect, but still -- don't you ever wonder how we came into possession of our awe-inspiring culture? Perhaps we're chauvinistic to assume it all had to come from the output of the cavemen counterparts of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michelangelo -- perhaps we picked up some of the main ideas from Neanderthals, E.T., or who knows what?

And maybe it wasn't just us stealthily peering through the bushes and selfishly copying the practices once we were back at the home base. Maybe whoever we learned it from actually taught us deliberately. There must be all sorts of domesticated animal "culture" that we their owners have purposefully endowed them with (although not to a great extent with cats), independent of the genetic changes in them that our artificial breeding has induced.

Well, I feel my body drifting off into outer space, so I'll just wrap it up there. It wasn't a terribly engrossing movie, but it does hold your attention and interest, which is more than you can say for most movies these days. It's just not as fun to watch as to think about afterward (like what the opening scene is about). I usually hate Movies That Make Ya Think, but here it was more like an invitation to think over some of these ideas for yourself while drunk or stoned later on, not a cerebral snore.

I really wish they'd gone into more detail, though, about the archaeological sites, reconstructing dead proto-languages, and inferring proto-mythologies. Not a lot more, but enough to absorb the audience in the sense of wonder about our origins -- not based on some hazy musings, but on concrete signs that tempt us into following their trail. Even that brief scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones explains the Ark of the Covenant was enough, or that scene in the jail cell in Ghostbusters where Ray and Egon explain what Zuul is and how a Roaring Twenties cult tried to channel it to destroy the sick world. Hopefully if a sequel gets made, they'll be able to explore that in greater detail.

June 8, 2012

Mellow, wistful summertime music compilation

After looking all over for any CD with "Feels Like Heaven" by Fiction Factory, I finally found Flashback Cafe vol. 1. It's the only one still in print, hard to believe for a compilation disc from 1994. Man, this came my way at just the right time, with summer starting. Aside from the track I was after, it's also got "Life in a Northern Town," "Shattered Dreams," "Under the Milky Way," "Don't Dream It's Over," and 10 others that fit well with the theme in the post's title.

You should buy the entire album Starfish that "Under the Milky Way" is on, but the rest you could probably do with just these hits. I haven't heard the whole album that "Life in a Northern Town" is from, but I wasn't blown away by the ones that "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Shattered Dreams" are from. Enjoying so many hard-to-find songs on a single disc makes this one a real treat.

In general, it seems like the best compilations based around a time period come fairly shortly afterward, when the audience would still remember a lot of the richness of what was in the air. So they'll put out one just filled with MONSTER BALLADS, another one with new wave tracks, another still with heartland rock hits, and so on. The more recent '80s compilations try to boil down an entire decade to a dozen or so songs, which doesn't really do it justice, just like how their cover art invariably shows a chick in neon or a Rubik's cube. Those that stick to just one or two years can do a decent job, though.

I wonder if that's true for other genres -- were the best anthologies of Romantic poetry published around 1840? Sure we can find the complete works of the big-time winners, but what about the one-hit wonders of the era? They probably didn't survive so well over time, and we might be entirely unaware of them. Going on a search to unearth them from the piles of pages in the library wouldn't be for snob bragging rights -- "I only read the more obscure, lesser known Romantics" -- but for the sheer excitement of digging up something wonderful that you didn't even suspect would be there.

If you've found a compilation like this, no matter what medium or genre, please comment and clue the rest of us in.

June 6, 2012

Further signs of the re-segregation of the sexes

Perhaps the most dramatic cases of the cocooning trend of the past 20 years involve the growing separation between males and females. It's not too unusual for two ethnic groups to move apart, given our propensity to stick with our own kind. But you might think that the basic dependence of one sex on the other would keep boy-girl interactions safe from the broader social deterioration.

As part of my periodic documentation of these trends, I've got four brief new case studies that don't seem to merit posts of their own. Below are the first two, and the second two will go up next.

1. The decline of cultural items referring to children playing doctor, etc.

A girl first invited me under a table to play "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" at our daycare center in broad daylight -- actually, the lights had just gone off for nap-time, but you know what I mean. We must have been 3 or 4, circa 1984. I don't doubt that we picked up on environmental cues from teenagers and older grown-ups about how sexually charged the atmosphere was in 1984, and that we unconsciously figured we'd better start preparing for that world, just like learning a language.

I've never taught at a daycare or elementary school where stuff like that would be going on these days, if it's still going on. However, we can look at culture made by adults to see if any of it refers to children's early exploring. Folklorist Alan Dundes and collaborator Carl Pagter released a wonderful series of books over several decades about "photocopylore" -- the kind of media that employees put up around the office, send through email, and so on.

In the edition called Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing, they show numerous examples of cartoons that show small kids inspecting each other, as the basis for some joke. They are not pornographic. Here is one where a little boy is standing on a little girl's head, and both are naked. The boy says, "Okay, we took off our clothes, I got on top of you... How long 'til it starts feeling good?" The girl answers, "I don't know, but I've got a headache already." A feminist cartoon shows two toddlers looking down at their open underwear and saying, "oh, that explains the difference in our salaries!" Another shows a little boy and girl undressed before a bathtub, with the boy saying, "No you can't touch it, you've broken yours off already." Then there's one with a girl reaching down a boy's pants and exclaiming, "So that's why little boys can run faster than little girls -- Ball bearings, and a stick shift too!" Finally, one where the girl holds up her skirt, and the skeptical boy responds, "If it really is one, let's hear it meow!"

The different variants of these cartoons were made almost entirely during the mid-1970s to the late '80s. The book series collects examples from the 1930s through the late '90s, and the authors do mention that some examples of such cartoons can be found as far back as WWII. So it's not as though no one thought to refer to the practice during the mid-century. It just didn't get much attention until a later time. The lack of examples from the '90s-era books suggests it's not as common as it used to be.

True, it could be still as common, and the only thing that's changed is the willingness to comment about it among adults, but the simpler explanation is that adults refer to it less because boys and girls don't explore that way anymore. It would fit with their being locked indoors all day long, and their helicopter parents requiring them to schedule "play dates" with their friends. Ditto the relative lack of attention during the cocooning mid-century -- it probably was not as common in the first place, in the world shown in A Christmas Story.

Still, it's not just the parents who are responsible, as the kids could play these games at school or daycare if they felt like it. So even from a very young age, the sexes have started segregating again. It's so weird how long girls get stuck in the "ewww, yucky boys are so bothersome" phase, when even toddler-aged girls used to be eager to play with and talk to boys when I was little. Playing games like doctor is harmless, and it begins their maturity before it's too late. Just look at the Millennial generation to see what happens when youngsters take too long to begin the slow, gradual process of boys and girls connecting with each other.

2. The decline of songs about masturbation

This is certainly the most counter-intuitive case. Shouldn't the popularity of songs about self-love be a sign of cocooning? Guess not. Here is a good list from AskMen, and as you can see just about all are from rising-crime times, i.e. when people are more outgoing and sexually active. They're not about using it as a substitute for approaching and getting it on with others, but about having a high sex drive, one aspect of which means doing it yourself if need be.

With falling sex drives, there is simply a lot less motivation for boys and girls to approach and interact with each other. Obviously only some of those approaches result in sex, the rest resulting in friends, acquaintances, and hang-out companions. Lower sex drives then lead indirectly to having fewer people in your social network. (East Asia seems to be the prime example of this pattern.)

Even the handful of songs from the last 20 years aren't so exceptional when you read the message. For example, Pink's song "Fingers" talks about a useless boyfriend who's right there in bed with her, asleep, so that she turns to herself and videotapes it for later viewing. You don't get much more skankily narcissistic and anti-social than that. Compare that to the lyrics of the infectiously groovy Divinyls song "I Touch Myself". She only resorts to it because she wants the real thing, but he hasn't noticed, and she just can't help how hard in love she feels for him.

The next post will cover the "non-boyfriend" and cuddle parties.