January 30, 2013

Racquet sports and the crime rate: Their rise and fall, and rise and fall

Having tossed around the idea that men looked more fit overall during the 1970s and '80s from playing racquet sports, let's take a look at how popular and culturally influential they have been over the decades.

There is a clear long-term cycle of ebbing and flowing popularity, a historical pattern that we ought to find more fascinating than one damned thing after another, one-way rise, or one-way fall. Cycles provide so much variation for us to account for, while limiting our harebrained guesses as to what's causing them, in a way that studying one-way trends cannot. (You can point to any of a zillion other variables that also moved one way during the time, and are generally left with subjective argument about what is "more plausible" to whittle them down to your preferred story).

For this post I'll restrict the focus to how popular racquet sports have been in American culture, although in a future post I might try digging through some data on participation rates across time. First I'll present the basic picture of their popularity, and then throw out some guesses as to why they've cycled in the way they have.

Starting with the present, the most recent craze for racquet sports that I remember vividly was racquetball. You don't hear or see much about it anymore, and it's not as though it's been replaced by a brand new racquet sport. Below is a graph showing how common the word "racquetball" has been in Google's vast library of digitized books and periodicals. (From the Ngram website; click to enlarge.)

It shows tremendous growth during the '70s, a plateau from the later '80s and early '90s, and a steady decline since then. So, at least to judge by the impression it's left in the print media, racquetball was mostly a phenomenon of the '70s and '80s. Most people who have memories from that time will find this unobjectionable, but it's worth trying to document its rise and fall quantitatively.

And it wasn't just writers of books and articles who took notice of the racquetball craze. Iconic scenes can be found in the hit movies Manhattan and Splash (with John Candy smoking during the game, wondering why he can't get into shape), and children could play the sport in video game form on the Atari 2600.

Speaking of iconic '80s movies with Tom Hanks, what about that scene in Big where a fight erupts over a game of paddleball?

I didn't even know what that game was called before doing research for this post. It's played mostly in the New York metro area, and so adds to the movie's sense of regional authenticity, also enhanced by shots of a summertime carnival at a local boardwalk, the toy mecca FAO Schwarz, and a crazy black bum shouting "I'll kill the bitch!" to himself while marching down a Manhattan street.

It looks like paddleball was most popular during the '70s and the early '80s, more or less when racquetball was.

The sport most similar to racquetball, though, is squash -- a name I've heard of for awhile, but never actually seen in real life. It's no wonder, as its heyday is long past. In searching Google's library, I couldn't use just "squash," which has too many meanings, so to narrow it down I searched for "squash rackets". (A graph for "squash racquets" shows basically the same picture.)

Its popularity got going around the turn of the century and peaked in the mid-'30s, and although it has never made a comeback since, its brother-sport did during the '70s and '80s. So, squash was the racquetball of the Jazz Age, yet another point of cultural kinship between the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties. The New York Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association was founded in 1924.

However, no sport symbolizes Jazz Age glamour and dynamism more than tennis. The two players below, Rene Lacoste and Suzanne Lenglen, were not only major sports celebrities of their day, but also fashion trend-setters. Lacoste developed the modern polo shirt, and his tenacity on the court earned him the nickname "the Crocodile," an image that still remains in logo form on polo shirts across the world. And Lenglen was part of the broader movement for women to wear less restrictive clothing and to show more skin. She played with bare shoulders and a skirt that revealed the leg above the knee, something unthinkable even a few decades earlier.

Vogue magazine put together a brief review of the influence of tennis on modern clothing styles, one of a series in what they call "turning points" in recent fashion history. Greater participation by women in sports seems to have the greatest effect, since the functional demands of the sport allow them to wear less restrictive clothing than would be possible in an everyday setting. But, once they get used to greater movement, grace, and style on the court -- why not take it off the court too?

This introduction-via-sports makes the shift in everyday styles less abrupt, less confrontational, and less self-conscious. The gradual, "we didn't intend it, but why not?" nature of the transition allows the mainstream to accept it -- not just the men, who generally don't mind seeing a little more skin, but especially the older female guardians of modesty. Indeed, it's the old nuns at the Catholic school, or their matronly counterparts on the streets of Tehran, who most zealously enforce dress codes, to give only two examples of a universal pattern.

As for its popularity in the print culture, tennis shows a clear cycling pattern:

It rises through the mid-late-'30s, falls through the early '60s, rises again to a plateau around the late '80s and early '90s, and has fallen again since. Perhaps not surprisingly, more or less the same pattern shows up for "Ping Pong" as well:

Ping Pong also rises through the mid-late-'30s, falls through the late '50s, picks up again during the '60s to a peak in the mid-'70s, and despite a slump through the earlier '80s, bounces back for one last hurrah through the early-mid-'90s, declining since, though not so dramatically. (You wonder how many of the hits from the last decade are actually part of a piece about beer pong, the boring drinking game.)

The weakest example of the cycle is badminton, perhaps because it's never been very popular in the English-speaking world, and seems to thrive more in East and South Asia. It's also the least explosive of the four major racquet sports. Nevertheless, the pattern isn't so unfamiliar: a rise from the turn of the century through the early '40s, a decline through the early '70s, another rise through the early '80s, and another decline since.

Taking all of these various racquet sports into account, and giving greater weight to the more common ones, the overall smoothed-out pattern seems to go like this: a rise from the turn of the century through the mid-'30s, a decline through the early '60s, another rise through the mid-'90s, and another decline since.

Is there a single variable that shows roughly the same up-and-down timing as the popularity of racquet sports? Yes, and as usual around here, it is the crime rate. The cycle for racquet sports seems to be delayed a few years after the cycle in the crime rate. That could either be due to a delay in reporting on a trend -- still focusing on it even a few years after it's begun to decline, since they can't yet tell the decline is a long-term one -- or a continued interest even a few years into a falling-crime period. Since we're taking a rough look anyway, I'll treat these cycles as happening more or less at the same time.

Why do racquet sports become more popular in rising-crime times, and less in falling-crime times? Well, they are probably part of an even broader pattern of greater interest in sports and fitness during rising-crime times. The turn of the 20th century through the early '30s was witness not only to a craze for tennis, squash, and Ping Pong, but also for baseball, football, golf, sprinting, swimming, and boxing.

Ditto for the '60s through the early '90s -- baseball and especially football shot through the roof, boxing and golf both woke up from their mid-century slumber, aerobics introduced intensive movement to women, everyone piled into the public pool during the summer, and Chariots of Fire revived the Jazz Age love of sprinting.

During the mid-century, and over the last 20 years, Americans seem less interested in sports. You generally don't tennis courts, tennis players, or tennis instructors in an episode of I Love Lucy or The Three Stooges, and these days people are aware of who Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters are, but really couldn't care less. And where is the Mike Tyson phenomenon in mixed martial arts? The few activities that have gained a mainstream following are individualized and non-explosive -- yoga, jogging, "working out" at the gym (although weight-lifting may get intense).

Falling-crime times are more low-key, slow-paced, and even apathetic, so the energy and intensity of sports begin losing their appeal. The doping scandals of the past 20 years have added an extra layer of cynicism that was absent during the mid-century lack of interest, but the fundamental relationship seems to be falling crime leading to greater apathy about sports.

Unlike a safer and safer world, rising-crime times require you to be in a more excitable state, physiologically and psychologically. This is not only to be more aware of possible threats to you yourself, but more importantly to participate in a wider vigilance as neighbors look out for neighbors, and as the great majority band together for mutual support against an increasing chance of being preyed on by criminals.

So, people's minds and bodies are prepared to welcome and even seek out intensive, social sports. They are not part of some narcissistic plan to "look good naked," but the pursuit of overall fitness. Let's face it -- most of us who aren't professional athletes must feel some kind of greater challenge from the environment to get us up and active. And like it or not, one of the best motivators to get into shape is the sense that you may be put physically to the test out there in a potentially violent situation, whether a threat to yourself or standing up for someone else.

We may find the violence itself repellent, but we shouldn't overlook how our responses to the challenge of rising crime ultimately strengthen our minds and bodies, and even our social and cultural bonds. During the '20s and the '80s, it's not as though the murder rate had regressed to pre-modern levels. It was more like the process of bone and muscle-building, where just enough environmental stress is needed to get it into optimal shape, neither overwhelmed and broken nor padded and atrophied.

January 29, 2013

The unwholesome mid-century: Clear heels and butt-padded briefs

I just got through with a book on the history of the bra in America, but it'll take awhile to find enough pictures and select quotes to put together a whole post on bras and breasts. In the meantime, I've noticed two other weird contemporary things that turn out to be throwbacks to the mid-century.

First, take a look at Marilyn Monroe's preferred footwear. Lucite heels were big in the 1950s, not just with her. Do a google image search for Marilyn Monroe heels to see many examples, including these two:

When did clear heels become the new whore uniform? When did that happen? Was there a big ho convention and all the hos got together and said, "We need something new. Something that just says nasty" … And one girl said, "I got it! Clear heels!" "Uh, girl you’re disgusting!" [Chris Rock] 

Don't ask me what specific features about clear heels make them unwholesome, but strippers couldn't have chosen them for no reason. The mid-century was also big on the burlesque, striptease, girlie show, pin-up, look-but-don't-touch kind of female attitude that we suffer from now. Similar mindsets will choose similar fashion accessories.

In 60 years, do you think it'll be common knowledge, even among those who study the pop culture of our time, that in the early 21st century, clear heels = stripper shoes? Most will probably look at non-strippers wearing them and have no strong reaction of "Why did they wear such sleazy shoes back then?"

That's the temptation when we see Marilyn Monroe wearing them -- hey, it was the '50s, they couldn't have had any unwholesome quality to them. But we don't know that. Maybe Jack Benny did a bit about what's the deal with this craze for slutty lucite heels. How would we ever know about that now? If we're so inclined to judge them unwholesome now, it should go for the mid-century too, not knowing anything more about them.

Second, here's a 1950s ad from Frederick's of Hollywood hawking a pair of briefs with some serious junk-in-the-trunk padding:

They were the major lingerie retailer before Victoria's Secret, so this thing has to be fairly representative of what customers wanted back then. In the 21st century, these things have become profitable again, at least to judge by their being advertised in Southwest Airlines SkyMall catalog.

Here is an earlier post about the cycle in ideal female body type, which tracks the cycle in the crime rate. Rising-crime times select for girls with less T&A, and falling-crime times for more voluptuous girls.

Today we attribute the craze for plump rumps to something having to do with race -- Sir Mix-a-Lot, J. Lo, Beyonce, Shakira, etc. But back in the '80s black girls didn't have jungle booties, so it's not a race thing. Looking back at the mid-century, it definitely was not a race thing. It was Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, et al., who women wanted to look like -- shapely white girls. And if women were willing to pad their bra with "falsies" in order to keep up with the ideal (more on that in another post), then why not wear padded briefs too?

I certainly wouldn't mind the sight of women wearing those things, but only if I didn't know what was really underneath. Seeing butt-padded briefs, stuffed bras of one kind or another, shaved pubic hair, etc. -- it all signals a heightened self-consciousness on the girl's part. Like she's so nervous she won't measure up that she has to resort to elaborate tricks to distract and fool the viewer. You can't give off an unwholesome vibe if you lack self-awareness (one of the great things about ditzy girls is how wholesome they appear).

Ultimately any guy who she goes all the way with will see her natural body, so why be misleading in the meantime? These things aren't like make-up: they're making a substantial alteration of her body type. Clearly the bootylicious briefs are designed to deceive or manipulate the perception of men who won't actually get to see the real thing. They're for self-consciously drawing male attention to your tits or ass so that you can string them along and have them do your bidding, while they drool stupidly.

There really does seem to be a cynical, almost Machiavellian approach among women in the mid-century as far as displaying themselves to men was concerned. Like, "Well you know men -- always thinking with their dicks, so if you need to recruit them in reaching some goal of yours, just stuff your bra, pad your seat, and put on a caricatured pin-up smile. Hey, a gal's gotta do what a gal's gotta do."

You can pick this up, less severely, in the lyrics to the early '50s Doris Day song "A Guy Is a Guy". There's a throwaway reference to marriage at the end, but for the most part it sounds cynical, self-aware, even sleazy (without however being obscene like it would today). During the romantic '80s, you didn't hear that kind of attitude. (And no, that "I Know What Boys Like" song doesn't count, since it wasn't a #4 hit on the charts from a major singer, but a dud from one of the few unlikable new wave groups on the fringe.)

Anyway, more to say about these topics when I get around to writing up the stuff about bras.

January 28, 2013

The "Do not never ever buy" list: '90s music revisionism

From here, a Chicago used record store's list of stuff that employees are instructed never ever to buy because the stuff just does not sell.

I doubt there's much of a supply side to the story, like there are just too many of these albums already on shelves. Yeah, for a few of the mega-sellers, but not for most. And then there are mega-sellers from the '60s, '70s, and '80s that are still mega-sellers. This list seems to reflect audience tastes, namely that this music is not worth the money.

I only see a few popular '70s and '80s groups in there -- John Mellencamp, the Eagles, Men at Work, Journey, Foreigner, Boz Scaggs, and Kiss. Edie Brickell, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston were popular in the '80s and '90s, so I'm not sure which albums are brought in that never sell. The very early '90s, pre-alternative, aren't going to have many groups listed just because we're only talking about a 2-year period. Still, only Technotronic and C+C Music Factory are listed. EMF, Paula Abdul, etc. -- they must at least be able to sell at the minimum store price.

Then make way for just about every major and not-so-major '90s act -- Melissa Etheridge, 10,000 Maniacs / Natalie Merchant, Big Head Todd, Perry Farrell / Porno for Pyros, Tanya Donnelly, Spin Doctors, K.D. Lang, Veruca Salt, Tripping Daisy, Collective Soul, Alanis Morrisette, Jewel, Soul Asylum, Sting, Stone Temple Pilots… and there's an explicit mention that "Most 90s Bands" are never to be bought, rather than list every one of them separately.

I'm guessing the rest is dorky 2000s indie / emo / etc., although Jessica Simpson is mainstream. I'll bet the pop music of most 2000s bands will wind up on the Never Buy list before too long. There are two great lines that include "obscure punk comps" (compilations) and "everything 'Pitchforky'' - (just getting everyone prepared for the 2010's)". Pitchfork being one of those music nerd websites that try to hype up unlikable noise, dated to the 2000s.

Now, some of these don't deserve their no-love status -- like all the '80s stuff. Whether it's your favorite band or not, it's not never-buy music. But it's also a shame that no one wants to enjoy the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum, and even 10,000 Maniacs, groups that were the last dying breath of lively music left over from the '80s college rock scene.

Yet the majority of the list has gotten what it deserves. Perhaps the defining feature of '90s music is how over-hyped it was. By now, everyone on the production and consumption side realizes how boring new music is, but at least they aren't aggressively marketing it as a fundamental break with the past that'll blow away all those lamewads who listen to music from 10 years ago.

Go look through Amazon reviews of early-mid-'90s alternative albums, and about half of the ones that include The Historical Context will whine about how everything was Bon Jovi and Poison in the late '80s, and thank god Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden came along to clean house and deliver us into a brave new world of alternative and grunge. Sorry, but those guys were the beginning of the end of the guitar solo, definitely of other instrumental solos like sax, synth, or penny whistle that you heard in the '80s, and of musicianship in general. Not to mention the flat, occasionally agro emotional delivery.

It was all attitude, with little underneath musically or lyrically, just like punk -- another incredibly over-hyped style, verging on affectation. Sure, as the '90s and 2000s wore on, even the raw attitude would evaporate, leaving nothing at all. So I guess Soundgarden wasn't as bad as Nickelback, but they still ultimately sucked.

And anyway, in the late '80s it wasn't just Bon Jovi and Poison. College rock bands became hit sellers -- U2, REM, the B-52's, the Cure. Not to mention less enduring but still popular groups like Fine Young Cannibals, Love and Rockets, Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, and Suzanne Vega, all of whom landed on the year-end Billboard singles chart. There were still aggressive non-buttrock bands like INXS and Red Hot Chili Peppers well before grunge / alternative took over. And not even a faggot alterna fanboy would lump Guns N Roses in with buttrock. During the late '80s and early '90s, GNR was way more popular and representative than Bon Jovi or Poison.

All that stuff about how Nirvana, etc., were a breath of fresh air is utter bullshit. Only some 10 year-old dork who wasn't tuning in to the radio or MTV would've thought that hair bands were the only beat happening in the late '80s and very early '90s. How else could you have missed the groups listed above unless you were being fed your music pre-digested by someone else? I'm guessing the clueless crusaders were too young to be sampling music on their own, and had an older sibling who was 100% into hair metal. (That describes my middle school friend Andy to a T.)

I never bought that story at the time, A) because I had good memories of buttrock blasting over the car stereo when my babysitters or my friends' cool older brothers would take us for a spin, and B) because I remembered that college rock sound playing within recent memory. From the vantage point of two decades later, I made peace with that early-mid-'90s zeitgeist and put together a list of '90s music worth saving from a fire. Almost none of it sounds grungey, despite the slight-of-hand attempt at the time and even since to lump the life-loving, melodic college rock bands in with the distancing, bland grunge bands.

There is clearly a lot more that needs to be written about the death of rock music, when so much has been devoted to its birth. Hopefully this will provide a start.

A break in the clouds of pop music dreariness?

Starbucks has been playing this song for the past week or so, the bassline is so funky and groovy that I can't help but drum my fingers along to it. It's got that mellow disco-sounding guitar, too, at first you'd think they were playing something new wave or pop-in-the-wake-of-disco. However, the lyrics and emotional delivery are part of the whole "Girl, you so fine" ass-kissing genre that you know it must be from the 21st century.

So I tracked down the song based on the repetitive chorus, and it turns out it's by... Bruno Mars. Everything else I've heard by him has been forgettable, but I do keep an open mind. It's just by now I'm used to everything sucking so hard. Occasionally, though, a decent song squeaks through. "Treasure" gets this cranky old man's non-ironic stamp of approval.

Not surprisingly it wasn't released as the lead single (the album came out last December). It'll be a real test of audience coolness if they release it at all and it becomes a club hit -- it's not the kind of beat that an attention whore can shake her ass to while standing still. You actually have to move your legs and body around, and it's too upbeat to dance alone to. I'm guessing it's ahead of its time, although in a few years young people may not be quite so awkward around each other, and this kind of song will catch on.

It feels more and more like we're heading into the mid-'50s phase of our neo-mid-century zeitgeist. So, pop music probably won't sound as bad as it has for the past 20 years. A little bubble-gummy, timid, and probably won't survive whatever comes after it when the neo-Sixties arrives. Still, it's cheerful and infectiously danceable, which is a welcome change.

Racquet sports and overall fitness

(I was going to write a brief introduction to the main topic of the cycles in popularity for racquet sports, but then it got long enough that it felt like a post by itself.)

When you look back at how short men's shorts were in the 1970s and '80s, you have to ask why they didn't feel so self-conscious. Partly because people were more fit back then, including the legs -- not just man boobs and arm bulges from repetitive bench-pressing and curls. And their legs weren't over-developed from repetitive squats.

There was not a very big gym or "workout" culture back then, and yet the guys look non-freakishly fit. I've seen family pictures of my dad hanging out around age 30, and he had that look. So does Chevy Chase when they finally get to Wally World in Vacation, and so does Nick Nolte when scuba-diving in The Deep. If not the gym, how were they staying in shape?

There was a jogging craze around that time, but endurance runners don't get much muscle in the upper leg. In fact, they look pretty haggard. I remember my dad bike-riding a lot back then, although again if you've seen the typical schlub on a bike these days, you know that's not very plausible either. Not casual bike-riding anyway, another endurance sport.

You need some kind of explosive, intensive activity to develop decent leg muscle, and the average guy in the '80s wasn't training to be a football player or wrestler. Rather, what comes to mind is the mania back then for racquet sports that you just don't see anymore. In those sports, you aren't locomoting very much, kind of bouncing or staying prepared to sprint, but when you do move, it's in an intense burst. Every now and then, you're sprinting almost non-stop. And unlike joggers, sprinters develop larger legs. Plus it's not just running at a steady height, you're lunging down and springing back up.

Aside from stressing the upper leg muscles, all that burst-like movement gets your heart going a lot faster, above the threshold where your body recognizes that it's in a world where it's expected to really perform, and so it had better trim off the fat and toughen up the rest. If your activity level stays below that threshold, your body gets the signal that the world it has to interact with isn't so challenging -- just monotonous and never-ending. You improve your endurance, but not much else.

Unlike other sports, the equipment and clothing is pretty cheap for those played with rackets, and you don't need to get together a dozen others just to play a single game. And unlike working out at the gym, playing sports is social and fun. Both for overall psychological and physical fitness, it seems like racquet sports were just what the country was looking for.

January 24, 2013

Uncovering unwholesomeness in culture throughout history

50 years from now, when people try to figure out what life was like in the early 21st century, how many will know what the Grand Theft Auto video game series was? Or torture porn movies? Or the sado-masochistic character of much mainstream porn? That's just to pick three examples of the general shift toward voyeurism and sensationalism in the culture over the past 20 years.

It may be hard to remember (even more so if you weren't alive), but back in the '80s there was no lurid violence in young people's entertainment. The slasher flick presented all-American teenagers who were mostly likable, or at least sympathetic, although doing what hormone-crazed young people do (or used to do, anyway). This makes you feel for the victims when they get attacked. When the characters are annoying or downright unlikable, you're actually cheering the serial killer on -- "Finally we won't have to listen to that whining bitch anymore!"

Ditto all of the glorification of crime in video games over the past 20 years. In the video games of the '80s and early '90s, where crime was a theme at all, you played the good guys taking on the bad guys, with little or no gore. Kind of like Lethal Weapon with martial arts. Kids increasingly want to role-play as a hoodlum who deals drugs, steals cars, and kills hookers.

And porno movies then featured a guy and a girl who were hot for each other and felt like getting it on, neither one trying to exploit the other, just smiling and having fun. No shock or sensationalism. More and more dirty movies emphasize domination, degradation, and humiliation, whether of the male ("femdom") or of the female (throat gagging). The prevalence of bondage themes is bewildering. How can so many people be so into such degrading stuff?

Yet when people try to reconstruct life in the early 21st century, I'll bet the turn toward sleaze doesn't make the textbooks or popular accounts. From what you learned in US history class, could you give an even basic contrast between the zeitgeist of the 1880s vs. the 1920s? Professional historians love getting into the nitty-gritty, if anything erring on the side of being too particularistic. But the average person, even the average educated person, just doesn't feel like knowing that much about the variations in the historical record is worth anything today. The past must therefore be homogeneous beyond a certain point in time, either uniformly worse than today if they're a progressivist, or uniformly better than today if they're a declinist.

Aside from the past 20 years, the other highpoint of unseen unwholesomeness was the mid-century, especially the '40s and '50s. I don't mean that there was a "seedy underbelly" to the white picket fence suburbs. It was right out in the open, and everyone at the time would've recognized it -- there could have even been a widespread moral panic about it -- but it hasn't been preserved in the popular memory.

The most flagrant example is the sleazy sensationalism of mid-century comic books, featuring just as much lurid torture porn and sado-masochistic imagery as today's dorky video games. I've read some of the secondary literature on this stuff, but today I finally picked up Seduction of the Innocent, a book that ignited a moral panic over the unwholesome nature of comic books back then, and eventually led to the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board within the industry itself, akin to the Hays Code in Hollywood movie studios.

I plan to post in more detail about comic books in particular, since they really were out there back then, and along with radio they were the dominant form of mass media entertainment for young people, like video games today (movie-going was dead, and TV was either non-existent in the earlier part, or slowly gaining viewers by the mid-'50s). But for now, have a look through an online gallery of comic book covers from those days -- and that's not even including the full story inside. The butt-kicking babe, bondage, gore, role-playing as the clever criminal, the intended lack of sympathy running through it all -- it could be straight out of today's youth culture.

Seduction of the Innocent is also available free online; most of the images are not those from the original book, but similar ones that still prove the point. Skim through the chapters named "I Want to be a Sex Maniac" (about the bizarre sexuality so often shown) and "Bumps and Bulges" (about the ads -- increase your bosom size, use this telescope to peep on your neighbors, etc.). You'll never think of the '50s the same way again.

Last, it should go without saying, but "unwholesome" is a property of the cultural item itself -- it doesn't matter what broader social consequences it has. I'm more aware than anyone else of how the violent crime rate kept falling during the mania for lurid S&M comic books, as well as during the neo-sleazy renaissance of the past 20 years. Whether the crime rate shot up or bottomed out in response to comic book sensationalism, the things themselves can't but strike you as unwholesome and sleazy, something that would appeal to weak, passive, anti-social minds.

Unwholesomeness is deplorable not because of its effects or non-effects on material well-being and safety, but because of what it says about our social and psychological health. It triggers our disgust mechanism, not our harm-avoidance mechanism, but that doesn't make it any less important.

January 22, 2013

The return of sincerity, now and then: A backlash against the Christmas sweater backlash

I don't know if you guys visited any clothing or department stores when you were out gift shopping, but I couldn't believe how many winter / ski / Nordic / Fair Isle / Christmas sweaters were on display non-ironically. Actually, not very many per store, but still -- greater than zero.

And not just in the Polo and Tommy Hilfiger sections, where they've always remained for aspiring preppies. Even Urban Outfitters had about a half dozen. I picked up two that had a cool American Southwest feel, whether in the color palette or the pattern, our own regional version of a Northern European tradition.

Well, that's Urban Outfitters, and they've always catered to the vintage-loving crowd. What about some place more trendy and "fashion-forward" like H&M? They had a few, too, including this cardigan that I snagged as a gift for my mother:

In fact, here is a 2011 post from some fashion site, whose Facebook has over 60,000 likes, daring the readers to go ahead and wear something chic and charming when they attend their friends' ironic ugly sweater party, showing 10 examples. And the snark brigade is so uptight that they'd take it personally -- "oh my gosh, did you seriously just go there? wow, i guess you honestly don't mind being 'that girl' at the party, do you?" Good: nobody deserves having their party pooped on more than the party-poopers.

So, is the 20 year-long decline of sincerity finally done with? Well, it's probably got a few more years to go, but the widespread re-introduction of non-ironic Christmas sweaters is a hopeful sign that it's at least bottoming out.

This takes us back to the '50s all over again. Fair Isle and similar-looking sweaters were all the rage during the 1920s and early '30s, then fell out of favor during most of the mid-century. They went against the minimalist aesthetic of the day, having too much and too many colors, repeating patterns, and the dreaded traditional feel no longer suitable in a World of Tomorrow kind of world. Not to mention the aversion to anything with a hint of sentimentality, in the era of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. Sound familiar?

Here is a digitized online collection of old Sears Christmas catalogs. By the 1952 edition, there are zero Christmas sweaters for sale, not for men, not for women, not for children. The next one they have online is the 1956 edition, and by then they'd begun to creep back in, though only for men. Women's sweaters were still just about uniformly devoid of any pattern, or of multiple colors. From the '56 catalog:

Just a few years later, the return has grown even stronger. The caption for the sharp-dressed father and son opens, "Glowing with color, reflecting the warmth and spirit of winter sports... Norwegian ski design favored by color-conscious men." From the '58 catalog:

Through the end of the '50s, women still couldn't break free from their conformist wallflower tendencies and join the men in wearing festive sweaters during the Christmas season. Once the 1960s got going, though, they couldn't resist any longer. The '60 and '61 catalogs are not online, but the one from '62 shows several  for women. Most are part of a his-and-hers set, as though they needed to be guided into it, but a few pictures show women wearing Christmas sweaters on their own.

By the mid-1950s, the stifling atmosphere of the previous 20 years (after the death of the Jazz Age) had grown tiresome -- for some, anyway, and most of them men. Not only did the sincere fun of sporting Christmas sweaters begin to make a long-awaited comeback, but they started to grow restless with the corporate slave culture, as shown in the hit novel and movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Sound familiar? Hopefully it will pretty soon now.

Personally I find it heart-warming to look at the birth years of those involved in this initial push away from mid-century managerialism, obsequiousness, drabness, and insincerity. The major forces behind The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, both the novel and the movie, The Apartment, The Lonely Crowd, the 30-something men in the Sears catalogs -- almost entirely come from the later part of the Greatest Generation, mostly from the late 1910s through the mid-'20s, with a few going back to the late 1900s.

Based on where they were born in relation to the peak in the crime rate, which largely determines the zeitgeist, those guys correspond to men born mostly from the later half of the '70s through the first half of the '80s, with some going back to the late '60s. I.e., Generation X and the smaller Gen Y. Not the Silents, and not the Millennials.

We're old enough to remember what high spirits our communities used to be in when we were children, we had to suffer a good part of our young adulthood in the opposite place (the '90s and after), yet we're still young enough to feel like there's something left worth fighting for, not just "Well, I had my fun in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, so I can't get angry about where things are headed."

We're now in our 21st year of falling crime rates. Before, the 21st year of falling crime rates was 1954. Seems like the next few years should see the beginnings of the return of sincerity, trust, and openness -- and then a few years after that, rising crime rates, as we allow ourselves to spend more time in vulnerable public spaces, deciding that that's just the risk you have to take to keep from living half of a life holed up at home.

January 19, 2013

Neo-Victorian bonnets

The hair on our head is the one clear-cut case of ornamentation like the peacock's tail. It just keeps growing and growing and growing for no reason, other than to get noticed. In infancy, it's short, wispy, and subdued in pigment. And in old age, it's short, wispy, and subdued in pigment. It's only during adolescence and early adulthood that it's thick, long, and richly colored, another sign of hair's role in dating and mating.

It's no surprise then that in cultures where women's sexuality is tightly controlled, they minimize the appearance of their hair. This includes not only cultures where a woman has her look policed by others (typically by older women, not by men, who have more important things to do), but also those where the woman just doesn't feel like displaying her sexual maturity in the first place.

Other parts of her appearance, both natural and artificial, may serve other functions and are not necessarily so rigidly regulated. Colder weather tends to favor more skin being covered up, and hotter weather less. Frequent walking throughout the day selects for shorter hemlines on flowing robe-like clothing, so that strides may be taken less clumsily. But since all that hair seems to serve no other function, it can be pinned up and covered up without affecting the woman's daily activities.

We don't live in a pastoralist culture of honor where women's modesty in appearance is enforced mainly for married women, and where unmarried women are allowed to let their hair down so they can attract a husband before it's too late. Rather, we seem to be moving more toward the agrarian extreme where women don't mind dulling themselves down because they aren't chosen on the basis of looks so much as their ability to produce wealth, whether by toiling out in the fields or by getting a degree and a career. We're becoming less Mediterranean and more East Asian.

And it's not just that girls aren't putting much thought into looking pretty, but are otherwise well adjusted psychologically about their sexuality. They come off as awkward. Just read the faces you see in a google image search for "slouchy hats". Their eyes are lost in that whole hipster fairy-child dream they have, of returning to a pre-pubescent stage and roaming the empty fields alone, or at most with a drab-looking non-boyfriend who won't ever make a move to touch her "down there".

See the lookbook of any store aimed at older teenagers, like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, or Hollister. The pitch is, "The perfect clothes for indulging your awkwardness and lonesomeness." What's truly bizarre is that they're not targeted at the ugly and socially invisible girls. Everyone in the Millennial generation is pretty dorky, so even the cute girls in the dorm fantasize about the freedom to feel awkward with no one else around to notice them and make them feel, uh, awkward.

January 17, 2013

Teenagers less likely to have a driver's license than any time in the past 50 years

I've already got a few other graphs up like the one below (search for "license"), but now the 2011 data are in from Highway Statistics. The percent of eligible teenagers, 16 to 19, who actually have a driver's license continues to tumble:

At 51% in 2011, and at the rate it's falling, it's probably already below 50% in 2012. In 2011, 28% of 16 year-olds had a license, 45% of 17 year-olds (!), 60% of 18 year-olds, and 69% of 19 year-olds. So now, probably one-third of 19 year-olds do not have a license. How do they go through security at the airport to-and-from college, during spring break, or any kind of trip? If they're going through all the trouble of getting a passport or other government ID, why not just take that time and learn how to fucking drive?

For anyone who has even minimal contact with real teenagers today, this can come as no surprise. They feel so uncomfortable around other people that they'd rather just stay home and wrap themselves in their cyber-cocoon. Feeling so awkward in a social context, they prefer that their friends exist only in a virtual world where they don't have to actually meet up with them, restricting their "interactions" to online video games, Facebook, and texting.

But enough ragging on today's defenseless dorky young people. For this installment, I've managed to dig up some older data that go back to 1963. I didn't cover this before because the driver's license data that far back only say how many people have a license in some age group, not what percent of the age group does. But in the meantime I've gone through lots of data on the age structure of the population, so I can compare the number with a license to the number overall within some age group.

My age structure data groups all 15-19 year-olds together, so I can't look at just the 16+ teenagers. But the driver's license data has a category for anyone 19 and under. Not a huge change in what we're looking at, then.

This graph only goes up through 2010, but the decline over the past 20 years is still evident. The neat thing to notice here is that it wasn't at some constant high value before the decline. That's a common misconception about declines -- that everything had been cruising along nice and steady, when suddenly something disrupted the world and we've been in decline ever since.

As it turns out, teenagers in the early 1960s were about as likely to have a license as their counterparts in the declining period of the late '90s. Before the decline, young people became more and more likely to want a license to drive, before reaching an uneven plateau during the late '70s and the '80s. The protracted decline does not begin until 1990, another example of how cocooning behavior seems to slightly precede a fall in the crime rate. (Indeed, cocooning causes falling crime rates, as the predators have a harder time finding vulnerable prey out in the open.)

Economics does not explain the pattern, as cars have only gotten cheaper during the entire period, and parents only more willing to pay for their kid's insurance and even gas & maintenance. Or more typically, let their kid drive the family car, which again have only gotten cheaper and more ubiquitous over the past 50 years.

What about how youthful the population is? Perhaps when it's growing younger and younger, there's a feeling of excitement in the air, and especially the young people themselves don't want to feel like it's passing them by. Better jump on board while you can, and you need a driver's license to take part in the unsupervised socializing of your fellow teenagers.

Well, close but not quite. Below is a graph of the number of 15-29 year-olds compared to the number of 30-59 year-olds. This ratio reflects the difference between the strength of the force pushing for more excitement, and the opposite force pushing for more containment.

It rises through a peak in the late '70s and begins a steady fall after 1980, yet the sharp drop in driver's licenses doesn't begin for another decade. Also, there's been a steady if small rise in the youthfulness ratio since the early 2000s, yet young people have only withdrawn more and more from other people.

Again, the changes over time look more like the outgoing vs. cocooning pattern. It's more or less the crime rate graph shifted earlier by a few years. For example, youngsters seemed to become more outgoing and rambunctious a few years before the 1959 start of the most recent crime wave. And on the flip-side, they begin to withdraw into their own private spaces a few years before the 1993 start of the falling crime rate. These kind of cycles that are slightly out of synch with each other suggest that the "ecology" of criminals and normal people out in public is like that of predators and prey, perhaps not so shocking of a view but still worth keeping in mind.

January 14, 2013

When else did everybody's names rhyme?

Imagine you're at a party, or hosting one for your kids, and a group of guys introduce themselves as Tyler, Kyler, and Skyler. "Omigosh, that is seriously kind of amazing -- we're Elsie, Kelsey, and Chelsea! You guys just missed Kennedy and Serenity, but I'm sure they'll be back soon..."

I don't know about you, but when there are so many made-up names that rhyme with each other, it doesn't create an it-just-happened-that-way kind of delightfulness. It sounds hamfisted, like forcing a rhyme between "mobster" and "lobster". The evident self-consciousness just makes the whole thing seem phony and off-putting. It's campy, not charming. (By the way, those are all real names in the top 1000 for babies born in 2011.)

I've been looking through how similar the popular names sound over time, and once it's all collected and analyzed, I'll hopefully write something up here. But to show how wildly these things can cycle, let's take a quick look at four years that began four iconic decades -- 1920, 1950, 1980 and 2010. Below are the names in the top 100 for girls that rhyme.

1920 -- 19 rhyme

Ellen, Hellen
Clara, Sarah
Ella, Stella
Bessie, Jessie
Willie, Lillie
Rita, Juanita
Jean, Irene, Eileen, Pauline, Maxine, Kathleen, Geraldine

1950 -- 37 rhyme

Gloria, Victoria
Bonnie, Connie
Anna, Diana
Mary, Sherry
Carol, Sheryl
Carolyn, Marilyn
Ellen, Hellen
Sharon, Karen
Brenda, Glenda
Jane, Elaine
Rita, Anita
Ann(e), Dian(n)e, Joann(e), Suzanne
Jean(ne), Irene, Eileen, Kathleen, Christine, Darlene, Maureen

1980 -- 30 rhyme

Monica, Veronica
Sara(h), Tara
Erin, Karen
Mary, Carrie
Michelle, Danielle
Amy, Jamie
Misty, Christy (Kristy)
Lisa, Teresa
Christine, Kathleen
Leah, Maria
Tina, Gina, Katrina, Christina (Kristina)

2010 -- 36 rhyme

Chloe (Khloe), Zoe(y)
Riley, Kylie
Maya, Mariah
Brianna, Gianna, Arian(n)a
Madison, Addison
Hannah, Anna, Savannah
Isabella, Ella, Gabriella, Bella, Stella
Hailey, Kaylee, Bailey
Layla, Kayla, Makayla
Mia, Leah, Maria, Aaliyah, Amelia, Valeria, Sophia (Sofia)

When you weight the names not only by whether or not they have a rhyming partner, but by how many such partners they have (i.e. just twins or octuplets), the picture is even clearer that 1950 and 2010 were high points in mindless conformity, while 1920 and 1980 were low points. I qualify "conformity" with "mindless" to distinguish it from a meaningful, heart-felt kind. Meeting the neighbor's kids who are named Huey, Dewey, and Louie doesn't fill me up with fellow-feeling -- it just sounds goofy. If anything it's alienating, making me wonder what planet I've landed on.

It's a cheap display of willingness to play on the same team. Actively keeping an eye on each other's kids, hosting them at sleepovers, and sending them around to trick-or-treat would be costly and honest displays of team-mindedness. When people want to cocoon, they have to at least hold up a fig leaf of community spirit, so we get these overly eager, almost caricatured forms of togetherness.

Treat this as news you can use, and hold off having kids until this index starts to fall for awhile. Then you'll know that the rest of society is backing away from hive-like social behavior and returning to neighborly trust, making way for communities worth raising children in.

January 13, 2013

Vanishing childhood: When cereal was kiddie food only

For the first case study, let's look at something light. Chief among the taboos of any culture in the world are those regarding food -- who can or cannot eat what food with whom in what situation. Part of the emphasis on children as a qualitatively different type of person from an adolescent or adult is that they have their own set of foods that grown-ups won't eat, and grown-ups will have their own foods that the children won't get to eat until they begin their rites of passage out of childhood.

So why not look at breakfast cereals? They started off in the early 20th century as health food for adults, though by the 1950s were marketed both to children and adults. But starting in the '60s and peaking in the '80s and early '90s, they became largely relegated to kids-only food.

Over the past 20 years, though, they've returned to the mid-century pattern of being for both kids and adults, kind of like how the syrupy "juice" boxes have disappeared and been replaced by fruit juice for both kids and adults, and the kiddie candies have been replaced by fruit snacks for young and old alike. There don't seem to be very sharp boundaries between kiddie and grown-up food anymore.

To pursue that hunch, I found the Cereal Project at mrbreakfast.com. Each entry has data on when it was introduced, and they have also grouped cereals into families like those with bran, those based on movies, etc.

I see three lines of evidence showing that cereal is no longer a kiddie food, and that its kiddie status has been declining since 1993 or so, after an increase from the '60s through the early '90s.

First, there's the cereal's ingredients. The prototypical kiddie food is pure sugar and candy-like, no fats needed. So I left aside the chocolate family of cereals, as fatty chocolate appeals to adults too. What about marshmallows, though? You don't see them very much in sweets aimed at adults. Yet there are dozens of cereals with them. Or at least there used to be. After compiling these lists, I checked my local middle American supermarket, and only one in the entire cereal aisle had marshmallows -- Lucky Charms, introduced nearly 50 years ago.

See the footnote for the boring methodology. *

At any rate, here are the cereals in the marshmallow family by year of introduction:

1964  Lucky Charms
1969  Kaboom
1971  Count Chocula
1971  Franken Berry
1972  Baron Von Redberry
1972  Sir Grapefellow
1973  Boo Berry
1973  Freakies
1974  Fruit Brute
1982 Marshmallow Krispies
1982  S'mores Grahams
1983  Pac-Man
1985  Ghostbusters
1986  Rocky Road
1987  Smurf Magic Berries
1988  Yummy Mummy
1989  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1990  Dino Pebbles
1992  Marshmallow Alpha-Bits
2002 Mickey's Magix
2002 Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo
2003 Mud & Bugs
2003 Monopoly
2003 Smorz

It's hard to believe that it took cereal makers so long to come up with the idea of marshmallow bits, but it wasn't until 1963 that they hit on the idea after cutting up circus peanuts into regular cereal. This gave birth one year later to Lucky Charms, and began a decades-long mania for marshmallows. It chugs along through 1992, and then more or less disappears, aside from a brief resuscitation in 2002 and 2003.

It's hardly surprising -- can you imagine helicopter parents letting their kids eat marshmallows for breakfast every morning? In their minds, children are not a different type of person that will undergo a transformation and become an adult, giving up their kiddie ways. They are always mini-adults, they just get incrementally closer to full adults as they age. So if you start them on marshmallows at age 5, they'll be chowing down Count Chocula in their 50s. So, you can't let them have it in the first place.

Instead they have to make cereal more palatable to adults in taste and marketing. So you have granola flakes or whatever aimed at kids, and supposedly kids-only cereal by a company called Envirokidz that has naturalistic illustrations on the packaging, clearly appealing to adults rather than kids, who would prefer cartoony drawings. Cereal is no longer distinctly kiddie or adult.

Next is a category I made myself, going through all cereals in their database. And those are cereals made to look and taste like an existing dessert, candy, or sweet junk snack. That clearly marks it as something for kids only -- no adult should want a cereal made out of Oreos. I kept out those based on breakfast pastries like Cinnabon and Pop Tarts, since those still have an innocent breakfast-y feel to them, unlike cereal made to taste like ice cream. Here they are:

1977  Cookie Crisp
1980  Powdered Donutz
1982  S'mores Grahams
1982  Strawberry Shortcake
1985  Nerds
1986  Rocky Road
1987  Ice Cream Cones, Vanilla / Chocolate Chip
1988  Dunkin' Donuts
1998  Oreo O's
2003 Choco Donuts
2003 Smorz

Again we see a solid run through the '80s, a single entry in the '90s, and more of an exception during 2003, as we saw above.

Those were some of my favorites growing up -- like, I can't believe I'm getting away with eating cookies for breakfast! Most of those didn't last too long, like the Rocky Road that I used to bring to day care every day in a plastic baggie -- that stuff was good enough on its own. S'mores was the best of these, although Cookie Crisp has hung around for longer.

I still remember collecting a bunch of box tops from vanilla Ice Cream Cones and sending away for a digital wristwatch that had the logo on it. That's another thing that has changed very suddenly -- cereals don't have prizes anymore. When they did, it was a clear marker of the food's kiddie status. But now that kids and adults aren't allowed to have their own distinct cultures anymore, they'd either have to put toy prizes in all foods or remove them from cereals.

That's it for the ingredients. What about the marketing? Here there are two families whose names, mascots, etc., show that the cereal is clearly aimed at children:

Girl's Stuff

1981  Orange Blossom
1982  Strawberry Shortcake
1985  Cabbage Patch Kids
1985  Rainbow Brite


1971  Count Chocula
1971  Franken Berry
1973  Boo Berry
1974  Fruit Brute
1988  Yummy Mummy

I excluded Smurfs and Flintstones cereals from the Girls Stuff family since they aren't uniquely girly. At any rate, cereal specifically for little girls was an '80s-only phenomenon. That was during a low-point in ideological feminism -- mothers back then did not worry about what message they were sending their daughters by buying them Rainbow Brite cereal. Most of the loud-mouthed feminism of the mid-1970s came from and was made for Silent Gen women like Gloria Steinem and other 30-to-40-something career women. By the time Baby Boomers became parents in the '70s and '80s, they wanted wholesome, sex-typical childhoods for their offspring.

Now that childhood per se does not exist, but only mini-adulthood, there can be no cereals that would strike adults as uniquely kiddie, like Boo Berry. There are no exceptions to the decline during the '90s and later.

Finally, there are those based on TV shows or movies. You'd think maybe the change would take the form of making cereals based on PG-13 tent-pole "family-friendly" movies. Lord of the Rings Rings, or something. But planning a cereal around a movie is a little too obvious to get past adults; they would instantly see it as a kiddie marketing gimmick. As explained in the boring methodology, I only counted those that were not limited edition promotions, but an honest attempt to launch an enduring cereal line based on a TV show or movie.


1984  C-3PO's
1984  E.T.
1985  Ghostbusters
2002 Buzz Blasts
2003 Mud & Bugs


1969  Fruity Pebbles
1973  Pink Panther Flakes
1983  Smurf Berry Crunch
1984  Mr. T
1985  G.I. Joe
1985  Rainbow Brite
1988  Croonchy Stars
1989  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1991  Urkel-Os
2001 Bart Simpson
2001 Homer's Cinnamon Donut
2002 Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo

The movie cereals are mostly an '80s thing, with an exception during 2002-'03, as before. TV cereals got started somewhat earlier, but also all but vanish after the early '90s, aside from the exception in -- once again -- 2002, and now a pair in 2001. The two Simpsons cereals show somewhat of the expected change of making TV/movie cereals come from grown-up sources, as no kid was watching the Simpsons by that point.

Overall, then, the pattern is one of greater kiddie-ness of cereals from the '60s through a peak in the '80s, a not very gradual decline over the past 20 years, and a brief reversal of that decline around 2002-'03. This is the familiar rising-crime vs. falling-crime timing, with the brief exception in '02-'03 being a reaction to 9/11, which provoked somewhat of a rising-crime zeitgeist, though not very broadly or long-lastingly. I'll tie all these things into the trend in the crime rate after the case studies themselves.

Helicopter parents frame these changes as trying to look out for the long-term health of their kid. But they aren't feeding them less carbs and sugar -- more, if anything, given how much yoghurt (always sweetened), fruit juice, nuts, granola, etc., they give them in place of Cookie Crisp. Mom doesn't make bacon and eggs served with buttered toast and whole milk anymore. And anyway, kids grow out of eating cereal if it's understood to be a kiddie thing. If anything, treating it as a food for all ages makes them continue eating junky cereal their entire lives.

Rather, the change has been to remove the distinctly kiddie aura surrounding breakfast cereal. Kids are no longer their own class of creatures with their own tastes and their own culture -- they are slabs of wet clay that will develop whatever tastes the parents impart to them through regular training. Again I'll get to why once more cases have been studied.

* In all of these lists, I excluded cereals that were temporary promotional tie-ins or limited editions. I want to see what kind of stuff kids could rely on finding during a random trip to the grocery store. And there are a bunch of cereals that no one's ever heard of, so I only kept those that had at least 100 votes for being the best cereal. That still keeps in most of the cereals that lasted a few years or longer, and serves more to exclude obscure ones that a kid would never have encountered in real life. I also excluded minor variations on existing product lines, unless they took the line into a new family, e.g. by introducing marshmallows when the original cereal didn't have them.

Also, I took these lists at face value, and did not look through all cereals not on the list to see if they missed any. I'm sure they didn't mean for them to be exhaustive, but they won't be biased in favor of my hunch since they didn't know what it was when they made their lists. If anything, it looks biased against it. I remember a cereal from the '80s called Circus Fun that had lots of marshmallows in it, yet is not included in the "Marshmallow Madness" family.

January 10, 2013

Vanishing childhood: Intro

After seeing my nephew over Christmas vacation, lots of observations snapped together into a single pattern. More or less, helicopter parents are trying to prevent their children from going through a rite-of-passage, of any kind, as they age.

Their emotionally avoidant mindset makes them feel awkward thinking about their son or daughter as belonging to a fundamentally different class of living creatures when they're little, and then changing into something more familiar during adolescence. Dealing with small children is more emotionally taxing if you perceive them as their own class of people -- it requires disrupting your routine of social interaction and emotional investment, since that's almost always geared toward other adults.

Frequently switching modes in any domain of life is always anathema to those with OCD, but especially if you have to make a qualitative switch rather than just dialing some behavior up or down.

They therefore want to avoid giving the child any kind of markers that set him clearly off in some kiddie sphere -- not just physical markers, but also speech patterns, styles of address, and overall treatment. If he is never clearly marked as a separate type of person as a child, he won't need to shed those markers and adopt new ones during adolescence. That palpable transformation is again too much of a disruption to the routine for an avoidant-style parent to tolerate.

I think avoidant types must also have a deep anxiety about ritual in general. It's too corporeal, and bodily sensations excite the emotions. That rush you get when you're stomping and clapping along with the other fans for your team, is not going to fly with someone who doesn't want to ever become attached to other people. By eliminating ritual, and making things more abstract and cerebral, they can maintain their preferred absence of emotional investment in the parenting process.

As a result, today's kids aren't very kiddie. In future posts, I'll go into a little more detail with specific case studies, but consider just a few examples briefly.

Children don't wear distinctively kiddie clothing anymore -- their parents dress them in jeans, cargo shorts, Chuck Taylors, Uggs, button-down collared shirts, hoodies, etc., just as an adolescent or adult would wear. There's also no specifically kiddie hairstyles that you grow out of. They don't have their own physical spaces where grown-ups are not allowed -- parents hover right behind their kids at Chuck E. Cheese's, and adults invade the "kids table" at Thanksgiving (even teenagers sit there now). Their media are no longer distinctly kiddie, as over half the jokes, references, and remarks in children's programming are obviously aimed at the parents in the audience. There's no more kiddie food, all of it now being the miniature version of grown-up food, like fiber-and-yoghurt cereal instead of S'mores cereal.

And of course they don't get spanked or given firm orders (i.e., backed up by a physical punishment). They are reasoned with or have their things taken away / put in time-out as though they were adult workers who have disobeyed their co-adult manager. You wouldn't spank a peer, so you can't spank your own child.

By dissolving the taboo boundaries between childhood and adolescence, helicopter parents believe they are treating their kids more fairly and doing a better job at preparing them for adulthood.

Yet the attempts at fairer treatment blow up in their face. The parent treats the child like a grown-up, the child behaves like children do, and the parent feels betrayed -- like, "After all I've done to not condescend to you and to treat you like a grown-up, this is the thanks I get, another temper tantrum." Then the parent snaps and probably chews the kid out, just as you would get angry at a peer who didn't reciprocate your kindness. All this drama is easily prevented by not viewing and treating the kid as someone near your own level, but rather as some lower thing that can't be expected to treat you as your peers would. If you just expect children to act selfishly, you won't feel betrayed when they do. You have to correct them when they misbehave, but you shouldn't have a seething personal grudge underlying it as well.

As for preparing them better, it does just the opposite. Truly preparing them for adulthood means letting them fly out of the nest on their own and getting hurt if things happen that way. All of these ways of marking children as those who've already gone through adolescence are just rewarding the child for something they haven't accomplished. The whole point of the rite-of-passage stuff is that you're actually changing and becoming an adult, and as a reward, you get to wear different clothes, sport a different hairstyle, sit at the grown-up's table, and so on. By giving them all these privileges in childhood, parents tell them that they don't need to bother growing up -- they're already enjoying all the perks, both material and social. These children end up socially and emotionally stunted, not mature.

Well, that's all the bla bla bla about that. What'll be more interesting is going over all of the many domains of life that this touches. Where possible, I'll also draw comparisons back to the turn of the 20th century, to show how it relates to the trend in the crime rate. As predicted, in falling-crime times parents mark their kids as mini-adults in order to minimize the intensity of age-group transitions, while in rising-crime times they encourage them to live their own separate lives as precious children before transforming into adults. Why the link, is another post.

January 8, 2013

Snake oil, Geritol, and Enzyte

Whenever I watch TV during a visit home, it always blows my mind how many commercials there are for prescription drugs, especially the lifestyle drugs. Improve your energy level! Improve your stamina! Improve your sex life! And energy drinks are popular with everybody from intellectuals to teenage video game addicts.

Back in the '80s, the only commercials I remember seeing were for over-the-counter medicine used to treat acute symptoms like headache, cough, heartburn, etc. They did not try to lure you into a steady diet of their drug as a way to treat enduring problems like not having as much energy as you'd like. As a result, they didn't try to prey on your desperation, or try to make you feel desperate in the first place. And because they weren't trying to pitch a long-term treatment regimen, they had no need to appear like a bunch of degreed experts who are trying to plan out your future. No expert would want to be followed by a catchy jingle that would cancel out the sobriety of his lecture.

The fact that the mid-1990s gave birth to this direct-to-consumer marketing of lifestyle prescription drugs made me suspect that it would be found in other falling-crime periods. In those times, people are more trusting of experts because they see the world around them getting safer, and attribute that (wrongly) to whatever policies the authorities have been implementing. A rising-crime period cures people of that misattribution, as they see with their own eyes how puzzled, impotent, and even corrupt the authorities are to check a soaring crime rate.

Perhaps people also have lower energy levels and other lifestyle problems during falling-crime periods. When you perceive a safer and safer world, your body responds by investing more in maintenance (AKA procrastination) than in actually getting things done. Why be in an excitable state if there's so little to get excited about?

Whatever the reason, sure enough the earlier falling-crime periods were plagued by their own versions of Amberen and Viagra. During the mid-20th century, it was Geritol, a "tonic" designed to cure chronically low energy levels by giving you a megadose of iron. They were advertised right on TV, not only during an in-show break, but also during standalone commercials like these:

The earnest, paternalistic tone, the thinly veiled attempt to make the viewer feel like they should be more active and energetic than they are, the framing of it as a long-term problem rather than an acute symptom, and the pitch that a miracle of science has the answer, as proven by multiple testimonials from These Real Customers -- it's uncanny how familiar the era of Geritol feels.

Was it a fringe phenomenon? Not if we're to judge by the episode-length lampooning of the trend by the I Love Lucy show in 1952. Lucy auditions for a job as a spokeswoman for Vitameatavegamin, another in a long line of phony health tonics, but that also contains 23% alcohol. Hijinks ensue as she gets drunker and drunkerer over the several takes that she shoots.

And before that, there was the heyday of the patent medicine, which we would today just call snake oil, using one of the most well known "medicines" to stand for the whole enterprise. It flourished during the Victorian era in Europe and the Gilded Age in America. The basic story is the same as during the Geritol and Enzyte crazes.

What's important is that snake oil hucksterism has not been a constant over time. It only shows up during falling-crime times, when audiences are more credulous about claims made by experts. The patent medicine racket unwound during the rising-crime period of ca. 1900 to the early '30s, and the Geritol racket unwound starting in the '60s. Again, by the '80s you didn't see any of that kind of advertising on TV, in print, or wherever.

Except for the rising crime rate itself, so much else goes right during a rising-crime period. Becoming more skeptical of experts who pretend to have simple solutions to complex problems, even those that toy with the human body, is just one more.

January 4, 2013

So many slang words that assume nobody trusts you

Honestly, if one more person says that something is "actually" amazing, I'm literally going to die. Seriously. It's like they think that I'd think they were lying out of kindness, or for whatever other reason that I'd think their endorsement were untrustworthy. But be assured, that new reality show about hairstylists who compete for job slots at a doggie day spa -- is "actually" pretty amazing.

"For real" started spreading sometime in the mid-1990s. I don't remember hearing that in elementary school, and I have a pretty good memory of '80s and early '90s slang, so I'd guess it was around '93 or later. Same with "the real deal". In 1991, MC Hammer put out a song called "Too Legit to Quit", although I've only heard "legit" (i.e. legitimate, authentic) used among young people in the past 5 years. I guess it was a little ahead of its time.

"Seriously" I can't date from memory, although it's not '80s. I'd say it was there a little later, maybe late '90s or after. "Literally" also sounds like the late '90s or later. "Actually" is from the 2000s, which also saw the rise of "honestly," "to be honest," and "to be quite honest." The genre must have reached its peak with "I'm not gonna lie", another one from the 2000s.

All of these qualifiers reveal a deep anxiety that your conversation partner would normally think you're a liar, not to be trusted, etc. So you have to assure them at the outset that you're not telling a lie. There are too many different examples, and even multiple variations on a single phrase (the "honest" ones), for them all to be random flukes that just happen to mean the same thing. The General Social Survey shows that trust levels peaked in 1989 and have been falling since, so it's no stretch to see the slang words reflecting broader social trends.

The only '70s and '80s slang on the theme of trust and belief was the family of incredulous expressions -- "No way," "Not even," "Get serious," and "Get real". ("Inconceivable!") You didn't say these things because you thought the other person was lying and dishonest, but that their claim was unbelievable for some other reason. Maybe they were unbelievably naive to make such a statement, or maybe the event seemed so improbable that you couldn't believe it truly happened.

If the expression of disbelief (but not of distrust) touched a nerve, then the other person might water down their claim. But if the claim really was to be believed, they assured you. "No way" -- "Way!" "Not even" -- "Even!" "Get serious" -- "Seriously!" "I don't believe it" -- "You better believe it!" In these cases, you made an overt assurance of truthfulness only after being explicitly told that your claim sounded unbelievable. It wasn't the default mode, before any expression of disbelief from your conversation partner. It was not pre-emptive, as though everybody would distrust you.

January 2, 2013

Baby girl names ending in -lyn predicts falling crime rate

Fashion cycles are commonly thought to not reflect the broader social context, or if they do, that it must reflect economics. But the economic picture doesn't pop out of most cultural things that you can chart over time. Rather what links so many zeitgeists that are temporally far apart yet conceptually close, is the trend in the crime rate, rising or falling.

You can see that in all of the conscious and particularly the unconscious rebirths of things that were popular back in the mid-20th century. Buildings that aim to be nothing more than big dumb ugly glass-and-concrete boxes, the drive-in fast food place, 3 hour-long epic movies, 3D movies, pop music that is either drowsy or cacophonous, and on and on. For reasons I've explored elsewhere, these things seem to stem from the falling crime rate of both periods.

What's really interesting is finding something that doesn't just move in the same direction as the crime rate, but actually precedes it. That is, the variable begins trending upward some time before the crime rate rises, and then begins trending downward some time before the crime rate falls. This variable is a leading indicator of what will happen with the crime rate.

I've found that trust levels are a leading indicator of the crime rate, for reasons explained elsewhere. However, I only have data on trust back to the early 1970s.

For data that stretch back far into the past, there's the age structure of the population -- basically how youthful it is. More youngsters = more crime. That's useful because we have pretty good data on age structure, so if there's a rise in the youthfulness of some society, we can begin preparing for greater violence and crime ahead of time.

How about something more eerie? I don't pretend to understand the mechanistic link between this variable and the crime rate, but it does appear to predict the trend in the crime rate, even within a decade. And that variable is the share of baby girl names that end in a long "-ee" sound. That's the standard diminutive suffix in English, things that we want to make sound small, cute, familiar, informal, etc. Perhaps parents give girls those kinds of names when they're more trusting, as trust also is a leading indicator of crime.

Well, here's another apparent leading indicator from the world of baby girl names, only this one is inversely related (when it goes up, sometime soon the crime rate will go down). And that is the number of the top 100 baby girl names that end in the sound "lyn". (I ignored spelling variations of the same name, and only counted distinct names.) Here's the popularity over time, measured every 5 years:

In 2010, the top 100 girl names included Brooklyn, Evelyn, Jocelyn, Madelyn, and Kaitlyn (and some spelling variants). The same was true back in 1950: Carolyn, Marilyn, Lynn, Evelyn, and Jacqueline. That cluster of names sounds unusual to someone born in 1920 or 1980, when only 1 such name broke into the top 100 -- Evelyn and Jacqueline, respectively. Not only has the cluster undergone a revival, but even particular names that looked to be gone forever have been reborn, such as Evelyn, which started to soar in popularity starting in the late 1980s after decades of decline.

Overall the graph above looks like the movement of the murder rate, only shifted earlier by 5-10 years. The murder rate peaks in 1933, yet at least by 1925 the "lyn" names had begun to increase. Similarly, the murder rate peaks again in 1992, yet at least by 1985 the "lyn" names had begun to increase. The murder rate didn't begin rising until 1959, yet already by 1955 the "lyn" names began to decline. In between peaks and valleys, both the crime rate and these name "fashions" move fairly smoothly upward or smoothly downward.

What is it about parents opting more for baby girl names ending with "lyn"that tells us the crime rate is going to stop rising and peak 5-10 years later? Or, what is it about the drop in their popularity among parents that tells us that 5-10 years later the crime rate's going to start rising?

Well, you got me. To keep my story simple, I'd prefer to relate it to trust levels, as I did when I took a stab at explaining the other naming/crime relationship. There, the stuff about the diminutive suffix is reasonable enough. But what about "lyn" is already out there? It is probably part of a larger pattern that I just haven't measured yet, like a name that rhymes with "in". Maybe it's a short vowel vs. long vowel difference. Short vowels signal a withdrawal of trust, and long vowels a rekindling of trust? Who knows. I'll poke around the data more and see how big the pattern goes before I try to link it to trust, crime, etc.