December 31, 2013

The class of '63: History through yearbook impressions

Tonight we had a lot of fun looking over my aunt's yearbook from the year she graduated, 1963. This was an interesting time because it was after the cocooning trend of the mid-century had begun to reverse, and people were loosening up and shaking things up. And the violent crime rate was beginning its upward climb of the following decades.

But it wasn't yet The Sixties. It was post-Elvis but pre-Beatles, and post-Cuban Missile Crisis but pre-Vietnam (in the popular mind). Kennedy had been elected but not assassinated. And the graduating seniors were born in 1945, at the very end of the Silent Generation. Suddenly they weren't so silent.

If you remember the '70s, '80s, or early '90s, the signs of people coming out of their shells will look fairly familiar, such as girls kicking off the rise of Big Hair and shorter skirts.

However, other aspects of the climate look far more foreign to us because the turning point came much earlier than 1992 -- the cycle of status-striving and inequality. Most folks were still self-effacing, and income inequality was nearing a low point, through the middle of the 1970s. After that, things began to slowly creep toward the other end of the spectrum. It seemed dampened in the '80s because rising-crime and an outgoing disposition both push you toward getting along with and looking after others, rather than striving to advance yourself by screwing others. Only the yuppie fringe were thinking and behaving the way that everyone is in today's dog-eat-dog world.

Still, there were other very clear signs of the rise of status striving during the late '70s and '80s: the higher education bubble took off, income inequality began rising, children become more and more likely to grow up in broken homes, and so on.

Back in 1963, though, none of those things were on the rise. Nor were people at the turning-around point where they've started to take hard-won progress for granted. There was still a very conscious credo of egalitarianism, not complacency.

With those overview points in mind, here are some impressions drawn from concrete examples:

- As I said, girls were starting to wear Big Hair. They wanted boys to notice them. Flatter hair means don't look at me. Also, the hair started to be pulled away from the face, again saying "look at me," rather than the hair curtains hiding the face that had been more popular in the '40s and part of the '50s.

- Guys still look pretty geeky, in my aunt's own words, after I was thinking it but not saying it out loud. The flat tops, the thick-rimmed glasses, and just the general vacant and unassertive expressions on their faces. When the "birds and the bees" climate changes direction, girls change first, and then guys. After living through the emotionally disconnected and physically restrained mid-century, it's the less-willing side that has to make the first sign of interest in turning things around. As that mindset spreads, guys start to notice and begin high-fiving each other about how interested the girls suddenly appear to be. I think Beatlemania and girls shrieking out loud in polite company was another major part of this pattern of "girls change first."

- About 2 out of 40 guys in each high school class (or 5%) had severely receding hairlines, where the center was pretty high on the forehead, and the sides had made deep V-lines across the temples and top of the head. Where they did have hair, it was pretty thin in density. It was so strange because they had high school faces and middle-aged hair!

Have you noticed a similar pattern among youngish guys these days? I've seen guys in their early 20s who are more or less bald. And I haven't seen that in all the '80s yearbooks I've flipped through. This would support my theory that baldness signals current and future monogamous behavior because bald guys tend to be low down on the pyramid of desirability. Hence, whether they wanted to cheat or not, they wouldn't find many takers. During periods of cocooning and greater monogamy, men will be balder, while during periods of outgoing-ness and greater promiscuity, they'll have fuller hair. I think these balding high school guys were a window into the "good dad" pattern of the '50s, while guys' hair in the '80s was part of the "bad boy" pattern of the time. Now that we're back toward the "good dad" ideal, guys are balding more.

- The senior class was about one-half the size of the freshman class -- not because some of them had gotten bumped off by sabotaging striver students, but because they realized that extra years of high school weren't going to do anything for them, so they started working. Imagine that: earning money rather than going into debt.

- Pictures show guys having a blast in the Industrial Arts class (AKA shop), which used to include mechanical drawing. Learning how to do something in school -- such an exotic notion these days. It would be the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in today's higher ed bubble.

- No girls sports. That is pure status striving by girls looking to pad their college application -- and by their parents. Only a handful of cheerleaders and majorettes, not squads of several dozen cheerleaders, poms, color guard, etc., which again is just status striving -- way more securing a spot than there needs to be.

- Kids were given nicknames like Fats and Bucky because they were fat or had buck teeth. Part of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is giving people nicknames that remind them of their all-too-human status, the opposite of the bombastic dictator who heaps one honorific after another onto his official title. I don't remember this being common with schoolchildren in the '80s, an early sign of the weakening of cultural pressures that kept relations more egalitarian. At least it was not yet the hostile climate of political correctness that exploded during the '90s.

- Perhaps 50 to 75% of the school was of recent Southern and Eastern European immigration. Their parents or grandparents were the last wave to come over when immigration was at its peak before being cut off during the '20s. It was in the same neck of the woods where Dean Martin grew up in eastern Ohio, the closest big city being Pittsburgh. My mother's family lived up in the hills with the other Scotch-Irish, while the European ethnics were concentrated in the little towns nearby, where the hillbillies trekked in during the school day.

She said, "You'll notice that there isn't a single Mexican or Latino face in the yearbook," but all of the Italians and Polaks were the original huddled masses who drove down wages for the "jobs Americans won't do," or however the original Robber Barons described it. My aunt's generation seemed to get along fine with them, and my grandparents' generation (Greatest Gen) seemed iffy on whether they were a blessing a curse. I couldn't get too much of a feel for it, but my impression was that my great-grandparents' generation was more hostile toward newly arrived groups -- they were the ones competing with immigrants for jobs at the height of immigration, inequality, strikebreaking, and labor violence.

- High school kids were not yet trusted to eat lunch outside the school building or off campus, or they didn't have the inclination. My mother said that was normal when she was a senior at the same school 10 years later, in '72-'73. In the early '60s, students ate in the cafeteria or classrooms. I remember high schoolers having more freedom during the '80s and early '90s ("open lunch"), but that got rolled back pretty quickly during the '90s, and today schools are in lockdown mode once again.

- The class motto: "Build for character and not for fame." How did society ever function before our governing mindset became "If you got it, flaunt it" and "I love haters"?

Probably more stuff that I can't think of right now. Ask in the comments, and I'll try to remember.

December 30, 2013

Smaller family gatherings at Christmas during nuclear family-centric times (pictures)

After visiting my brother and his wife last week, we're flying out again tomorrow to see more family members who we normally would have been spent Christmas with back in the '80s. It seems like folks these days don't want to pile in for a major holiday. We're all just supposed to stay wherever we are, which means at most a single nuclear family will be together. If you want to see the whole family, you have to keep zipping around to different households. It's antithetical to feeling settled in for the holidays.

When I was growing up, everybody would make a single trip to whoever was hosting that year. This both brought everyone together and kept traveling to a minimum. Every day you're traveling is a day you're not settled in and bonding with the family.

The Scotch-Irish hillbilly side of my family would always include three generations and multiple siblings at my mother's level (e.g., my aunt or uncles), though not always multiple groups at my own level (my cousins). If a blood member were dating or married, it was common for them to bring their in-law (or in-law-to-be) to the clan gathering.

As I recall, the three main households that took turns hosting were my mother, her sister, and her parents. Perhaps there needed to be a female blood member to organize the meals -- it was domestic work, i.e. women's work, but it was too big of a duty to be entrusted to outsiders, I guess. I assume that's the way it is with other pastoralist folk such as Italians, with the (domestic) matriarch bossing everyone around the kitchen or telling them to butt out, while the men are off doing men stuff in another room or outside the home.

I remember these huge convergences lasting into the early '90s, and then almost grinding to a halt during the middle of that decade. Sometimes my two cousins and their children will drop by my aunt's place, though it's generally a day trip, and they aren't both there at the same time. Christmas has become such a low-key holiday for family that I insisted on us all getting together in 2011. Finally, a Christmas gathering with a dozen people again!

We'd grown to four generations by that point. But it struck me how my two cousins (through my mother's sister) have their own nuclear families that I've hardly ever seen, even on Christmas. One was born around 1970, and the other I believe in '67. I used to see them all the time around major holidays in the '80s and early '90s, including when they had begun dating their now-wives, who were also in attendance way back then. However, when they started their families in the '90s and 2000s, I don't recall seeing them more than once or twice until that time in 2011.

Cocooning is unnatural and requires a rationalization in order for the whole society to start behaving so weird on an ongoing basis. The main reason that folks give is Being Together With Family. What they really mean is the nuclear family. Cocooning is therefore a fractal phenomenon, where at every scale people are more closed off from the other people in that sphere. Not only do we close ourselves off from non-family members ("strangers," "crowds"), but within the family sphere itself, we close off non-nuclear members and remain entirely within our private households.

I find it bizarre how weak the relationships are these days between cousins, aunts / uncles and nieces / nephews, and grandparents and grandchildren. During summers growing up, my brothers and I used to spend weeks at a time at my mother's parents' home, aside from all the other weekends here and there during the school year. The Sunday School teachers knew who I was, and so did the barber in the nearest little town, that's how integrated we were into a home outside our home. Kids these days, perhaps starting with the Millennials, just don't fit in anywhere outside of their nuclear family household.

To check on this hunch, I searched Google Images for Christmas pictures across the decades. (You get better luck when you enter a specific year, e.g. 1954 instead of 1950s.) It's common to find a nuclear family together, so what you're looking for is how common the extended family pictures are. There needs to be at least three generations present for me to count it as a "whole family" kind of gathering, and even better if there are multiple groups across a given age level.

The results were more or less what I expected -- large gatherings were more common in outgoing times, such as the '20s and early '30s, as well as the '80s, while smaller ones were more common in cocooning times, particularly the early-to-mid 1950s and the last 5 to 10 years. The pictures below are my rough attempt to capture each of the outgoing and cocooning periods, across two cycles of up-and-down.

I did notice an apparent exception during the '40s, where gatherings were larger than I would've expected for the cocooning environment of the mid-century. There was an anomalous spike in homicide during the '40s (which reflects people being more outgoing, and subject to predation by criminals). And the War might have made people value their family members who they would've otherwise taken for granted and not gathered together with.









December 29, 2013

Southern girl sexuality

For Christmas this week we went to visit my brother and his wife, both transplants living outside of Fort Hood, itself outside of Austin. On the way over we had two connecting flights, and walking around the Memphis airport, it really stood out to me -- Southern girls have some pretty plump rumps. It was the same once we got into Austin, and when we left from there today.

I had a hunch about this when I visited them over the summer, but now it was hard to ignore because everyone's wearing leggings as pants for the winter. Southern girls are definitely packin' more heat in the seat.

Don't take my word for it, though:

If you search Google Images for the catch phrase, most of them have just the phrase itself. This is the only one that brands it with regional / ethnic pride (not "California Girl..."). And when you search for Southern girl shirts, this is the only one referring to female architecture that comes up, many times. There's no shirt that says "Southern girl. Who needs a butt when you got boobs like mine."

So they seem to think so. Here is some random guy chiming in about why he likes Southern girls better, just stating it as a fact that they have bigger butts. And here is an article about how Southern women are going for plastic surgery to beef up their booty. Most women who would even think about going under the knife to look better would want the opposite done -- liposuction.

In a country that has so much racial diversity, we tend to be blind to or overlook the differences within major groups of a single race. We expect Puerto Ricans to have some junk in their trunk, but Southern belles -- who knew? I have no idea if this is a genetic difference from other white groups. Celts do have more going on around back than Saxons or Scandinavians do, but they're not so well represented among the lowland former plantation areas of the South.

Perhaps there's an environmental influence of heat and humidity -- or local pathogen load? Gangestad & Buss wrote an article showing that pathogen prevalence was strongly linked to emphasis on good looks in a mate. The bug belt of the South would lead men there to pay more attention to a girl's looks than in other parts of the country (especially the colder and drier places). And guys who are focused mostly on looks tend to be drawn more toward the butt than the boobs. Hence, female development goes off on that course in "anticipation" of demand from local males.

Beats me. Probably a mixture of genetic and environmental differences down there.

What behavior might it be linked to? I haven't spent much time in the South, aside from living in Charleston from about 3 to 5 years old. Yet it doesn't take an extended tour to notice how playful Southern women are. And headstrong, like all women. Add those two together, and you've got yourself some pretty frisky females.* It's my observation that girls with larger butts tend to have a higher sex drive. One quick reality check: porno girls generally do not need booty enhancement, while most of them have fake boobs.

As for regional differences, we want to make sure we aren't looking at transplants, and that the resolution is fine enough to look state by state. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a large, nationally representative survey done every other years since 1991 in American high schools, asking them about all sorts of behaviors that would make their parents worry. One group of questions has to do with sexual behavior, such as have you ever, are you currently active, have you ever before age 13, and have you had 4 or more partners. Here is their online interactive thing. I restricted my searches to female whites in all four grades, using all years available.

No matter which question you look at, you see the same picture of which states are noticeably above the national average, and which are noticeably below. Far and away the most sexually active region of the country is the Greater South, including the southern stretches of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and Texas. I didn't copy the numbers down, but I recall Arkansas, South Carolina, Missouri, and Mississippi standing out, with West Virginia, Kentucky, and to a lesser extent Tennessee rounding things out. Indiana and South Dakota weren't so bad for the average-to-cold Midwest. And Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana are no slouches either, keeping the Wild West legend alive.

It's not like we needed data to tell us what part of the country is the most frigid -- Puritanical New England and the smug and snarky Mid-Atlantic, with Delaware being the only exception. Forget having a sex life if you're a teenager in the New York metro area. (No, it wasn't any better for New York state outside of the City.) I guess being so self-satisfied means never wanting to be other-satisfied.

However, constantly monitoring how men are responding to you sets up its own stream of drama. Although we were out in the middle of nowhere for most of the trip, when we were milling around crowds of people, I could feel girls looking at me more openly than you'd experience in most of the country. Not slutty or obvious, just open. If you give them a quick look and think to yourself "Nice, but I'm not too interested," they can hear your thoughts and read your face. After they've taken two hours to put themselves together, and opening themselves up enough to give you the hint that they've noticed you, it feels disrespectful to just brush them aside. You have to engage in longer fleeting eye-contact and smile more, otherwise they put off this palpable vibe of "Don't y'all forget: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

I wouldn't describe it as them being needy or clingy, but more like insisting on the moral code of "one good turn deserves another." And they weren't only after a quick look to validate their ego ("thank gosh, boy looked at me = i'm not ugly"). They're more frisky than that -- they at least want to stop and flirt a little bit.

How much does the Southern culture of honor have to do with men competing over, and struggling to control frisky females? Nisbett and Cohen wrote an excellent book looking at it from a purely male-male competition point of view. They traced it back to the pastoralist ways of the early settlers in the hillier and more mountainous areas of the South. Their wealth -- livestock -- can move off on its own if driven, so they get very territorial and retaliatory about trespasses. Presumably they don't punish the sheep or cattle, though.

I wonder how much that same dynamic plays out where females are the resource under control (or not, as the case may be). Women who never respond to the advances of strange men, and who don't have even an inkling of desire to be with another man, are like unmovable wealth -- difficult to steal, hence not worth worrying too much over. But frisky females set up a whole 'nother ball game -- not only do you have to establish a reputation among would-be trespasser males that "nobody talks to my girl," but you also have to motivate the girl herself not to stray, and to correct her if she does, unlike with the cow or sheep, who you'd totally forgive if someone rustled them from you.

...Lots more to speculate about, but that'll do for now. This is what fascinates non-Southerners, such as the majority of the audience for Southern Gothic novels. There's plenty of intrigue to go around in our country. Still, in the North, intrigue is political; in the South, it's personal.

* Like pussycats, though, it has to be on their terms -- they either like you, and will chase after you, or they don't and they won't. They don't strike me as the type that could be easily manipulated using standard Pickup Artist games, which are more for liberal women with abstract and rational minds, who lack the guidance of intuition and passion and could therefore fall prey to verbally persuasive word games. Southern women are more savvy: "She said, 'Don't feed me no lines and keep yo' hands to yo'self.' "

December 27, 2013

Toys most popular with today's less empathetic children

Here is a review of the hottest-selling toys this Christmas season at major retailers, for both boys and girls.

I checked it out on a hunch after watching my 5 year-old nephew opening up some Christmas presents (via Facetime). He liked Beyblades (spinning tops that battle each other), a pirate pistol that shoots rubber suction darts, and a large Iron Man that shoots some kind of projectiles from one of his arms. When it came to some of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he didn't immediately jump all over them. In fact, he asked my brother, "....What does it do?" I could tell he found action figures boring.

And sure enough, none of the items on the best-selling list is an action figure. There are a couple of toys that are meant to activate the kid's empathy centers, and get them interacting with another creature that has a mind and personality -- the Elmo and Furby dolls that made me think I was looking at a list of best-sellers from 1998. I wonder how well those go over with boys, though. Only one "baby" doll for girls, and it's a baby monkey that needs to be fed and have its diaper changed. I guess wanting to care for a baby person would be promoting teenage pregnancy to impressionable kindergarten minds, or teaching them to put aside their future career just to breed.

Growing up in the '80s, we had all sorts of guns, including ones that shot projectiles, we had vehicles, and we had building toys (not just Legos, but the entirely new Construx). The Speak N Spell was as close as we got to today's best-selling "educational" tablet for tikes. Toys just were not that thing-oriented back then. When my nephew asked, "What does it do?" he was construing the action figure as a thing or tool rather than a person.

The '80s and early '90s was the heyday of action figures, which had gotten started with the large G.I. Joe dolls in the '60s. It was the Star Wars figures that really took the phenomenon over the top, making action figures the go-to toy for capturing the market of 4 to 12 year-old boys. G.I. Joe (the small ones), Transformers, He-Man, etc. etc. etc. It seemed like there were at least a dozen different action figure lines in toy stores at any given week in the '80s.

And those iconic toys were not things, tools, or gadgets, but characters. I don't remember any of us re-enacting the scenes from the Star Wars movies involving this or that character. Most of them we couldn't even remember who they were from the movies, and just made that up -- their skills, their motives, their relationships to the others (whose back did they have, who did they have beef with), and so on. That was certainly what we did when we didn't recognize who these characters were, as when they did not come from a major movie or cartoon. That's fine -- we just made it up ourselves.

Now, the ongoing stories and battles among our action figures was about as sophisticated as the plot lines on professional wrastlin' or in comic books, because we weren't that into drama. We needed it to set up the fun part -- having them battle it out -- because we knew that people don't just randomly get into heated or epic battles. They need alliances, grudges, emotions, and with enough variety to put them at cross purposes with one another, sowing the seeds for some major shit to go down.

At the very least, you need Good Guys and Bad Guys. That basic social tension doesn't arise when you're operating tools, however fun it may otherwise be. The rubber dart gun is hard to personify, and kids aren't allowed to play with other kids, where they could choose their own role to play in a mock battle.

To Generation X, it's weird how depersonalized the popular children's toys are today. Even Barbie's best-selling toy is a "dream house" filled with things rather than people and relationships -- so much for girls being so empathetic. (At least parents aren't buying their daughters pre-phones to help them make the transition to swiping a screen while ignoring their surroundings.)

Those battles also needed basic dialog, as well as any narration, spoken aloud in distinct voices in order to bring all of that out for the audience. I know I wasn't the only kid who talked to himself in different voices while playing with his action figures...

You can't make kids, especially boys, play with junk that doesn't resonate with them. So this change is not the result of toy companies trying to push this or that type of toy -- they'll push whatever earns the highest profit -- nor even of parents trying to mold their kids (since parents cave in to whatever kids want, in order to avoid damaging their self-esteem). Rather it reflects how children these days have swung toward the systemizing end of the spectrum, away from empathizing. They're more thing-oriented than people-oriented, even the girls.

The larger context is cocooning, which gives people less experience with people, interactions, relationships, emotions, and the social world generally, but does allow them to cultivate a deeper interest in the things around them. Helicopter parents are only too happy to accommodate this -- kids who are people-oriented are susceptible to External Influences, while those who want to shoot rubber darts at the fridge or fill up Barbie's dream house with more stuff will feel more content to stay locked inside the private domestic sphere during their formative years.

It's also important for reminding ourselves that empathizing does not mean interest in girly gossip -- that's a geek reaction. Following along with a revenge tragedy is also empathizing -- more so, in fact, since you meet a wider range of characters there than in garden-variety gossip. It's disturbing to see kids get so little practice developing the empathizing lobes of their brain, not only in real life but even in their play time. Some day they're going to have to interact with non-family members, and it isn't going to turn out well.

December 26, 2013

Observations on gift-giving in the 21st century

Here is a WSJ article about online shoppers getting left high and dry this week, as their orders had not arrived according to the "get it by Christmas" promise. Demand was quite a bit higher than they'd predicted, the "get it by Christmas" deadline keeps moving later (making crunch time more overloaded), not to mention delays from bad weather. These troubles affected both the online retailers and the shipping companies.

The worst part of getting left out in the cold by Christmas Eve is that it's too late to order something else online and receive the replacement gift by Christmas day.

I never order gifts "in advance," i.e. during the Black Friday melee weekend or even the first half of December. That whole way of doing it is part of the broader trend toward getting Christmas out of the way as soon as possible, and just quickly going through the bare minimum of motions on Christmas day.

They start selling decorations the day after Halloween, and then try to get us to complete our shopping around Black Friday. You may even wrap the suckers up, or if you're having them shipped directly to their recipients, you let them know not to open until Christmas. What is there left to do during the Twelve Days of Christmas? Nothing, really. Just biding your time, wishing the stupid holiday would hurry up so you can exchange the packages that have been sitting around for several weeks.

As with any element of a ritual that gets displayed too early, this deflates the power from what used to be a more intense season. When Christmas trees and other decorations go up a month ahead of time, they become taken for granted by Christmas day. When Christmas music starts regularly playing on Black Friday, we're too accustomed to the songs for them to sound special in the days before Christmas. Ditto the flavor of Christmas-y food like candy canes (peppermint mocha, peppermint bark, peppermint bacon cheeseburgers). And when those presents have been sitting out for weeks, whether wrapped or not, we no longer feel exciting anticipation by Christmas day -- that lasts for a little bit, but then turns to annoyance after our curiosity has become frustrated for more than 10 or 15 days in a row.

Now we see another great advantage of waiting until the proper time for gift shopping, rather than doing it early and treating it like something you've crossed off a list, like Christmas is a series of items in a checklist that you can't wait to be done with soon enough and get to the New Year's party already. By procrastinating until the week before Christmas, I wasn't left gift-less yesterday.

When you shop at a store, and they don't have an item that they'd promised would be there, you can immediately go to a backup plan and buy something else at that same store, or go to a nearby store and get the intended gift or something different. Whatever happens, you're coming home with something, rather than hoping that the stuff you ordered online will make it by the promised date, with no buffer zone in case something goes wrong.

In fact, I'd been looking for a certain book to get my brother, which I saw on the Urban Outfitters website. I stopped by the store before coming home for Christmas vacation, and they didn't have it. No big deal, I'll just hit up Barnes & Noble when I get home. The computer inside the store said they had a copy of it, in Humor, but it was neither in Humor nor in the special promotional tables where Customer Service said it would be. Dang, looks like I might strike out. But we were going to travel to meet my brother the day before Christmas, so I'd try a bookstore on the way to his house from the airport. The first B&N didn't have it, but they told me which nearby branches did. And son-of-a-bitch, the next one on the way home had a copy -- bought at 4:30pm Christmas Eve. But still, in my hands, and wrapped and ready for Christmas, not stuck in shipping limbo with no backup plan.

Not to mention that I didn't have to pay shipping costs -- and not because I bought $75 or $100 or whatever the limit is for decently fast free shipping to kick in. Or have to pay an annual membership fee to get "free" shipping.

It blows my mind how much people want to inconvenience themselves simply to satisfy their cocooning desire to not have to visit a store, be around other shoppers, and interact with the sales staff. You have to waste too much time figuring out what to get because the inventory is so vast online, you have to order several weeks in advance, pay for shipping, and then pray that you aren't in the 15-20% who won't get their Christmas order by Christmas, and have no backup plan.

Plus there's no hustle-bustle and Christmas spirit when you're clicking around online and receiving a package at your doorstep.

The only advantage of online shopping is that the vast inventory makes it possible to find rare things that might not show up in stores. But if it's something that rare and specific, they can order it themselves. We were perfectly happy to receive store-bought gifts back before online shopping, none of which would be head-spinningly rare.

Indeed, I think aiming for gifts that are that rare and micro-tailored to the recipient are a not-so-subtle form of showing off on the part of the giver. It's competitive gift-giving. When you're trying to brag about how thoughtful you are, you're thinking primarily of yourself. It adulterates the other-minded spirit of gift-giving.

That ties back in to buying gifts super early -- bragging about how early you ordered them, to signal how much more thoughtful you are than everybody else. It's self-aggrandizing, not sacrificing.

December 21, 2013

Unselfish selfies

Browsing through pictures of old cameras turned up this pseudo-selfie of Kristen Stewart:

K-Stew and F2

Unlike every other photo of hers, I responded well to this one. The blocky camera is hiding whatever typical mouth expression she's making -- the smug smirk, the unimpressed lip-press smile, or the "slackjaw = seductive" stare. A socially awkward girl like her can let her guard down and playfully engage us with her eyes, now that her face is protected by a comforting shield that doubles as a mock weapon pointed at the viewer. Operating the camera gives her hands something active and intentional to do, not hanging unimpressedly at her side, or mindlessly diddling her phone.

The prop is highly anachronistic for a Millennial to be using, but I only notice that at a conceptual and conscious level -- it doesn't feel out of place, and merely thrown in for name-dropping or quirky preening purposes. And not being a slave to fashionable state-of-the-art stuff makes her seem less fickle, airheaded, and self-advancing. She's showing acceptance of, and even an interest in, something cool from before her time.

Is this the coolest portrait ever shot? No, but that's an irrelevant standard. It has transformed a subject who is normally aloof, boring, and off-putting, all while feeling organic -- like maybe, deep down, there's a fun-loving young chick who's hiding and waiting to come out and play. Or maybe not. At least it allows us to imagine so, which is more than you can say these days for most portrait shots.

It's worth noting the differences from the typical selfies:

- No weird angle that would make it look predictably wacky.

- She's not looking away from the viewer and toward the camera / phone which is pointed at a mirror. Ignoring a viewer who is so up-close, only to stare at some damn device, is one of the most disrespectful ways to treat the audience. Just as bad if they're staring at themselves in the mirror, with the camera looking on.

- Even when they do look into the lens, it is while holding the camera at arm's length and pointing it backwards toward themselves. Our point-of-view in this case is of someone whose head is being held from behind or on the side, and manipulated by the subject to point and focus on Me Me Me. It all stems from the person's arm extending straight out into the place where the camera lies, where we imagine our head to be. It feels like we're a hapless pet dog whose head is being spun around by a bratty child demanding attention right now.

- The distance is not so far away that we feel like some bored passive observer of the subject taking a picture in front of their bathroom mirror. But it's not so close that we have that feeling of having our head held and manipulated by the hand and arm of the subject. We're in that unstable range where either we're going to move closer toward her, or her toward us. It sets up a little anticipation for a playful confrontation.

- The device is not something simple and mindless that she's using to escape or block out her social and physical surroundings.

- Hiding part of her face allows for some mystery. In a portrait where the subject has time to sink into a reflective mood, the subtle expressions that arise on her face might make us curious about what she's thinking and feeling. But when someone's taking a quick picture, there's usually not enough time for them to get into a truly pensive state of mind. Hiding part of the face is a quick-and-dirty way to inject a little mystery. The trick is to not make it feel forced, but if she's holding a blocky camera, then the partial occlusion of her face is well motivated. Unlike gimmicky crops, or holding your hand (or other object, e.g. a book or a pet) in front of your face for no reason.

We're going to be saturated with selfies for quite some time, so we had better think about how to make them pleasant guests rather than rude intruders into our daily visual culture. The techniques are not hard, it is only a matter of motivation. Shame the annoying majority, and tell the rule-breakers how pleasant they look.

December 20, 2013

Cats and dogs in pop music over time

Here is a list of cat songs by year, and a list of dog songs too. I only counted references to domestic animals (dog, puppy, cat, etc.) rather than wild species. And I only counted original rather than cover songs, to show what mood was like at the time of naming the song. Grouping them by decade gives the table below.

Decade - Cat ___  Dog songs

50s - 1 ___ 4
60s - 12 ___ 12
70s - 8 ___ 7
80s - 3 ___ 1
90s - 2 ___ 1
21c - 1 ___ 2

Dog songs outnumber cat songs in the '50s, then suddenly during the '60s cats rise to equal prominence. They just barely overtake dogs in the '70s, though cat people really come alive in -- when else? -- the '80s. They appear to outnumber dogs in the '90s, though cats only appear in the first half of that decade, and the dog song in the second half. Dogs are clearly back in the lead during the 21st century.

To help clear up the picture after the '60s, when each decade doesn't have a whole lot of animal-named songs from which to judge definitively, we can also look at names of the recording artists themselves. There was Cat Stevens who had a string of hits in the '70s (and "Cat" is not a short form of his given name, or middle name). Then there were the Stray Cats who had several hits in the early '80s. MC Skat Kat sang a duet with Paula Abdul in the late '80s. Heavy metal bands from the '80s chose wild cat names -- Def Leppard, Pantera, White Lion, White Tiger -- but not wild dog names. (They chose other animals, just not dogs -- Ratt, Whitesnake, Jackyl, etc.)

Dog names show up more during the '90s and 21st century, primarily with rappers. Snoop (Doggy) Dogg, Nate Dogg, Pitbull, Lil' Bow Wow, and so on. The only exception is the Pussycat Dolls from the mid-2000s (part of the '80s revival at the time?).

Side note: black people are not cat people.

The rise of cats in pop music tracks the violent crime rate and the outgoing phase of the cocooning cycle. Why? Beats me. Cats are more aggressive and assertive than dogs, and respond more to tenderness than to fear, so folks from the '60s through the early '90s would've identified with them more as a totem animal. People were also in a more conservative mindset, as far as wanting to preserve what was good in the past, and having a heightened sense of disgust, which would tilt them toward cat people.

Why do cocooning times bring out the popularity of dogs? Pop culture gets kiddie when the crime rate falls, and dogs are more cutesy than cats. ("How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?") Dogs are good for wannabe thugs who front like they're badass, a more common thing in falling-crime times when they won't be put to a real test. Dogs also allow socially awkward people to interact in a mediated and thus more comfortable way -- through their dogs, e.g. at a dog park.

You know, it's not necessarily that they're socially awkward. It's more like people need some kind of cover story, rationalization, and plausible deniability in a climate of suspicion and cocooning. Being openly outgoing is creepy and suspect, but if you're just taking your dog out for a walk, and happen to meet up in a place where there are other people taking their dogs out for a walk, well, it's not like you were trying to go out and socialize, so you're probably not a creepy crypto date rapist.

Does this mean that folks who came of age during the '70s, '80s, and early '90s are more likely to be cat people? I could see Generation X being more cat-loving than the Millennials, who strike me more as dog people, as do the Silents and early Boomers, while late Boomers could go either way (they seem slightly more cat people-y to me, though).

I'll be running through the history of the popularity of cats vs. dogs in other areas of pop culture later on. I wouldn't have thought that their relative popularity could cycle, but why not, if just about everything else does?

December 18, 2013

At airports and on flights, helicopter parents reveal their amoral familism

Amoral familism -- the "us first" guiding principle for public interactions, i.e. across families, that Edward Banfield blamed for the lack of communal cooperation in Southern Italy. It has reared its head in a more developed country in a more advanced age, in the form of helicopter parenting.

It's hard to get a feel for how antagonistic the helicopter parents feel toward public spaces and community because we so rarely get to see them in action. They lock their kids inside the house all day every day, and cocoon themselves in order to always be keeping an eye on the baby (who's now in ninth grade).

Typically what you get are signs of absence -- of children playing out in the front yard or riding their bikes around the neighborhood, of trick-or-treaters on Halloween, of windows with the blinds open, and so on. Only when you stop and think about it does it hit you how suspicious and hostile parents are these days toward the broader community and its public spaces.

But they can't cocoon forever. Sometimes they're forced to spend a good amount of time with us Outside Influences, like at the airport, and the results are revealing. If they just didn't care one way or the other about community members, then they would get along with us as well as we do with one another. Yet they always bring an "under siege" mentality with them, and struggle to commandeer our public spaces because Baby On Board.

It starts at the airport gate, where the family has brought not only the luggage that everyone else does, but has set up camp with blankets, pillows, and other fort-building materials. Except they don't let their kids share in the fun of building a fort -- the stuff is just there to claim territory and signal to everybody that the family is on a camping trip. Why -- is the airport like the hostile wilderness? In the helicopter parent's mind, yes.

It's also an attempt to make us give them special treatment -- say, by not going over to pinch the ear of their shrieking defiant brat -- by saying, "Hey guys, have mercy on us -- we're a family on a trip, camping out like Gypsies. You wouldn't want to be in our position, trust me, so go easy on us."

How about we do things the way they were done when you were a child? Back in the '80s, there was none of this delirious glorification of nuclear families battling society in public spaces. We had to behave ourselves in public in those days. And our parents immediately corrected us if we acted out: we were not at home, and our bratty behavior would bother an entire group of folks who had not invited us to show up there acting all bratty.

Why should we give a pass to all this disruptive and disrespectful behavior by children, just because parents feel embarrassed to have to enforce discipline? That's your tough luck. Worse, if one of us tried to intervene on the wimpy parent's behalf, he wouldn't thank us, like "Man, I feel too awful doing this to my own kid, but thank God there's somebody here to do it for me." No, they're all: "How dare you tell me how to raise my kids?!" bla bla bla. They get indignant because we're pointing out how dysfunctional their wimpy parenting has shown itself to be.

By the way, these visits I'm drawing on have all been in more or less all-white airports, so please don't rationalize this as whites understandably building bunkers to keep the darkies away. It is particular nuclear families vs. everybody outside that family. It's not even like the nuclear families team up with one another at the airport, against us non-family-represented travelers, as though it were the old "smoking section" of a public restaurant. It's the members of family A vs. everyone not related to family A.

It only gets worse on the plane. Here is an old post where I searched the NYT and popular culture for references to babies shrieking on planes. A regular stream of articles begins only in 2004. This shows that, while there may have always been a non-zero chance of boarding a flight with a crying baby, it's gotten worse enough in the 21st century that it's a common complaint.

And again we see the same refusal to discipline or punish their children who are screaming bloody murder because Mommy won't let them watch a movie, who are whining on and on about all lesser displeasures, and who are kicking the seat of the poor bastard in front of them. The spawn of helicopter parents pollute public places in a way that we did not when we were little, because we would've gotten smacked by our parents or glared at by angry strangers. Today if you send an angry glare toward some pollution-spewing brat, the parents treat you like you just broke open his skull with a club stuck full of rusty nails.

Then there's that whole showdown between the family who can't find seats together vs. all of us heartless monsters who won't immediately give up our seat. That's not enough -- they have to recruit the head stewardess to their side, who proceeds to shame us with a sob story about how "If none of you offer to give up your seats, this innocent family will be torn apart." Like they're one of those refugee families in some squalid war-torn shithole in Central America.

Get a grip, lady -- the kid is 5 years old, and can handle separating from his mommy for a couple hours in the same vehicle, from which no wandering or escape is possible. Shoot, I thought that was fun when that happened to me at a young age -- so long, Mom, I'll be sure to write from row 27! Exploring the social world on your own builds character in young people. Something as simple as occasionally sitting next to strangers rather than parents on a plane -- one time may not do much, but add it up over all such episodes, in all areas of life.

And if the kid is so young that he really is dependent on the mother, he's probably small enough to qualify as a riding-on-her-lap passenger. It's rarely a mother with a newborn in a teeny-tiny travel seat, but one who's 4, 5, or 6 years old.

It's not that they're making the plea at all, but how they expect special treatment above the rest of us, and resent us if we don't drop everything we're doing and comply with their wishes. Like if a married couple wants to sit together, and they ask if we'd mind switching seats -- that's fine, although here they understand it's a roll of the dice. If it doesn't pan out, they'll be put out, but they won't feel like the entire group of passengers is violating some sacred code. And they don't phrase their pitch as though if we don't comply, it's tantamount to imposing divorce on them.

In all of these examples, the parents show a fundamental unwillingness to dampen the 100% fulfillment of the nuclear family's wishes in order to create and maintain more enjoyable public spaces for everyone. The most basic requirement of public behavior is that we temper our desire to do whatever we please when others are affected. Otherwise we're back to Southern Italy, where the public sphere is over-run by clans guided by amoral familism.

Toddlers are not things to be glorified and respected -- they are supposed to grow up, act like the rest of us, and treat others with respect. Not "the same respect that they would like for themselves," as that assumes empathy on the part of a 4 year-old. They should treat people with respect, even though they don't get it, because to do otherwise is allowing pollution of public places.

This was all perfectly normal in the 1970s and '80s, when today's parents of toddlers were toddlers themselves, so there's no reason to accept it today. I think the easiest way to start "nudging" the society away from this equilibrium state of normless chaos is to begin making visibly angry faces at children when they're polluting our public spaces. It sends a vivid reminder that this isn't their room or their home, that everyone else has a say here too. And that, unlike your wimpy parents, we aren't going to roll over and let you disrupt the grown-ups' world at zero cost.

December 14, 2013

Skaters are cat people

While out gift-shopping tonight I stopped by Zumiez, a clothing store for skateboarders and snowboarders. The sales girl was showing me t-shirts that she thought my snowboarding brother might like, when she paused and asked, "Do you have a cat? Or does your brother?" Either she had very good intuition, or she already knew that her customers are most likely cat people. She said she had a cat herself (and that she's a skater), and then showed me three or four "wacky cat" t-shirts. Funny, I didn't see any with dogs.

At the online store for Zumiez, they have 34 cat-themed clothing items for girls, vs. only 1 that's dog-themed. For guys, there are 19 that are cat-themed, and fewer than 10 that are dog-themed. They sell skate decks with animal designs, too: 1 with a dog, 4 with a cat. They may not be as one-sided as the Urban Outfitters crowd in preferring cats, but skaters clearly go against the mainstream when it comes to pets.

How does this group tie in to the broader traits that cat people tend to have, compared to dog people? Well, the anti-authoritarian leanings of cat people show up again with skaters. I'm not sure if they have a heightened sense of disgust / purity / taboo, but I have a hunch they do. Shaming someone for "selling out" appeals to moral norms about group loyalty and purity -- not only has the sell-out defected from their group, they're corrupting themselves in the process. And skaters are one of the few groups, along with blacks, who don't mind dissing faggots, using "gay" as an insult, and so on.

Shaming sell-outs also shows their revulsion toward status-striving, in stark contrast to dog people. There's supposed to be an atmosphere of camaraderie, and if someone starts acting too big for their breeches, the other skaters will ridicule their pretensions.

I don't think skaters have a strong sense of empathy, but they're more toward that direction than being fixated on things and systems. And probably more empathetic than the male average. They do concern themselves with how their skateboard is made, when and how to fix or replace parts, what type is best suited for what purpose, etc. But they're not like gear-heads who get really into cars. Skating is mostly a social hang-out activity.

Skaters also show the cat person's characteristic disdain for mindlessly marching forward toward whatever is new. A lot of their graphic design looks like it's straight out of the late '80s and early '90s -- off-beat color combinations, exotic references (Ancient Egypt), irreverence (sacred cats in wacky situations), neon laser futurism, etc. When I dropped by Zumiez over the summer, the guys were non-ironically blasting "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." They aren't as deeply and self-consciously into vintage as the UO crowd, but they do value "fun and old" over "boring and new." Who wouldn't?

I've suggested before that skaters seem to be the only large, visible youth culture these days. Certainly the only one where there's initiation and acceptance, a code of behavior, distinctive group markers, regular participation in shared experiences and rituals in real life, and hence an overall sense of cohesion.

Studies that show dog owners to be more conscientious are misinterpreting those results when they then describe dog people as more "team-oriented." It's more like hive-minded -- the qualities that make you a good fit in a large, anonymous, hierarchical corporation. Their status-striving instinct adapts them to that kind of environment too -- always toiling toward that next micro-promotion. "Team" is too unspecific. Cat people are more band-minded or tribe-minded -- traditional, something smaller in scale, more typical of hunter-gatherer societies. Cat people are also more like hunter-gatherers in being self-effacing, and ridiculing those who act too big for their breeches. Dog people could only have emerged after civilization.

Gay Peter Pan-ism and being slaves to fashion

How does being a slave to fashion fit into the framework of male homosexuals being stunted in childhood? ("Ewwww, girls are so yucky.") Most second graders don't read fashion magazines or regularly go out to clothing stores to see what's in this week. However, they are mindful of how everyone else looks -- whether they'll fit in or not -- and how the cool, older kids look -- whether they'll have to change the way they look in order to fit in, going forward.

A child has to be fairly open to changing the kind of tribal membership badges that he displays, given that he's just starting off in the slow, gradual process of enculturation. He doesn't know exactly what range of colors, patterns, proportions, etc., are normal in his cultural group. Nor does he know what range of hairstyles is acceptable, what musical genres, what slang words, and so on.

That process seems to harden during adolescence and young adulthood, when people are the most sociable and anxious to fit in with their peers. Once that's done, they're a member of a cultural group, having absorbed both the enduring aspects of their cultural lineage, as well as the particular traits of their generation.

Like it or not, they'll always have soft spot for at least some of the pop culture trends from their childhood and adolescent years. This allows for nostalgia in adulthood, perhaps reaching the level of a revival movement, however limited in scope within the broader society. For example, the early '90s revival of the past several years, primarily at Urban Outfitters but probably also in places catering to like-minded (and like-aged) customers.

If the "gay germ" arrests psychological maturation in the elementary school years, then their minds might never congeal around a particular set of generational traits. They're permanently stuck in the stage of looking around to see what everybody else is doing this year, and how they have to alter their existing set of cultural markers in order to fit in with this new state of affairs. If you never grow up, you never belong for good, so you struggle to belong for this year, at least.

Hence, why gays all tend to look the same no matter what generation they ought to belong to. They're all desperate to fit in with right now. And hence why they tend not to be bold trend-starters but annoying copycats playing catch-up.

It's striking how little nostalgia queers feel, and how minimal their participation is in the whole "vintage" phenomenon. I've mentioned before that the most faggot-free event you can rely on is '80s night -- "omigosh seriously? the '80s were like so however-many years ago!" It's like connecting with the past, however briefly, causes them physical pain. They don't use slang from when they were growing up, ironically or not, nor make pop culture references to things more than five years old (except to disparage them for being so old). They failed to fit in with their peers all those years ago, and now they've moved on to trying and failing to fit in with what's cool right now.

Some of them have a slight interest in mid-century retro, but that's only because Fifties pop culture looks and sounds so gay and kiddie. It's doesn't feel that exotic to their existing sensibilities, the way that the Seventies or Eighties would feel to a college girl these days.

And then there's the minor tendency for them to try to live in an era way before they were even born, another signal that they never fit in growing up. Some geeky-goony types do this too -- but then they were total misfits too. Normal people who take an interest in the past nevertheless show signs of having been enculturated by the time they were 20. With gays and geeks, it's more a form of escapism into a world where no-longer-living peers cannot reject them, and so where their cultural membership is approved in the absence of existing members speaking up against their inclusion.

It's also striking how gays don't appear to play the fashion game in order to boost their sense of superiority in the greater status competition. That's a uniquely adult way of approaching fashion, in the broad sense of signalling how au courant your tastes are. Gays aren't so much striving to climb one rung higher on the ladder, as they are struggling to keep their head above water when it comes to fitting in with a cultural group.

Sure, there are a handful of haughty homos who ape snobs, but in general they look more like stressed-out children rushing around the department store with their surrogate big sisters, the fag hags, uncertain of whether this or that shirt will make them fit in with or stand out against their peers. You always seem them with that neurotic "Be honest, what do you thinnnnk?!?!?!" look on their face, which you don't see among grown-up status strivers who are inspecting the selection.

What predictions does this view make? Perhaps homosexuals would be able to learn foreign languages more easily, controlling for IQ. What language you speak is one of the strongest markers of what cultural group you belong to. On IQ tests, they might also show higher crystallized intelligence scores than fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the things you pick up from experience, such as vocabulary words, whereas fluid intelligence is on-the-fly reasoning or working memory. Gay brains don't seem to crystallize as much or as fast, although I'm not sure if that's specific to the cognitive part of enculturation, or if it extends to pure intelligence as well. Worth looking into, and it wouldn't even be that politically incorrect to find one set of results or another.

December 13, 2013

Tights as pants: Not revealing when there's a colorful pattern

Over the past five years, it's become common for women to wear yoga pants or leggings in place of pants. They're tight enough that if she's not wearing a sweater or whatever that goes down over her butt or crotch, viewers can tune in to the exact contours of her shape in front and in back. Like this:

I think it looks presumptuous, like just because we get to see the outline of your body, we're supposed to drop everything and go, "Holy crap -- butt cheeks, dude!" It inflates the girl's ego for free since she doesn't want guys to approach her, only to send looks and thereby provide confirmation that she isn't fat or ugly. After her self-doubt is assuaged, she doesn't want anything further from them. It's self-centered and manipulative, hence poisonous to a public social environment.

So only check out her ass when she isn't looking around for unspoken compliments.

Although guys may not mind the look of it, other women can't stand it because she's giving away what the goods look like, and only charging the viewers very little -- just send her a look that assuages her self-doubt, and she's happy to let you see. And it's not (or not only) that the other women don't have the bodies to pull it off, while the ones showing the goods do -- it's common to see fat chicks wearing tights with no shirt over their butt or crotch.

Rather, they see the tights women as strikebreakers against the union of sisterhood that has a tacit agreement not to work too hard on the job of exciting and pleasing men. Thus, an ongoing campaign of slut-shaming against them. Just google "leggings are not pants" or "tights are not pants." A tumblr page titled seriouslytightsarenotpants has that frustrated bitchy tone of voice, which is reinforced by the greeting: "Tights are not pants, but why is the message not getting through? It's time to get tough, it's time to start shaming them into submission."

Aside from fear of the shamers, most women these days have OCD issues about camel toe, whereas it was totally normal to see back in the '80s. It was familiar, and aside from that, folks showed no lurid fixation on body parts seen through clothing. It was just a natural thing. Ditto women's OCD issues about the bottom shape of their bottom -- "omigosh, do you think it looks smooshed, or like saggy?" Girls had the bottom of their ass peeking out from their shorts in the good old days, and didn't feel weird about it, even though I'm sure they weren't all supermodels back then.

Their solution these days is to insist on wearing leggings only with a sweater, skirt, etc., that will cover the butt and crotch, while still showing the legs. I don't think that relieves their sense of shame, only providing partial security that at least they're covering it up with a fig leaf. They still have this keen sense that, should they raise their arm up, or have to bend over, the shameful sight would come out of hiding under the long sweater. It's not innocuous mindfulness to details, but feeding their constant stress-out. The world needs more easy-going chicks, not OCD cases who continually check and fuss over pointless crap.

Some of the Urban Outfitters kind of girls gave me an idea about how to solve the problem without resorting to covering up. Just wear leggings with a bold colorful pattern on them. Then the eye is drawn more to the color and geometry of the pattern, and not to the micro-contours of the body underneath. You can't really see camel toe, butt crack, or under-butt creases. Not because those folds in the fabric aren't really there -- you just don't notice them when there's so much else grabbing your attention.

Elementary art theory tells us that color and 3-D volume work against each other. The more clearly you want to render lifelike variation in depth of an object, the more you want to show it in one color only. That way, depth cues will stand out more easily, without you being distracted by the variety of colors. You'll be able to see brighter tones of the color where the light source is, and darker tones of the same color on the side that's hidden from the light. That's why statues that are made to look lifelike in 3-D modeling are made in one color, why photographs that are supposed to show volume and depth are in black-and-white, and so on.

Color works against depth cues and the 3-D modeling of volume. In short, you can't really tell how close a part of an object is by what color or hue it is. That's more about how bright or dark the lighting on it is, how hazy or in-focus its textures are, etc. Strong use of color, especially multiple colors, tends to make objects look more like planes or cut-outs rather than finely sculpted 3-D chunks of matter. (For more, see this review of the battle between disegno and colorito in Renaissance Italian painting.)

Below are two front and two back views of girls in leggings with bold patterns in multiple colors. Notice how little their lower bodies resemble a statue's, as you typically see when girls wear single-color leggings. Now their legs look like tubes, and it's hard to tell that the line down the center of the thighs is closest to your eye, while the inner and outer edge of the thighs are farthest away. If they were in black or gray, the light differences would show that -- bright where the light hit it directly, and then rolling away toward shadow in either direction. See the first two pictures above. But you don't see much rolling or suggestion of volume in the pictures below (click to enlarge and see for yourself).

If you could eliminate all of the color and pattern details, you would probably be able to see camel toe and creases in between and under the butt cheeks. With all that crazy color, though, you hardly perceive it at all. Hence no reason to have to cover up with a sweater that is long enough to be a skirt. They simply look like high-waisted pants, giving her a leggy look. They don't give off the naughty associations of hosiery, even if it were covered-at-the-top hosiery. The shamers will have no basis for attacking her, and she won't be crippled by OCD thoughts about "Is my sweater still covering my ass? Maybe I should go home and put on a sweater that goes down to my knees, just to be safe?"

I think these colorful pattern leggings give the girl a funky yet wholesome vibe. They look playful and flirtatious rather than cynically attention-whoring. And they do not look like second skin, revealing every contour of her body, but keeping that 3-D detail hidden behind her tube-y leggings.

I can't see many girls adopting these because females are afraid of bold patterns, which make them stand out from the crowd too much. But if everyone wore them, they couldn't be accused of trying to hog attention with bold patterns. That was the great thing about the '80s and early '90s -- so many dressed that way that they could feel carefree stepping out in off-beat colors and funky patterns. And like I said, our OCD-encumbered world needs more fun-loving and fancy-free women.

December 11, 2013

History of home prices and conspicuous consumption -- Another bubble ahead?

See the end of this post for a photo essay of the changes in home styles that accompanied the ups and downs in status-striving and inequality from the Gilded Age through today.

Starting with the historical data, here are American housing prices since 1890, according to the Case-Shiller index:

Notice that the Clinton-Bush bubble was not the only one in recent memory: there were regional bubbles during the late '70s / early '80s, and in the mid-to-late '80s. Disturbingly, each of the peaks appears to be getting higher, as do the troughs during crashes (the projected red line has not gone down that far yet).

The beginning of these series of bubbles in the later '70s suggests a link with the status-striving and inequality cycle. And surely it's the status-striving that leads people to desire and buy more luxurious houses (location, amenities, etc.). This widens inequality because even the luxurious homes of the top fraction of a percent don't make that much of a dent into their income or wealth, while the lower half of the society mires itself in debt in order to play the status-striving game as well.

Sidenote: it's worth remembering that status-striving is not limited to the elites, but strikes all layers of the class pyramid. Middle-class Americans these days would consider it an insult to their dignity to buy a functional living room couch typical of those from the 1970s, like this beige and brown plaid hide-a-bed. It has to be a sleek designer couch with microfiber upholstery, a pretentious name like "Parker" for the model, and the color described as "chocolate" or "espresso" rather than "dark brown."

Folks farther and farther down the class pyramid now view it as desirable to sit through college classes and collect a degree, no matter how little boost to income they'll get afterward. (They'll only wind up with huge student loan debt.) It's simply the status boost of having gone to college that matters. Anything less would be another affront to their dignity. Their counterparts in the '70s would have considered this a fool's game, and even given nasty looks to an uppity bigshot who went off to college just to get a feeling of upward mobility, while going nowhere (or maybe they would have just laughed at him instead).

Houses are no different. They are one of the most effective ways to signal that you are a somebody rather than a nobody, and their exteriors and interiors allow you to broadcast the amount of money you have access to (in practice, how much credit you are being allowed before sliding toward bankruptcy). Middle-class people in the '70s were content with a modest ranch house that was 20 to 30 years out of date. Now they demand something new, or new enough, more spacious, with two and a half bathrooms when one would do, and so on. If they're stuck with a house, they'll build additions, whereas their counterparts from 40 years ago wouldn't have felt they were missing out on so much.

Recall the history of intra-elite competition and inequality from Peter Turchin's review article here. When was the previous period of rising status competition and inequality? Roughly 1820 to 1920, though particularly from 1870 to 1920. And it appears that status competitions peaked and turned a corner before inequality did. The top layer no longer sought to propel itself higher and higher into the stratosphere, and the Progressive and Temperance movements sought to lift the bottom layers up from their descent into poverty and vice.

Fortunately, the Case-Shiller index goes back to 1890 (maybe a graduate student looking for a dissertation can extend it back further). And sure enough, there is a peak in the early 1900s before falling off a cliff during the '10s. America didn't get involved in WWI until 1917, and we only sent about 5% of our population away, so I don't see that playing much of a role in the decline that started early in that decade.

Moreover, housing prices did not bounce back during the Roaring Twenties, even though everyone thought they were rich. In fact they look indistinguishable from the prices of the Great Depression. Rather than the "health of the economy," this reflects the dampening down of status competition starting sometime during the 1910s and lasting through the Great Compression.

Shiller believes the jump during and after WWII is probably an effect of the Baby Boom increasing the demand for newer / bigger houses for larger families, and the GI Bill subsidizing home ownership. Sounds about right. Notice that it began declining after its late '50s peak through the '70s. So, the Great Compression saw declining or flat home prices, with a one-time exogenous shock upward in the middle of it.

If this analysis is on the right track, then we could be headed for another housing bubble -- the fourth one of the ongoing period of greater status competition. There are no other signs that status contests are fading out -- if anything, they keep intensifying every year. The higher ed bubble, pretentiously named and designed furniture, ever-changing cuisines that the fashionable must stay on top of, etc etc etc.

What worries me is that the troughs after the bubble keep rising slowly but steadily -- again, that red line in the graph is not reality. Home prices are still well above the last trough, and recovering (see the Wikipedia article on the Case-Shiller index for a graph). Plus the government keeps trying to re-inflate the bubble with a return to the easy ownership policies of the recent past.

It looks like the time between bubble peaks is about 10-15 years, so the next one wouldn't peak until the later part of this decade (knock on wood). The fact that there's an overall trend upward along with roller-coaster cycles doesn't mean there are two separate processes at work, one for the trend and the other for the cycles. It could just mean that the dynamic system is being attracted to a higher level, in an oscillatory or spiral fashion.

Dang, 2020 looks like it may show another heady housing bubble, an outbreak of political instability (riots, spree shootings, etc.), and a return to steadily rising crime rates. No wonder people are busy preparing for the zombie apocalypse!

* * * * *

Popular home styles from the Gilded Age to the Millennial Era

Before these past several decades, the last time there was such runaway conspicuous consumption and inequality was the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. If you were desperate to signal your superior taste and standing in society, you wanted a Queen Anne home:

These things are pretty large by historical middle-class standards, had awkward bloated proportions, garish colors, and every style element thrown in but the kitchen sink. They don't look eclectic but slapdash. They've always looked like eyesores to me, as I don't award forgiveness points just because it's Historically Significant (TM). Someone at a City-Data forum had somewhat similar thoughts:

I suppose neighborhoods of flashy Queen Anne styles might have been just as odd to people who formerly were surrounded by simpler style homes in the Reconstruction era.

It won't surprise you to learn that they were commenting in a thread about the popularity of McMansions in our time, a latter-day Queen Anne movement, only this time with less color. Here is the most charitable picture I could find of them, not the even weirder looking ones from an exurban cul-de-sac:

What about during the Great Compression? The most popular type of home during the 1910s and '20s was the bungalow. History books on domestic architecture refer to this period as "The Bungalow Craze." These homes are much simpler -- smaller footprint, rooms placed closer together, only one and a half stories high, human scale, and a more cohesive and not very fussy exterior. This being a rising-crime and outgoing period, they also had a taste for high contrast colors and rhythmic ornament, but not throwing everything together in a jumbled crust of detail.

At the upper end of society, they would have bought somewhat larger and more stylish homes, though now they look handsome rather than garish. The proportions are more harmonious, they don't mix 50 different styles together, and the ornament is more subtle. As with the bungalow, the colors are usually high-contrast. The most popular style at the higher end was the Tudor home. If your suburban neighborhood feels pleasing to take a stroll through, it's because of homes built around the '20s.

Once we get into the mid-century, the cocooning and falling-crime climate has made people prefer more drab colors, and not so much color contrast, as well as minimal or no ornamentation for its own sake. (The Gilded Age was a cocooning / falling-crime period as well, so we infer that their ornamentation was just for show, not because it lit up the pleasure centers of their brain.) It is also part of the shift away from conspicuous consumption, so there are two compounding forces that make mid-century houses look especially sparse.

Inequality had narrowed so much that there were no longer two clearly distinguishable styles of home, one for the working and middle class, and another for the upper layers, as there were with the bungalow and the Tudor at the outset of the Great Compression. Pretty much everybody bought a variation on the ranch house, even if those of wealthier owners might have two stories, a sunken living room, a larger concrete patio and swimming pool in the back yard, and so on. Here's one that looks like it was for an upper-middle class family:

Browse through this article from Fortune magazine in 1955 on "How top executives live," or at least look at the pictures. It not only provides a detailed snapshot of how spare and sober the very wealthy were living at the time, but traces the historical shift away from the ostentation of the Edwardian / Ragtime period of the early decades of the 20th century. In 1955, that was still in living memory for most top executives. I'll close with the relevant passage:

The executive's home today is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small--perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths. (Servants are hard to come by and many a vice president's wife gets along with part-time help. So many have done so for so long, in fact, that they no longer complain much about it.) The executive who feels, as apparently Robert R. Young does, that to be completely happy he needs a forty-room "cottage" in Newport and a thirty-one-room oceanside villa in Palm Beach is a rare bird these days. The fact that Young paid only $38,000 for his Newport place, Fairholme, which cost Philadelphia banker John R. Drexel nearly a quarter of a million dollars to build in 1905, demonstrates the decline in the market for such outsize mansions.

December 9, 2013

Bombastic leaders in the lead-up to civil war: Kadyrov of Chechnya and Commodus of Rome

While looking into the link between the popularity of bloodsports and societal instability, I spent some time reviewing the history of the gladiator spectacle in Ancient Rome. Its popularity rose and fell along with the trend for internal political instability, over several cycles of ups and downs, convincing me that there was something real to the idea. Going over those various cycles will take some time to write up, so I haven't done that yet.

But one figure who struck me as worth discussing now was the Emperor Commodus, who ruled from 180 until he was assassinated in 192 AD. Historians generally regard his rule as the first break with the long period of internal peace that had begun with Augustus in 27 BC and lasted through the reign of Marcus Aurelius. During Commodus' reign, in-fighting among the elite began to rear its ugly head again, and the Emperor's personal conduct only added to the strife. Before long, the Pax Romana would unravel, plunging the Empire into a protracted period of state breakdown known as the Crisis of the Third Century.

You may recall that Commodus' predecessor, Marcus Aurelius, was an important Stoic philosopher in his own right, aside from ruling as the last of the Five Great Emperors. In fact, he was also the father of Commodus. And yet look at how self-aggrandizing the son would become as Emperor, appearing in the guise of Hercules for his statue, with a smug rather than heroic look on his face:

The Roman Emperor as Cosplay Hercules

In addition to parading around as a demigod, he relished in starring in the gladiatorial spectacle himself (from Wikipedia):

In November 192, Commodus held Plebian Games, in which he shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning, and fought as a gladiator every afternoon, winning all the bouts. In December he announced his intention to inaugurate the year 193 as both consul and gladiator on 1 January. …

He thought of himself as the reincarnation of Hercules, frequently emulating the legendary hero's feats by appearing in the arena to fight a variety of wild animals. …

Commodus also had a passion for gladiatorial combat, which he took so far as to take to the arena himself, dressed as a gladiator. The Romans found Commodus's naked gladiatorial combats to be scandalous and disgraceful. …

In the arena, Commodus always won since his opponents always submitted to the emperor. … For each appearance in the arena, he charged the city of Rome a million sesterces, straining the Roman economy.

Commodus raised the ire of many military officials in Rome for his Hercules persona in the arena. Often, wounded soldiers and amputees would be placed in the arena for Commodus to slay with a sword. Commodus's eccentric behaviour would not stop there. Citizens of Rome missing their feet through accident or illness were taken to the arena, where they were tethered together for Commodus to club to death while pretending they were giants. ...

Commodus was also known for fighting exotic animals in the arena, often to the horror of the Roman people. According to Gibbon, Commodus once killed 100 lions in a single day. Later, he decapitated a running ostrich with a specially designed dart and afterwards carried the bleeding head of the dead bird and his sword over to the section where the Senators sat and gesticulated as though they were next. Dio notes that the targeted senators actually found this more ridiculous than frightening, and chewed on laurel leaves to conceal their laughter. On another occasion, Commodus killed three elephants on the floor of the arena by himself. Finally, Commodus killed a giraffe, which was considered to be a strange and helpless beast.

It's not only lavish displays of conspicuous consumption that signal the intensifying competition among elites in the lead-up to political instability (a la Peter Turchin's structural-demographic model). It's also bombastic conduct on a personal level. Everybody starts walking around like they're a gift from God -- and like they all own the place.

Even if you're one of the few who does make it to the top, nobody likes a poor winner, and it's no surprise that Commodus as well as many of his successors were assassinated by (or on behalf of) their rivals. It's one thing for the failed aspiring elites to slam into the wall of reality that they do not own the place, but it's another to have their failures lorded over them by the winner, like Commodus gesticulating to the Senators that they were next.

Human beings are not like gorillas, where the alpha male can block out the lesser males with relative impunity. We are closer to chimpanzees, where dissatisfied males may team up to displace the incumbent coalition. This makes for much more politicking and internal group vs. group conflict, and potentially high turnover in who's running the show.

What were the conditions that allowed a megalomaniac dictator like Commodus to come to power in the first place? Quite simply, it was the Pax Romana. With so little pressure coming from outside the Empire, and with the internal peace having become taken for granted, the elites figure that the worst is behind them, and they can start grasping for an extra rung higher on the status ladder. So it'll lead to a little jockeying for status -- what could go wrong? It's just injecting a little healthy competition into our overly pacified society. It's not like we're going to be at each other's throats...

And yet as this in-fighting of elites drags on and on, that's exactly where the society winds up -- mired in civil war. Internal warfare is not a freak accident or act of God coming from who knows where, all of a sudden, and as a fluke. It is the culmination of a slow gradual build-up of pressure within an elite that is becoming increasingly bloated and cut-throat.

American elites today, despite all their in-fighting, have not resorted to making a name for themselves in the UFC or on Survivor. Still, in their 1998 gubernatorial election, Minnesotans elected a former WWF wrestler, Jesse "The Body" Ventura. And not to be outdone by a bunch of midwestern Puritans, the experimentalists of California responded in 2003 by electing the Terminator / Mr. Olympia as their governor (and re-electing him in 2006).

More in the style of Commodus, though, is the current strongman leader of Chechnya within the Russian Federation, Ramzan Kadyrov. I can't improve on Steve Sailer's review of his bombastic leadership style. Have a further look for yourself at this tumblr page.

Representin' cat people everywhere

His rule has seen a surge in lavish spending by the local elites, including but not limited to Kadyrov's birthday party with Jean-Claude Van Damme hanging out next to him, and hosting a wedding on a giant floating party island in the middle of a river. He is also bringing luxurious hotels into the former region of simple living.

And of course all of this competition at the level of conspicuous consumption has been accompanied by targeting his rivals for status as Head Dude In Charge of Chechnya.

Again we ask ourselves, how in the world did somebody like this come to power? And just as before, we find that a period of external threat and outright warfare had prevented too much in-fighting among the Chechen elite. Namely, the Russification of the region after the Soviet Union had firmly established itself as a world power, and then the series of wars and other conflicts directed against rule-from-Moscow, as the Soviet Union began to weaken and ultimately collapse.

Here is a picture of Kadyrov and company from 1996, after his clan had fought on the separatist side in the First Chechen War against Russia. Notice how strikingly simple everyone is in dress and demeanor:

Extra actors from The Deer Hunter

After the Kadyrov clan switched sides to favor Russian rule in Chechnya, Moscow no longer posed a threat. Now in this period of receding warfare from outside, and with the new leadership still so early and fragile, the climate has shifted toward one of internal strife, spending contests, and bombastic conduct.

We may only expect this status jockeying, in the forms of luxury and violence both, to escalate in the coming years. It may not go on indefinitely -- if another separatist conflict erupts against Moscow, you can bet the Chechens will tone down their internecine politicking for awhile. The near future promises to be interesting indeed.