January 31, 2014

What happened to superior glass lenses in eyeglasses? It's all plastic now

An ongoing theme here is how lame and crummy our everyday visual culture has become over the past 20 years. This has been reflected in technological changes, where the new mindset and tastes among consumers has allowed certain technologies to rise and others to fall by the wayside.

For example, the replacement of warm, lush film photographs with their dramatic range of shadow-through-light tones, by the harsh, washed-out digital images that blow out the bright spots.

It turns out that there's an even more basic visual technology that's recently been adulterated, and a cheap imitation being fobbed off on the public. Namely, the replacement of plastic instead of glass for prescription lenses.

I've been wearing contacts more or less since I first needed vision correction in 12th grade. But with money being tight, I decided to not buy another box and to just wear glasses for the second half of last year. I'd worn glasses a little bit before then, but had thrown them out once the prescription needed to be stronger.

My brother donated a pair that were very close to my own prescription. They have plastic lenses, which became the norm circa 2000, almost right after I got my original pair with glass lenses, just in the nick of time. I've gotten new contacts, and after nearly half a year of plastic-lens glasses, it really highlights how deficient they are. And I don't recall having these problems when I occasionally wore glass lenses before.

Although I can see things at a distance with the plastic lenses, wearing them reveals many faults compared to good old glass lenses or contacts. Glass has a greater visual acuity than plastic, in other words you see things more sharply and clearly, with minimal distortions -- y'know, the primary thing glasses are meant for.

With plastic lenses, things look flatter and duller, almost like there's a translucent fog. And there are more aberrations, many that I can't quite put my finger on. One is obvious, though -- plastic is more reflective, so you're more likely to see your own eyes, face, and head hovering in your field of view. If you want to improve that, then you have to pay for a separate anti-reflective coating to be sprayed onto the lenses -- y'know, instead of buying them ready to wear. Cha-ching.

Plastic is also way more high-maintenance. Dust, eyelashes, skin oil, you name it, gets stuck to plastic more easily than glass, and is harder to remove. Unless they're caked in grime, glass lenses can be wiped off with cotton. Plastic requires a specially formulated cleaning solution and a microfiber cloth, which aside from being Cha-ching is also more inconvenient to carry around in case you need to clean your glasses.

Plastic scratches way more easily. I'd only worn the plastic lens pair for half a year, and there are already visible little scratches on both lenses. I don't know how, since I didn't take a key to them or anything. But perhaps if they're in your coat pocket, a credit card, key, button, or a fingernail wandering in to dig them out could be enough to leave scratches. Glass almost never scratches, not in real-life conditions. Sure, you can add an anti-scratch coating to plastic lenses, but Cha-ching.

Plastic also doesn't withstand the elements as strongly as glass does. Granted, I haven't had them melt or anything yet, but the greater strain they'd face in hot weather, cumulatively over 10 or 20 years, means they're going to crap out earlier than a pair with glass lenses would. Ditto the frames, which is a separate matter. But glass lenses used to come in metal frames, while now it's plastic with plastic.

Glass does shatter easier, but a normal person will almost never experience this. Don't wear them when playing sports or taking mortar fire, and you'll be fine. Plastic needs to be replaced more frequently due to scratching than glass needs to due to shattering, plain and simple.

Glass is also denser and so tends to weigh more, although by the same token tends to be thinner and thus less unattractive. As a correction -- free, not an upgrade -- the temple arms of the frames used to angle farther down behind your ears to keep them from sliding. Now the angle is shallower and the length shorter behind the ear.

These two aspects of glass get so overblown in the optician industry's propaganda, just to try to sell you a poorer quality product that you have to replace more often and purchase several upgrades to make it even basically functional. Hypothetically, glass lenses will weigh more and shatter easier.

Yet, I did a little thing called a reality check and found out that none of that matters. In movies, TV shows, and pictures from the 1990s (before the rapid shift to all-plastic), do you see people with glasses that are constantly falling off their nose, or sliding so far down that everyone is tilting their head back just to see straight? Do yearbook pictures show half of the students with eye-patches due to glass lenses shattering in their face? Do you or anyone you know remember making frequent trips to replace your lenses because you kept throwing them against brick walls?

Conclusion: glass lenses are untouchable for visual acuity -- the very reason you bought the damn things -- and for being low-cost and low-maintenance. The supposed weaknesses of glass rarely or never became a problem in reality.

Here's another reality check: which other optical devices try to sell plastic lenses to their customers? None. They might try to sneak it in, but they'd never announce let alone brag about it. Glass lenses still rule for photography, cinematography, telescopes, binoculars, microscopes, and so on.

You'd have to be high on drugs to try selling camera customers on the superiority of a plastic lens. "Don't let that OLD-FASHIONED glass lens WEIGH YOU DOWN, or SHATTER IN YOUR FACE. Plastic lenses will set you free and save your life!"

As usual these days, the public doesn't give a damn about their everyday lives becoming lamer and crummier, as long as they can get a rush out of chasing phony progress. So, not only do the opticians get to sell us cheaper junk, they get an even more grateful response from customers -- "finally, progress in eyeglass design!" It's one thing if, like me, you didn't know the things were plastic at first and only developed a hunch over time that these glasses stink. But to see people celebrating plastic glasses as though it were a great leap forward, is depressing.

Which is why the optician can still be found in your local strip center doing good business, while most of the other specialized professionals have long fled -- hardware, furniture, cameras, photo labs, and so on. The eye industry has always been expert at rationalizing their scams, and the elimination of glass lenses is only a new chapter in their long history of fleecing the public.

Cat class, cat style

A not unrepresentative piece of clothing for cat people. Think of trying to make something similar for dog people, or note the absence of "sexy doggie" or "sexy puppy" costumes on Halloween, and it drives home how uncool dogs are. They've been over-bred for neoteny (or infantilization), while cats have been allowed greater freedom to mature.

Great touch on the back. "I strut right by with my tail in the air."

January 30, 2014

Co-authorship and careerism in academia

This article by Stan Liebowitz (free download) takes a look at the phenomenon of co-authorship in academic journal articles, concluding that there is too much of it. Why?

Authors are rewarded for the number of items in the publication list on their C.V., and this number is scarcely devalued when the author was not the sole author. When you write an article with one partner, strict prorating would give you 50% of the credit. In practice, each co-author gets about 70-90% of the rewards, esteem, and credit from their department.

So, what's to lose? You can pump out more papers, and you get something close to full rewards in most cases. You may not even have to contribute too much to each one -- if you're really lucky, your name is tacked on spuriously to the author list.

Liebowitz notes that prorating the authorship would solve much of the problem. If you're thinking of co-writing an article with 9 others, and you expect to only get 1/10 of the rewards from your employers that a sole author would, you start to find better uses for your time, instead of trying to maximize the accretion of lines onto your C.V.

He has also measured the rates of co-authorship among the top-ranked economics journals back to the 1940s. The rate is low and fairly constant during the '40s and '50s, and some increase is already apparent by the early '70s, after which it steadily increases.

This fits the phenomenon into the status-striving and inequality cycle. The initial push toward the over-production of elites began circa 1970, as Peter Turchin has estimated by looking at the growth in law school enrollments. Intensified status-striving appears to have been a chain reaction more than a unified wave, beginning with more aspiring elites seeking credentials, and then spreading out toward the lower tiers of the social pyramid (e.g., the higher education bubble that began about 10 years later, circa 1980).

Fitting it into this broader cycle also supports the interpretation of excessive co-authorship as something that is individually beneficial yet socially corrosive. Liebowitz provides a simple model to show how assigning more credit than the person's fair share leads to a level of co-authorship beyond the optimum. The department is now churning out too many co-authored articles, amounting to a lower total contribution to knowledge than if those authors had focused more on their own work (with some co-authorship too).

Before the shift in the social norms toward dog-eat-dog, the prevailing norm was making-do and reining-it-in. Hence the low (but non-zero) levels of co-authorship during the '40s and '50s.

Liebowitz focuses on economics because that's where he feels most comfortable sifting through the old journal articles. But he cites a growing literature on co-authorship that details its broad practice across disciplines.

Most of that literature assumes that the growth in co-authorship is due to increasing specialization, greater complexity of subject matter or mathematical techniques, or something similar that requires more researchers today to form teams and write articles as co-authors. Liebowitz instead draws the natural conclusion from the theory of self-interest that the growth in co-authorship is a form of rising careerism (although he doesn't delve too much into the possible causes for this).

I've heard these kinds of explanations informally -- that because of the fancy-schmancy statistical toolkits out there now, researchers need to write articles jointly with someone who knows what they're doing. Y'know, instead of learning how to do something yourself, or asking for clarification or help when you don't, but not abdicating responsibility and outsourcing the quantitative stuff to someone else entirely.

In fact, those who study co-authorship among legal scholars, such as this article, have reached the opposite conclusion (and no less self-assuredly) -- the growth is due to a greater empirical focus, whereby you need area experts who know the local terrain and can interpret the local language for you. Not that the abstract theory, formal models, mathematics, etc., are becoming bewilderingly complex.

Two firm conclusions about the same phenomenon that directly contradict each other means that something else is going on. Unless we ignore the distinction between abstract vs. empirical complexity, and lump them under a single thing called "complexity," which makes co-authorship more necessary.

The idea that things are just so much more complex than they used to be, is nothing more than a self-serving rationalization. Like, sure, back in the old days when Isaac Newton invented calculus and classical mechanics, when Maxwell invented electro-magnetism, and when Einstein wrote his four Annus Mirabilis papers, it was still possible to write up your ideas on your own. Add on Darwin, Mendel, Fisher, Wright, Hamilton, Trivers, and others from biology. And whoever else you prefer from your own discipline.

But inventing all of modern mathematics and science was just baby stuff. I mean, who hasn't independently invented calculus before dozing off on the couch at night? And quantum physics is one of those things that most of us think up while we're staring at the refrigerator waiting for our tea kettle to boil in the morning. And I've lost count by now of how many times I've integrated Darwinian biometrics and Mendelian inheritance while being put on hold by the power company.

The bogosity of these arguments comes through more clearly when we look at the actual output in the supposedly more brain-bending era of the past 30 or so years. If research these days requires three Einsteins rather than just one, shouldn't the results be even more mind-blowing than the original work was back in its day? Yet how many Earth-shattering theories or empirical patterns have come out in the past 30-odd years that are several times more profound and awe-inspiring than any of those listed above by single authors?

From what I've been exposed to, the closest thing to a Big Deal is the recent body of work on human evolution that has used human genome sequencing. It throws light on our murky early origins, in particular the genetic influence on homo sapiens from related species like the Neanderthals (and bringing to light a species that we didn't even know existed before, the Denisovans). It also shows us how different groups have evolved in recent times, say since the dawn of agriculture, adapting to their local conditions and new ways of life (starchy diets, centralized states).

At the same time, I wouldn't rank this sub-sub-sub-field up there with Fisher's formalization of natural selection and adaptation (oh yeah, plus inventing modern statistics), or Hamilton's theory of kin selection and inclusive fitness.

And I can't include this work in a larger category called "human genome research," because outside of evolutionary results, looking at genomes hasn't taught us anything, when it promised to locate what genes were responsible for cancer, schizophrenia, homosexuality, and other fitness-depressing traits that would have been weeded out a long time ago. It also promised to deliver gene therapy that would help the many people suffering from these conditions. All that work hasn't amounted to diddly squat.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that researchers are too concerned with bloating their publication list in their grab for greater status, sacrificing the focus and originality that comes from serving as the captain of their own ship. If you can put in a decent effort and get fully rewarded, why give it your all?

Soon the norm becomes design by committee, pass the buck, cover your ass, and plausible deniability. Fewer folks follow the norm of stewardship and of tending your flock of ideas until they're good and ready to be sheared or slaughtered.

January 28, 2014

Film festivals and the growth of status striving

A parody video is making the rounds spoofing the Stuff White People Like porn that gets shown at film festivals, "Not Another Sundance Movie." It's not just the predictability of such movies that gets under people's skin, but the arms race among filmmakers (and among audience members) to see who can out-indie the other, lesser indies.

This suggests an influence from the growth in status striving and the resulting economic inequality over the past 30 to 35 years. On that hunch, I looked into the rise of this institution, using Wikipedia's list of film festivals, and grouped them by year established, using five-year periods whose first year ends in 0 or 5.

The graphs below show the number of newly established festivals per 5-year period (plotted by the mid-year of the period), and the cumulative total number of festivals in existence during the period. (Hardly any of them have been stopped, and I did not count one-time only festivals.)

Sure enough, there were only a small handful of new film festivals from the early '50s, when the institution began in America, through the first half of the '70s. Then there's a surge of new ones from the late '70s through the early '90s, followed by an even larger explosion from the late '90s through the late 2000s. New festivals appear to be settling down in the first half of this decade, as though the niche is starting to reach its maximum.

These patterns show up more dramatically in the second graph that shows the growth in the "population" of film festivals, which looks like logistic growth that is now running up against the ceiling set by the "carrying capacity."

So, the rise of the film festival matches up perfectly with the rise of status striving and inequality. How did it come to this?

Peter Turchin's model for the relationship between status striving and inequality (summarized here) shows that people first begin to compete for higher status, as opposed to the earlier norm of making do and reining it in. This leads to more and more trying to cram into the elite layers, creating an "over-production of elites." Greater competition at the elite level means that the winners win bigger, and the losers fall harder (higher stakes competition).

Although we like to think of The Arts as somehow protected from the forces of the market, filmmaking is a commercial industry like many others, where aspiring entrants pay for credentials, compete for jobs against everyone else in their line of work, and seek status and financial rewards by becoming a hit among their customer base.

See this NYT article on the soaring number of film school graduates, and that's only for recent years. Wikipedia's patchy list of film schools also suggests that their growth is mainly confined to the past 30 or so years.

What happens when the number of people seeking greater status through filmmaking begins to take off like a rocket? Suddenly there are way too many filmmakers and not enough venues for their work to be shown in. Competition for the fixed number of high-profile venues will get even nastier. But there's a way around that -- create more venues. Granted, they won't be as high-profile as the established ones, but some venue is better than no venue for aspiring elites.

(See also: the creation of ever more institutions of higher learning to absorb the swelling ranks of doctorates looking for a job publishing their research.)

However, there are apparently only so many new film festivals that can be created to open up a little more of the niche for filmmakers to pile into. Look again at those two graphs for the 2010s. Now that the limit is being reached, competition will get particularly nasty since there will be no lower tier of just-founded festivals to absorb those who couldn't get into any of the ones that have been around for awhile.

Film festivals also allow the host city or state to compete against other cities or states for prestige. Look through the descriptions of the festivals in the Wikipedia list, and notice how full they are of claims to bragging rights:

World's oldest human rights and environmental film festival.

[F]irst and only festival exclusive to self-financed filmmakers.

Considered by many as the acme of regional film festivals. Sarasota's meteoric rise among regional film festivals has allowed it to host international luminaries and grow exponentially.

You can't see it, but I'm making the "jerking off" gesture with my hand.

Filmmaking has been around for over 100 years, yet it's only during the period of increased status-striving that the number of film schools, film graduates, and film festivals has taken off. Worth keeping in mind when trying to make sense of the degree of desperate, petty, and competitive behavior in today's film world.

Mind fog from basing arguments on "think of the children"

Upon seeing the not-so-risque performance by Beyonce at the Grammys, smothering mothers and doofus dads across the country vented their frustration and anger that network TV would show a singer gyrating on a chair in a not-too-revealing bodysuit. No less at 8pm -- WHEN THE CHILDREN COULD BE WATCHING.

Now, granted she looked like a desperate attention whore, relied on mere provocation rather than giving herself over to the audience, and spoke more than she sang. In other words, her performance was boring and off-putting to a normal grown-up human being.

But what the hell does that have to do with the delicate minds of kiddies in the home audience? Since when were the Grammy Awards considered a children's show? Were they ever re-run on the Disney Channel after school let out?

Helicopter parenting has so deeply infected our culture that we can't even hold a sensible adult discussion about what a lame performance that was. It all must boil down to, "What impression will it leave on my soft-clay children?" Pretty soon, we will no longer have a conception of a separate grown-up sphere that we judge on its own grown-up terms -- not whether it will scandalize some sheltered and smothered child who it was never meant for in the first place.

If you're so worried about your kids watching a potentially provocative show, then send them to play in their rooms while the grown-ups watch TV. Do you remember how that used to work when you were a child? We had dibs on the TV until 6 or 7pm, and then the grown-ups took it over for the rest of the night. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, Matlock, Dallas, what seemed like never-ending nature documentaries, and then everyone was off to hit the hay. "Aw, but can't we stay up and watch something now that you guys are going to sleep?" "No, TV's over, we're all going to bed now."

But these days, kids entertaining themselves for a few hours would mean a break in their constant direct-line-of-sight supervision. And from there it's only a hop skip and a jump to getting kidnapped, raped, and sacrificed to the Devil.

Forcing every activity to be a family activity dilutes them into what is inoffensive enough for the parents to approve of the children watching it, and what is bland enough to entertain the parents without it being too exciting, which would set a bad example.

Hence, "think of the children" is not simply a socially acceptable way to condemn something we don't like but cannot say so openly (for whatever reason). It takes on a life of its own, spreading from there to deflate more and more of the culture meant for adults. Ultimately, everything on offer becomes a bland porridge that does not risk alienating kiddie or grown-up tastes. Everyone can agree that it was kind-of-OK.

And then you could always just let your kid watch something mature. It shows you trust them enough to take the next small steps toward growing up, and that they might as well learn about these things before going through the real deal.

Sticking with risque musical performances, one of the earliest visual memories that remains burned on my brain is the "Girls on Film" video by Duran Duran. My mother bought an entire tape of their videos (on Betamax) and played it for years. When you're a toddler, and even up through about third or fourth grade, you may not know quite what to make of it. I remember thinking that the girls were literally killing off the guys -- "What happened, did that massage lady put poison in the oil bottle???" -- when they were only stylized man-eaters. ("Oh....")

All '80s movies had T&A, so if it was about to show some skin, my father would warn me that "You might not want to watch this, there's a lovey-dovey scene coming up." Just hearing that funny phrase -- "lovey-dovey" -- took something away from the scandalous potential. "Oh, another make-out scene, eh?" If I was still in my "ewwww, kissing!" phase, I could turn away; later on, I might take down some mental notes.

We were shown a level of trust and granted a level of responsibility that, as parents ourselves, we have thoroughly withdrawn from our children. It's time to stop spazzing out and start giving kids back a life of their own -- and reclaiming the TV at night for grown-ups only (no whining).

January 27, 2014

When white hipsters mastered black funk

Talking Heads is one of the Whitest bands ever. Throwing on a shirt with the cover of Remain in Light is a fail-safe way to get your foot in the door with your local hipster crowd. Even more so than wearing a Ramones shirt because Hot Topic doesn't sell Talking Heads. They don't sound anything like the indie music that is popular with today's hipsters, yet they are still revered as pioneers of Seriously Artistic Rock, and if pop music must be anything to White people, it is artistic.

So it might come as a shock to learn that one of the funkiest dance-aholic hits ever recorded sprung from a side project of the band, Tom Tom Club, led by their bassist and drummer. And it's not ironically funky, or ironically danceable either. It's straight up, flat-out, unapologetically body-moving. Here's "Genius of Love" from 1981:

If you were listening to the radio in the '90s, you'll recognize this as the basis for "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey, which wouldn't sound like much without it.

Although not quite as groovy on the bass line, runner-up status goes to "I Can't Wait" (1986) by Nu Shooz. This classic of Freestyle dance music, most popular with Afro-Caribbean listeners, was in fact written and performed by a white couple from the hipster mecca of Portland, Oregon.

It's hard to remember in 2014 that white and black audiences used to dig each other's music, and that performers would venture outside of their ethno-cultural comfort zone. The flipside of white hipsters putting out funky dance hits was black guitar rock masters -- Prince, naturally (far exceeding Jimi Hendrix as the black guitar god), but also Ray Parker, Jr., not to mention every other new wave band that had a black bass player or drummer.

Throughout the '80s cocooning was at a historical minimum, allowing people from all walks of life to interact with one another, for better and for worse. It was like the outgoing '20s and early '30s, another period of heavy and non-self-conscious collaboration between whites and blacks in popular music. With the shift toward cocooning over the last 20 or so years, each group has retreated way back into its comfort zone, paralleling the cultural segregation of the mid-century music world.

The attitudes may have turned upside-down, but at least the songs are still in circulation. When attitudes finally begin to change back toward the norms of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, songs like "Genius of Love" will be right there ready to catalyze the reaction. They will serve as an awakening reminder that it's OK for white artsy types to want to get your boogie on and not be ashamed of it -- your hipster ancestors did it, and you can do it to.

January 26, 2014

How elite are sports fans these days?

One common received image of sports fans is that they are Average Joes, whether taking their kid to watch a baseball game from the nosebleed seats, or sitting around a sports bar shooting the bull and having a few drinks with da guys.

Another image more recently is that sports fans are thuggish lower-class hooligan types, and that sports are provided (on the taxpayer's dime) as a form of bread and circus to distract and anesthetize the working class or underclass.

As it turns out, though, sports fans are largely members of the elite. From a 2011 article on the demographics of fans of various pro sports:

According to league data, the average household income (HHI) for NHL fans is $104,000, highest of the four major sports with Major League Baseball ($96,200), the NBA ($96,000), and the NFL ($94,500). Sixty-eight percent of NHL fans have attended college, more than the other three sports (ranging 60.4 percent to 63.6 percent). And 64 percent of NHL fans hold full-time jobs, also more than the others (57-58.1 percent).

Household incomes of $95-100K puts them in the top 20-25% of the household income distribution. Mega-earners could be pulling up the average (the median was not reported). Household income also depends on how many earners there are -- and a married couple will earn more than a single-earner household. But those possibilities could not explain their higher rates of having a college degree or a full-time job. Roughly 30% of Americans have a degree, making sports fans more likely to be college-educated. And about 45% of Americans have a full-time job, making sports fans about 30% more likely to be working full-time.

The simplest explanation for all these differences is that sports fans are higher up the class pyramid than working class folks. Well above the median, too, more like what we would call upper-middle class.

How can this picture be reconciled with the two prevailing mainstream views of who sports fans are? There are two different sources of disconnect behind the two views. The "sports fan as honest, salt of the earth type" view dates from the Great Compression, when inequality was low and narrowing. I don't see much of a role for greater income equality per se -- how expensive is it to follow sports? If you've got a TV, newspaper, or a nearby sports bar to hang out at, you're all set.

Instead I think it came from both sides of the class spectrum trying to find common ground and get along, so that working-class men would've adopted some of the norms, hobbies, and cultural interests of the upper-middle class. Beginning in the 1920s and '30s, the elite agreed to rein in their rapaciousness of the Gilded Age and Robber Baron era, making an honest display of this contrition by choking off immigration during the '20s, which prevented a further downward slide of workmen's wages (labor supply down, wages up). And the working class agreed to end their violent labor agitation that reached a fever pitch in the years after World War I.

However, we are now about 35 years into a period of rising inequality and dog-eat-dog status striving, and the fragile trust that held the classes together during the Great Compression has come undone. Why bother trying to ape the interests of the upper-middle class, if they aren't going to accept us? What does being a sports fan mean to them anyway?

They could care less about the sport itself. It's just another source of status striving, trying to lord their team's awesomeness over the fans of other teams. In an effort to please status-striving fans, sportsmanship has unraveled and drugs are now the norm (also due to dog-eat-dog behavior within the sports industry). Whatever it takes to give our fans a team they can brag about in some lame status contest. How the game is played is incidental to "OUR TEAM WON! SUCK IT, BITCHES!"

So what about the disconnect behind the view that sports fans are all mouth-breathing thugs? Well that's good old liberal snobs for ya. Sports fans are not just elites, but Republican-voting elites. Democrat-voting elites don't enjoy sports as much. In the status contest between red-state vs. blue-state elites, the Democrats need a way to put down the sports-loving elites. Well, if the whole point is to jockey for status, then why not simply imply that sports-loving elites are actually just a bunch of proletarian scum? America's version of soccer hooligans.

This would put sports in the same place as religion in the culture wars. Andrew Gelman and colleagues wrote a book about how the culture wars play out by income and by state (Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State). They found that within a state, richer people were more likely to go to church than poor people. However, that difference was flatter in rich states like Connecticut and steeper in poorer states like Mississippi. Liberal political views were the same -- the richer, the more conservative, but this climb is steeper in red states than in blue states.

When you compare classes, though, poor people across all states were pretty similar to each other for religious attendance and liberal voting, while the rich varied a lot across states. Hence, the culture wars are largely fought between elite factions in different states, not between classes.

Sports looks to be part of this general pattern. Working-class folks have totally tuned out of pro sports over the past several decades, while a large gap and bitter culture war has been fought between elite liberals and elite conservatives about whether sports are crucial or pointless to one's group identity, and how much they should count in calculating and comparing one's status level.

"Our football team kicked your football team's ass!"

"Oh yeah, well that's just bread-and-circus fodder for mouth-breathing proles!"

"Please, you're just jealous that you pansies can't throw a spiral!"

"Whatever, you're just jealous that you don't have any world-class museums like we do!"

Et ceteraaaaa..... For someone below the median of the class pyramid, this is all just sound and fury among self-aggrandizing elites.

In a period of rising inequality, such as the Gilded Age or today, lower-class culture drifts toward vice -- saloons, gambling rooms, brothels, sometimes all in the same building. ("That's right gentlemen, step right up to the one-stop shop for all your sinful desires!") We're unaware of how pervasive this culture was in the Gilded Age and early 20th century, but we're indirectly aware of it from our knowledge of the Temperance movement.

Today the saloon is the liquor store, the cigarette vendor, and the drug dealer; the gambling room is a convenience store that sells lottery tickets; and the brothel is a strip club and internet porn. It's a drop-out culture.

Being a sports fan requires too much investment in a community setting, so don't expect drop-outs to show much interest. With the bonds of trust severed between classes, and with the elite pursuing ever-more vainglorious hobbies and group activities, why bother trying to join them? Might as well buy a lottery ticket, rub one out to some internet porn, and smoke a cigarette or two before repeating the process over again tomorrow.

Bra-less: Gen X less OCD than Millennials

At the end of a news article there was a bank of those tabloid ad links about "15 Botched Butt Implants," or "The Hottest Iowans Under 50," or etc.

One caught my attention, though: celebrities sans bra. That's odd -- the dominant trend among women these days is to make sure that no one sees your nipples when you're out and about. Virtually all bras are now made with a thin layer of foam padding so that it will absorb the protrusion of the nipple, producing a uniformly smooth and rounded look if she's wearing a close-fitting top.

It turns out that most of these women are Generation X, and have probably been sporting the look on-and-off since adolescence. We have the lowest rates of OCD, so it wouldn't disturb them to go jet out with their set out. Here is only a handful:

After looking through several other sleazy lists of bra-free celebs, it seems like the look is most popular with those born in the late '70s and the early '80s. These are the people who have boxes of "embarrassing baby pictures" of them running around stark naked as children, something that's been reversed in the age of helicopter parenting. Having grown up half-naked in the '80s, leaving the house without a bra on doesn't seem so life-threatening.

There were some girls born in the second half of the '80s or '90s who aped the style, but it was typically the most calculatedly scandalous ones, like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Miley Cyrus. It didn't come from a free-spirited nature, but from a desperate grab for more, more attention. The only one who seemed to be carefree about it was Selena Gomez (who sadly exudes no sex appeal).

Is that what it's come to these days? That young women feel transgressive thrills from allowing a tiny patch of pubic hair to grow, or wearing a t-shirt with no bra? Who knows, if your parents sheltered you as much as theirs did, you too might respond to simple freedoms as though they were a prison break.

I also noticed some fairly strong differences by ethnic background, with a lack of Nordic, Slavic, or Asian women among the cup-cutters. Mediterraneans made a good showing -- Alyssa Milano, Christina Ricci, Jennifer Aniston, and Cameron Diaz. But by far it was the Celtic women who preferred to set their spirit and their body free. Liz Hurley, Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, etc. Also those Americans who either come from that background themselves or have lived close enough to it for the free-going lifestyle to rub off on them, primarily in the South -- Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, AnnaLynne McCord, etc. Part of the broader pattern of unabashed sexuality among Southern girls.

January 24, 2014

Dynamic camera work vs. abuse of editing

I was watching some old Magnum PI episodes at home during Christmas vacation, and couldn't help but notice how creative the camera work was for a TV show. And hence how much basic technique has been lost over the past couple decades.

The Thor movie was playing on cable then as well, and there was hardly any use of the camera. It looked so static, not that I tuned in for very long. There's one scene where Thor and several others are assembled in what looks like a sacred hall, perhaps seeking advice on what to do next. And they're just standing there perfectly still with hardly any emotion showing, while the camera makes slow swoopy moves toward them from one angle, and then another. Get it? Slow = trembling, gravitas. Swooping = approaching with trepidation. Why not show the characters approaching something with trepidation showing on their faces?

I could be wrong, but I think that's how they were shown entering the hall as well. It felt like they were shown entering, then an edit to when they were about halfway down the aisle, and another edit to when they had reached the final spot. Why don't we ever see a character moving from point A to point B anymore? Tracking motion keeps the viewer's attention (if there's a point to it), whereas the motion-through-edits is like a fading in and out of consciousness, catching glimpses of their path.

Sometimes that makes me feel sleepy and disengaged, and other times it makes things feel rushed -- even when the tone is supposed to be grave, as in that hall scene. It's like, "Yeah yeah, they began their path, here they are after bit, and now that that boring stuff is out of the way, here they are at the end, seeking advice." Give them something to do along the way and you can shoot a longer stretch of movement. Or if all action would seem forced, have the camera study their faces for reactions as they explore this sacred space.

The audience takes their cues about how to respond to a place from how the characters, who are actually there, are reacting. With movement-through-editing and blank faces, we in the audience can never feel connected to the place being shown. It's just some neat-looking background prop that the actors are treating like a hunk of stage dressing, not real.

By contrast, here are just a handful of the camera techniques that the crew used on Magnum PI in the early 1980s, whether for purely visual entertainment ("cool!"), to set tone, or to advance the story without boring exposition.

A medium-length shot in profile on a nervous man sitting in his car, talking to someone over the phone, thinking no one is watching or listening to him. Zoom the camera out slowly, which builds anticipation -- why are they bringing more of the setting into view? Wait just a moment, and a car lurches into frame from left to right, and stops so that now these newcomers are near the center of the composition, while through their window the original man can still be seen. They exchange sinister looks and a few words about what they have in store for the oblivious man now in the background.

Formula: begin close enough to establish familiarity with a target, move slowly back to unsettle the viewer, introduce a threat to pay off the audience's suspicion that something's up, and juxtapose the target and the threat within the frame to heighten the tension.

Sounds simple, but you rarely see stuff like this anymore, when it used to be standard for an action TV show. Today's cop shows like Law & Order use either a static camera for dialog-only shots, or follow them around all panicky when there's commotion. Because shaky cam = tension (no, just fidgeting). Obvious, lowest-common-denominator stuff like that turns off viewers who had been used to at least some style in camera work from cop shows of the '80s.

Not only do we rarely see characters moving from point A to point B, we don't get to see dialog exchanged at a distance from the camera. Usually we want to be closer up, to see their facial expressions and body language. But perhaps the two do not want to be heard, in which case letting them walk away from the camera makes us feel like they're trying to avoid being overheard. If the camera followed them -- let alone going up close as though it were right there in the confessional with them -- it wouldn't feel like they were trying to avoid us eavesdroppers.

Even better if the scene around them is bustling with activity. Breaking from constant close-ups lets the audience take in more of the setting, not in the Lord of the Rings style of nature / travel documentaries, but as places where real human social activity is unfolding. Conveying the secretive nature of their conversation often requires us to see them hidden within a larger swirling crowd. It heightens our anxiety that they might be overheard, and if they are not, it can strike a wonderfully disturbing tone -- these two just planned out a cold-blooded murder in the middle of a crowded party. Is God watching any of this on his big security camera up in the sky? Is he going to do anything about it? These characters have quite a set to think they won't get found out.

Then there are simpler techniques to make the action look more dynamic. One trick that gets used at least a dozen times per episode of Magnum PI is when a car is shown on its way toward its destination. It enters the frame from one side, and the camera is already panned in that direction. As the car moves toward the center of the frame, the camera pans with it, facing straight when it's in the center, and then panning the other way as it leaves the frame on the other side. No dollying, no crane, no other movement. It's mounted, only panning from one side to the other in the way that a NASCAR audience would watch a fast car approach, arrive, and zip away.

It does get tiresome after the tenth time it's used in an episode, but it does get the job done. How is speed and single-minded movement conveyed these days? Again by following the fast car around and seeing shit zip by in your peripheral vision. Or if the camera's mounted, it doesn't pan -- speed is conveyed by how little time it took for the car to enter and leave the frame. As though the viewer were reduced to a stopwatch. Both of these common techniques cannot produce the build-up and release that simple panning can accomplish. "Here it comes! Whoa, there it goes!" When the camera trails a fast-moving car, albeit with lots of quick edits to change angles, there's a constant level of (over-)stimulation since we are always with the car, not a build-up and release that comes from approaching and then leaving behind.

There are undoubtedly more examples of what looks lame today and what used to look cool yesterday. It's bad news when even a cop show on network TV shows more creative camera work than a giganto-budgeted Hollywood action movie.

January 23, 2014

Music videos that were cooler than their songs

A common complaint among people who were music lovers before MTV is that music videos became so associated with the song in your mind that over time you couldn't see anything else when you heard it. I'm skeptical -- did people really have an elaborated vision of every song they heard before MTV? Music makes you want to move your body, not so much to see pictures in your mind, let alone vignettes or a narrative.

At any rate, one great thing about music videos is that they could enhance the total experience if the song was only OK, and it was hard for them to really ruin a good song (although "Let's Dance" by David Bowie tries its hardest). In addition to all those "do you remember...?" songs, the '80s also gave us so many "do you remember...?" videos.

In the movie Body Double, there's a scene where the protagonist is drinking and wallowing in self-pity alone at home, while a music video plays in the background. It's cool enough that you notice it even though it's in the background and not played for very long. Plus it has a catchy refrain: "My my. Uh-oh. The house is burning, But there's no one home!"

Here's the full version of it, by Vivabeat. The song is OK -- sounds like the Cramps raped A Flock of Seagulls -- but check out that video. New fuckin' wave, dude.

Mail-order brides as a sign of gynocracy

The standard feminist view on mail-order brides is that they are a sign of patriarchy -- that women can be bought and sold like chattel, that there is a power imbalance because the groom is from a wealthier station than the poorer wife, and hence she might be pressured into things in marriage that she might otherwise stand up against.

In reality the mail-order bride is a con artist who pits a crowd of schlubs from the First World against each other. Whoever will grovel and promise her the most, wins. She's a careerist auctioning off her hand in marriage to the highest bidder. She has the upper hand from the get-go because there's an even stronger than usual degree of "lots of dudes competing savagely over precious few marriageable women." Her suitors are drawn from across the world, not just around town. Talk about encouraging a princess mentality.

This power imbalance favoring the woman continues into the marriage, where she wears the pants. The schlubby husband is aware that she's only shacking up with him because he won the auction, and that if she felt dissatisfied with his level of being pushed over, she might have second thoughts and contact the next-highest bidder. Not wanting all his time, money, and effort to go down the tubes, he goes along with her plans -- who else is he going to find at this point?

What groups give us these mercenary, ball-busting, gold-digging women, who fool the schlubs with fake smiles and hammed-up femininity? They are primarily concentrated in Eastern Europe -- i.e., north of the Balkans -- and East Asia, with a decent showing by Latin America. They are absent from Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

That split points to the role of pastoralism vs. intensive agriculture, and in particular whether the societies are run by a culture of honor or a culture of law. Recall the civilizational fault-line through Europe. Men run things in a pastoralist society, and that includes who is granted access to a given woman. Her male kinsmen make that decision, and you must go through them. Hence the tradition, stronger in the American South than in the North, of asking her father for her hand in marriage. Also recall the international crime statistics which suggest that a culture of honor serves as a strong deterrent to rape.

So, like hell she's going to get to choose whoever she wants. Pastoralists also show higher levels of cousin marriage than farmers, dealing another blow to the prospects of mail-order brides, whose suitors come from across the globe. If she insisted on it, she would likely find herself on the wrong end of an honor killing by the male kinsmen whose authority she tried to over-ride. Or perhaps something less severe but still sufficiently persuasive.

The opposite of honor is legalism. In a culture of law, as long as she's carrying out her transaction in good faith, and continues to uphold her end of the bargain, then who can stop her? After all, it's only marriage: she's not harming anyone else, is she? (In the honor-obsessed culture, yes, she is -- honor is distributed among members of a clan, so that her loss of honor stains the honor of her menfolk as well.)

Her folks probably wanted her to marry a nice local boy, but then she'll probably live better after selling herself to the highest bidder. Agriculturalist societies are the most highly stratified, where money and status are more important than niggling matters of purity and corruption. So, whaddaya gonna do?

As far as we can tell, women in hunter-gatherer groups seem to be closer to co-equals with their husbands, while specializing in different niches. Agriculture, which Jared Diamond described as "the worst mistake in the history of the human race," appears to have bred bossy women. My hunch is that it's because the men and women are now doing the same labor -- stooping over a field, yanking weeds, sowing seeds, grinding corn, and so on. Women lose respect for their husbands when they don't hunt game any longer. And now women are not dependent on men for precious meat -- hardly anyone gets meat at all, and instead both subsist on grains. Shoot, she toiled just as much as he did to put that meal of rice or oatmeal on the table, so why shouldn't she deserve a little more authority?

The same applies even more strongly to women in horticulturalist societies, where they do all of the productive work. (Unless they're white, Latin Americans mostly come from a mix of agriculture and horticulture.)

Only pastoralist women can be said to have respect for and an eagerness to please their husbands. (H-G women are neither complaisant nor contemptuous.) Surely a large part of that is the selection pressure on them to not behave dishonorably in a male-controlled society. Whether from genetic programming or cultural experience, they have a keen sense of what reprisals they might face if they got on the bad side of various groups of related men (her own menfolk, or those of her husband).

Lord knows that women from herding societies are temperamental and headstrong, but the men can be even more so. Asian tiger mothers don't get much push-back from docile Asian husbands. Horticulturalist men don't stick around if they don't have to -- the black dude would just leave rather than put up with all that negativity in the house coming from his baby mama.

But Italian men do stand up, so that Italian spouses can often be seen getting into lovers' quarrels, kissing and making up, and then going through the drama cycle over and over. And Irish men are not unknown to give their willful wives a pair of Irish sunglasses, then apologizing and turning on the ol' Irish charm to keep her around. Life among herding peoples is never uneventful.

Pastoralist babes may be the hardest to get access to, surrounded by several layers of kinsmen scrutinizing your motives and character, but they therefore bring a greater reward in marriage -- respect for her husband. Note: respect goes beyond merely wanting to keep him content, the way that a gold-digger wouldn't want to arouse suspicion or risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Women are more child-like and hence not very respectful of others, so finding those who are is no trivial matter for enjoying a fulfilling marriage.

Note: Comment policy new and improved

Comment moderation is now off, and so is word verification. Hopefully this will let comment threads develop more quickly and organically.

I only had them in place before to deal with spam, bots, and the odd attention-whoring loser. I can still delete comments and ban individuals, and that ought to be enough.

The catch is that there's no more anonymous commenting. I would've preferred to let folks just write in their name (with or without a URL), but Blogger does not give us that option. The option that includes "name / URL" also includes "totally anonymous," and that's a problem.

Until they change that, comments require you to be signed in to something -- the list is pretty long and easy to meet. If you don't have an account with Google, AOL, WordPress, etc., try setting up a nickname with OpenID.

It'll be better for everyone reading the comments to be able to distinguish who said what within a thread, and across threads. A list of comments all by "anonymous" looks lame and off-putting.

As for mechanics, the "comments" link now sends you to a text box just below the main post, so you can still see it while writing. Now you can preview your comment before publishing if you want. And it also has a "reply" option that the separate comments page did not. It just looks and works better than the separate page that I'd been using since forever.

January 22, 2014

Why do queers act like girls?

The theory of "male homosexuality as infantilization" explains things better than other popular theories, such as "gays as effeminate" and "gays as hyper-masculine." Females are more neotenous (child-like), hence we would expect similar things from the competing theories that gays are infantilized vs. that they are effeminate. It's hard to distinguish between them.

Some crucial test cases exist where the predictions are different, and the real world pattern clearly points to the infantilization theory. For example, females like to nurture creatures and other people, they dream of getting married, settling down, and starting a family, and as little girls they indulge these instincts by playing with "baby care" dolls -- the ones you cradle, feed, burp, change their diaper, and so on. Little boys couldn't be more turned off by a toy.

And sure enough, gays have no nurturing instinct, are not interested in getting married, settling down, and starting a family, nor do they play with baby-nurturing dolls (despite often playing with dress-up and fashion dolls). Queers are like little boys who never mature beyond their "girls are yucky" and "babies are stupid" phase.

Still, they do have quite effeminate tendencies as children, and that can't be explained directly by viewing them as Peter Pans. Why don't they do little boy activities and get stuck in them, rather than play with dolls, play dress up, and other little girl-y activities?

Steve Sailer linked to an ancient NYT article on gays -- before the movie Philadelphia came out -- in which several researchers on homosexuality make an interesting observation about distant fathers and boys who will grow up to be gay. It's not that distant fathers cause sissy-ish (and ultimately homo) behavior, but instead that boys who are already firmly down the path of sissy and homo behavior alienate their own fathers.

Mothers aren't so disgusted by a little boy who insists on behaving like a baby his whole life -- it gives mothers something to continue mothering -- so they become the refuge for the sissy boy. From there (and perhaps from any sisters he has), the soon-to-be-gay boy picks up so many feminine interests and hobbies.

Except for all those nurture-related activities. That's programmed at too deep of an instinctual level for a little boy to be able to ape the mindset and behavior of his mother or sisters.

It seems like the same dynamic would play out in his relations with boys outside the nuclear family. A stubbornly babyish, self-centered, Me Me Me little faggot will alienate all potential friends he could make on the playground. Boys are more team-oriented, and show little forgiveness for this kind of spoiled behavior.

Girls are more pair-oriented, so he may be able to find a handful of girls to relate with. They won't mind as much that he's an egocentric twit -- girls expect one another to be pretty self-centered and attention-whoring to begin with. Plus: finally a boy who doesn't try to push them down, taunt them, and so on. I know it sounds mean to describe these little girls as proto-fag-hags, but I bet these unusual girl / gay interactions begin earlier than we assume. It's not like it just kicks in out of nowhere when they begin adolescence or young adulthood and are looking for a gay bff to boost their hip status.

At any rate, the effeminate mannerisms and interests that queers show are likely an epiphenomenon. The underlying cause is their infantilization, which ultimately results in their being ostracized by males inside and outside the family, and coping with rejection by joining girl world and adopting its ways, within the bounds set by male instinct.

January 21, 2014

The sexual double standard against the male libido

This post from Uncouth Reflections is the second in a series exploring the moral panic surrounding "creepshots" -- pictures that have been taken in public, of possibly unaware subjects, who may not have been asked permission to be photographed. The more seemingly personal the detail shown -- girls baring skin, a couple caught during an embarrassing argument, or what have you -- the more suspect the creepshotter (creepshooter?).

My take, as explained in the comments there, is that it all boils down to the motive of the photographer. If the same shots had been captured by security cameras, they would feel less creepy, even though they too would have been shot in a public place, with no awareness from the subjects, without asking their permission. However, the camera has no mind of its own, so the subjects and activities it captures cannot have sprung from impure motives.

Of course, there could be a person posting these pictures online after going through security camera footage, but that doesn't seem to matter as much. He's just passing along images that were recorded by something else -- something cold and devoid of emotion, and hence lacking any motive.

And who knows, maybe someday soon they'll have an automated computer program that randomly chooses a scene from a security camera and posts them to a tumblr. It would probably be approved first by a person just to make sure there was something worth viewing in the shot, rather than an empty street at night. But that would remove yet another source of human motive from the shooting-and-distributing of random public pictures.

In short, giving others evidence of having a red-blooded male libido is incriminating. You've proven that you're a perv, a creep, a stalker, a date-rapist. The case of creepshots is just one example of a much broader pattern of moral panic about the dangers that the male sex drive poses to society in general, and to women in particular.

So, contrary to all the feminazi indignation about the "sexual double standard," men are now judged and condemned by an even more obsessive paranoia. Women don't have to defend having a promiscuous sex life anymore, or cohabiting before marriage, and neither do men. But girls can't come right out and say that they like boys and that they like sex -- that crosses the "slut" line. It's motives and intentions that count more than behavior and outcomes.

(Hence also the OK-ness of a girl getting into a drunken random hookup -- it's not like she intended to have sex with a perfect stranger, it just happened when neither of them were much aware of or in control of their mindset and behavior.)

If there were truly a sexual double standard favoring men, then they could express their healthy sex drive with impunity (funny how we have to talk about it like it's a potentially criminal thing these days, eh?). But the days when you could publicly comment on girls' bodies to your buddies are long gone.

A couple months ago I was walking by a construction site on campus, and one of the workers was about to say something like -- I'm inferring -- "get a load of the sweet ass on that chick!" But his fellow construction workers waved him off and told him not to, albeit in a friendly way like "Hey, we're just trying to look out for your security -- you don't know what they'd do to you if you made that kind of comment these days."

Guys for the past 20 years have been way more concerned with and desperate to prove their non-rape-y motives before a society-wide jury. An unapologetic song like "Sexual Healing" could never make it with audiences these days. Girls don't feel comfortable admitting to having a healthy sex drive (for the minority who still do feel that way), but it's not as though they'd be thrown into a kangaroo court of public opinion and have their motives scrutinized.

It'd just be some mild slut-shaming: "Gosh, someone's feeling a little slutty, aren't they?" or "Since when did the town slut move into this neighborhood?" Not as though they'd be expected to apologize and prove that they were willing to change, as though their libido threatened the foundations of society, or the well-being of the opposite sex.

"Um, maybe that's because men rape and women don't?" Spastic feminists. Like checking some babe out is just a hop, skip, and a jump from brutish violation.

Polish victims of Jewish control had a saying that "The Jew cries while he beats you." The same applies to mainstream feminism since the '90s, droning on about the Madonna/Whore Dichotomy while launching and inflaming a witch hunt to suppress all expression of a healthy male sex drive.

January 20, 2014

January 19, 2014

The uncanny valley for computer speech

While configuring my Vim text editor to play a "clicky keyboard" sound for typing, I found out that you can make it play sounds for other processes as well. A welcome and goodbye message would be nice to hear when you start it up or shut it down -- but where to get a voice sample?

I didn't want it to be a human being saying "Welcome" or "You've got mail." That always sounded lame. It was trying to sound all futuristic, like "Whoa, my computer's talking to me!" -- but it was just a human voice recorded and played back on an ordinary audio medium. No different than hearing a human voice singing when you played a CD on your computer.

As luck would have it, some guy made an emulator of the Speak & Spell toy, famous for its speech synthesizer, and made all of the audio files available for download. Then I used Audacity to string several words into a single message. It also has some neat "beep boop bee-beep" motifs that now play when text editor switches between modes.

These messages sound heavily synthesized -- there's no doubt it's a robot talking -- but the meaning or content is still clear.

It struck me how nice it is to hear your computer talking like a computer, when these days the dominant trend is toward trying to make machines sound like people. That Siri thing just sounds weird. The blending of sounds and the intonational contour are almost human, but not quite. It's noticeable right away, and hearing it over the course of a conversation only makes that "wtf am I talking to?" impression stronger.

I tried out some free text-to-speech applications online, such as this site, and they all sound just as weird as Siri does. They fall in the uncanny valley of spoken language, where they're neither distinctly artificial nor distinctly organic. It leaves your brain confused and unable to attend to the conversation because it's constantly trying to resolve who or what the hell is talking to you. They sound like they're crippled by a speech pathology, rather than merely having a foreign accent.

What ever happened to the Stephen Hawking kind of speech device? It didn't creep you out because it was so clearly a machine. The odd phonetic blending and the offbeat intonation made it sound quirky and charming. Yeah, I know we weren't supposed to laugh at someone who couldn't speak on his own. But it was laughing with, not laughing at. Like, "Gadgets, eh?"

Then there's that new movie, Her, about a hipster who falls in love with the feminine incarnation of an Apple device, now with the (almost) fully human voice of Scarlett Johansson. That's even weirder because of the conflicting cues -- organic speech sounds coming from something with the cold, featureless look-and-feel of a desktop computer.

It also undercuts the whole premise of "man falls in love with his computer" (if that's really the main point; I haven't seen it). The whole time, it doesn't sound like he's interacting with a machine but with a person. It's more like he's a lonely schlub who's falling for the phone sex operator he calls every night. Giving her a more Speak & Spell kind of voice would have emphasized the "odd couple" theme -- partners who always seem to be talking past each other just a bit.

But audiences today would not have responded to that approach, given how deeply committed they are to finding emotional fulfillment from websurfing and gaming. Cocooners want their virtual friends to be substitutes for actual friends. Back in the '80s, it would have been about adding a robo-friend as an offbeat complement to your existing social circle. (I think the last example of that was Screech's robot Kevin from Saved by the Bell.)

That different approach -- the robot as a welcome outsider -- would have brought along other choices that would have lessened the "uncanny valley" effect further still.

For example, when I was piecing the messages together from the single words available, it was hard to get across most messages because there were only dozens of words, rather than thousands, to build with. You want it to say something like "file saved"? Well, there are no words like file, work, writing, etc., nor for save, store, or whatever.

I finally settled on "mirror, built," hoping that a human being would understand the meaning from context (taking the steps that save a file). That's right: this little exercise made me try to get inside a robot's mind. The starting-up message: "Blood, is, coming, to, circuit." And for shutting-down: "Machine, workman, is, quiet."

What resulted, then, was a kind of pidgin between two strangers who shared only a handful of words in common, and would try to cobble together phrases that were not exactly straightforward but got the meaning across all the same.

Hearing the text editor use these eccentric phrases makes it sound even less like a normal person than its strange pronunciation does alone. Hence, even more acceptable and easy to get along with, being that much farther away from the uncanny valley. Phrases, slang, and the like are strong markers of in-group vs. out-group membership. The computer ends up sounding more like an exchange student from Mars, a well-meaning fish out of water.

I thought of coining some idioms for it that cannot be decomposed, and thus do not translate, like "let the cat out of the bag," only using the Speak & Spell vocabulary. "Pull poultry," "a reindeer for the ("d") dungeon," and so on. Perhaps when I find another context, as the three basic ones are already taken.

Don't overlook the importance of the "beep boop beep" sounds for avoiding the uncanny valley either. Machines are suppposed to make their own, er, machine-sounding sounds. When you start up your car, it hasn't been rigged to make the ignition sound like a dog barking, and the turn signal doesn't make a dripping faucet sound. At the same time, they should sound natural enough to make the meaning intuitive -- a sequence with rising intonation for starting-up or going-into, and one with falling intonation for shutting-down or going-out-of.

On the computer, I chafe when I hear goofy sound effects, already belonging to some other thing, gentle Zen whooshes that belong in a spa, or anything else that tries to make it sound organic rather than the artificial and electronic gizmo that it is (such as wood thudding against a ceramic tub). Don't confuse my brain -- make the computer sound mechanical and electronic. Things ought to sound within the range that we'd expect them to, given their main properties.

January 18, 2014

The only distraction-free word processor you'll ever need

It's Q10. Unfortunately it's for Windows only.

It shows a black full screen and amber text that's dimmed down enough not to blind you when large chunks are on the screen at the same time (you can switch to any color). There are no distracting toolbars, no endless rows of icons that you never click on. It does have all the basic functions you'll need (in mapped key form) - cutting, pasting, saving, find, undo, redo, spell check, etc. It has typewriter sound effects to provide auditory feedback while you type (you can switch it off).

Most importantly, though: no What You See Is What You Get. Formatting, layout, etc., can come later, if they need to at all. If you're not going to be sending or handing it over to somebody, why bother with all that pointless polish? The mind can be in either of two modes, but not in both, during the same writing session — producing language, and preparing it for presentation to others. Substance or style.

Later, you can still open the file in a program meant for formatting. Just about everything reads .txt files.

If it's been awhile since you've used a word processor whose basic features just let you be, rather than interrupting the flow of thought-recording, you'll be surprised how easy it is to put your thoughts down.

At the office, I've started using Vim since you can configure more of the default settings and pair it up with LaTeX for formatting equations and references in journal articles. But when I'm done playing around with its settings, for most things it's going to behave like the one you can quickly and freely download, and have running in no time. I wouldn't mind if Q10 were the only word processor that I used from now on. It's such a breath of fresh air in our technologically stultifying society.

Related post: light-on-dark color schemes to boost productivity.

January 15, 2014

Luggage over the years: Bloated vs. unobtrusive (more pictures)

After making six flights within a few weeks over the holidays, it struck me how much luggage people are carrying these days (and not only around their mid-section):

My impression was not that people are packing the same amount of stuff into larger and larger bags like a bubble, in the way that car trunks these days are like empty and unused cargo holds. There really does seem to be a lot of crap crammed in there. Anytime I leave with only a (stuffed) carry-on bag with no wheels, there's usually at least the cab driver or an airport worker who looks surprised: "Ah, traveling light!"

These days, traveling light makes you look like a nobody, almost like a hobo. "Don't you own anything?" Conspicuously hauling around a bigass suitcase gives onlookers the impression that you live in a house that has a home office and spacious closets, the entire contents of which you're dragging around on your trip. "I can't let travel get in the way of my super-busy work schedule," when most of that junk is unnecessary for whatever work you may or may not be doing. A good chunk is digital distractions for cocooners on vacation, not to mention the whole medicine cabinet's worth of cosmetics being dumped into women's suitcases.

By the way, how much more unwieldy are today's bags compared to yesterday's? Walmart's website has a luggage section, and their best-selling standard roller suitcase has dimensions 9" x 18" x 28". Searching for "1970s suitcase" at Etsy turned up this representative thing in avocado green, orange, and mustard yellow, with dimensions 6.5" x 13" x 20.5". So, today's suitcase takes up more than twice the volume of the older one (2.6 vs. 1 cubic feet), with each dimension being just under 40% larger.

I remember luggage getting big in the '90s, both the volume that each bag took up and how many bags people brought with them. My memory of the '80s here is hazy since I didn't take too many flights as a kid, but I remember them being more normal-sized. On the other hand, it could have been a case of the elite status-strivers changing first. "Garment bags" took off around that time, among the right people. And there must have been something of a trend toward hauling huge trunks, since Spaceballs and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles -- both from 1987 -- poke fun at it, and for opposite social classes (upper and lower, respectively).

Looking around pictures of airports from the '70s, I didn't find weighed-down passengers there either. Here's a typical shot of passengers at a train station:

Notice how much smaller the suitcases were for everyone, whether male or female, young or old, and these are all middle or upper-middle class people. Also notice how women don't have two bags slung over their shoulder, in addition to dragging a coffin of a carry-on. Chicks back then were more of the mind that toting around so much freight turned you into a beast of burden, while today they believe that she who is crushed under the most bags, wins.

The '60s were like the '70s for the two main zeitgeist variables -- rising crime and falling inequality -- so it's not much of a surprise to see the same pattern of light travel back then as well:

Now comes the critical point -- the '50s look like the '60s and '70s, and unlike the 21st century. This makes the "bloated luggage" thing a part of the status-striving and rising-inequality cycle, not the cocooning-and-crime cycle (in which case the '50s would look the opposite of the '70s, and similar to today).

The folks from the Fifties don't look as animated and gregarious as they would in the '70s -- that's the cocooning vs. outgoing cycle -- but they aren't strutting around like they and their bigass luggage own the place, the way today's cocooners do. The opposite of striving for status is making do and reining it in, and folks back then didn't worry their heads off if they couldn't ship their entire office, closet, and medicine cabinet to their destination.

Also, if everyone packs a gigantic suitcase, then they ruin it for everyone -- all those things clanging around, getting in people's way, taking up limited cargo space, and weighing the vehicle down. If everyone pitches in to restrain themselves just a little, it makes a big difference. That's the core mindset of people in a making-do society. (Note: unrelated to economic well-being vs. recession, since this is the affluent Postwar period by now.)

So, who does look more like today's people? It must be those from the Gilded Age and Turn-of-the-Century. Piles of unwieldy trunks brings to mind scenes like this of a steamboat wharf circa 1900:

In fact, the article on trunks at Wikipedia covers mostly the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, i.e. when status-striving and inequality were spiraling toward their peak around WWI. This period also saw the founding and rise to dominance of Louis Vuitton, a little company whose travel goods you may have been seeing more and more of over the past several decades.

Finding 19th-C. pictures of train passengers with their luggage was more difficult. A good fraction would not even have been "traveling" or "taking a trip" the way that today's airplane passengers are. Still, here's an idealization of the Chicago Railway Station around the 1860s. Those who are traveling have brought quite a load of stuff with them:

Here's a British satirical cartoon from the 1880s, showing a social atmosphere similar to today's. Everybody's strutting around like they own the place, just because they have an umbrella, walking stick,  newspaper of record, man-purse, quirky hat, conspicuous facial hair, etc.

Like our time, the Victorian era was the worst of both worlds, with cocooning and status-striving interacting with each other. Mid-century cocooning was at least "keep to yourself" atomization, and the peak of status-striving in the early 1900s at least benefited from the gregarious and fun-loving spirit of the Ragtime and Jazz Age. During the Victorian and Millennial eras, however, alienation takes on a hostile melee character -- a war of all against all.

Perhaps that gives the big-bag-carriers another purpose -- preparing for the apocalypse, should it strike during their business trip. They certainly look like they're suited up for battle, the Victorian men with their makeshift cudgels and Millennial women with their blocky boots and hammer-throw bags.

Finally, here is a website with lots of pictures of airports and passengers in Hawaii over the 20th century. Browsing is a bit slow, having to click through several layers of specificity before you get to the actual pictures, then having to dig out and dig down all over again. But it's worth looking at since you're controlling for other variables by sticking to the same airports over time. Here's Kahului Airport on Maui, July 1986 (click for detail):

Luggage doesn't look too over-the-top just yet, either for size of bag or number of bags. It looks like most other scenes from the '80s, and could have been shot in a mall. Lots of old people, who you don't see too many of in airports anymore (it's mostly college kids, 20 and 30-something strivers, middle-aged businessmen, and nuclear families with young children). And being integrated into a social circle, rather than only having their spouse or nobody else to experience things with. Then there's the couple who aren't hiding their plans of coming to Maui for a tropical sex marathon (the chick in red booty shorts and the dude who looks like a Venice Beach cousin of John Oates). The fact that nobody around them is butting into their business, since everyone is enjoying their own lives. Children climbing all over the column bases, standing up on the lounge seats, and probably going for a ride on the baggage carousel. Somewhere a boombox blasting out "We're on safari to stayyy!"

The presence of the "snack bar" instead of Vino Volo. No Mexican food (and no Mexicans...). No obvious faggots creeping around. I think the outgoing, social-circle-oriented ways of the Eighties kept a pro-social lid on some of the status-striving and inequality trends that were underway, which exploded more during the '90s when people started cocooning again.

Which major financier is a gay pederast?

A former pro who worked for the elite group that Eliot Spitzer patronized has a memoir out, Call Girl Confidential. The NY Post relates what must be the most disturbing of the book's tales, which does not name names:

A “major financier” who bore some responsibility for the 2008 financial crash flew her to Tokyo so she could tie him to a headboard and put clothespins on his member. “The more aroused he got, the more I punished him.” He paid Woodard $25,000. But after two years, he asked her, “Would you be able to get me a young boy?” She refused, told him to get help and wouldn’t see him again.

The "young boy" must not have been the kind that he could've gotten through an escorts-for-faggots service, so he was looking for someone quite a bit younger than 18. Since she didn't tell the cops, she must not have thought he had someone pre-pubescent in mind. Probably someone around 12, like the priests and Orthodox rabbis go after.

Guessers at BlindGossip thought of Bernie Madoff, but I don't think so. He was around 70, and she uses the phrase "the more aroused he got." I checked Google Images, and he doesn't give off strong homo vibes. And why Tokyo? He doesn't have any known connection there, or preference for Asian culture. Plus, "bore some responsibility" would be quite an understatement to describe him in the tabloid media. They would've played up the drama more with "criminal," "con man," etc. At this point, nobody would ruin her for naming his name.

Then I remembered someone who would set anybody's gaydar off -- Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs since 2006. Like all other big wigs on Wall Street, he bore some responsibility, but is not widely reviled like Madoff. He's the Gala Chairman of the Rockefeller family's Asia Society, so he's more likely to pick Tokyo -- not what most rich guys would pick as their getaway destination for trysts. He would've been in his early 50s, so arousal wouldn't be so implausible.

And unlike Madoff, he's been an outspoken supporter of gay marriage for years, to the point of losing a big business client who didn't agree with it. Privately holding the belief wouldn't be unusual, but it is to be so outspoken for someone in such a high place within a nominally conservative sector.

Check out this mug, and pretend you're in the principal's office. Nope, no creepy pedo vibes here:

Other pictures of him smiling show the same giveaways that I detailed in previous posts in the "Hidden Homos" series. His upper lip doesn't curve up at the ends, but it pulled tightly straight across more like a small child's. And his eyes don't crinkle and squint, but show the typical arched-up eyebrows of a child showing surprise, eagerness, and excitement. It doesn't matter if they're the head of a major company, queers still can't help looking like hyper-sexualized Peter Pans.

Other pictures here, here, and here.

Who knows if he's the one being described in the tell-all memoir? It doesn't give too many specific clues. But he certainly does project strong gay vibes when he's trying to be his candid self and let it all hang out, and the other facts make him a more likely candidate than Bernie Madoff.

Then again, how many gay weirdos are there heading big Wall Street firms who aren't much in the public eye? People who are profoundly warped in one way tend to be so in other ways as well.

January 11, 2014

Eyeglass design over time: Open and transparent vs. narrow and opaque (pictures)

Looking over my aunt's 1963 high school yearbook, it struck me how similar the popular styles of eyeglasses are during the Millennial and mid-century periods.

It never hit me before because eyeglasses aren't one of those things that springs to mind when you think of "the look of the '80s." Even after poking around some pictures for reminders, they still don't click, the way you hear an iconic song you haven't heard in forever.

That's because eyeglasses from the '70s and '80s try not to be noticeable. Folks were more afraid of looking nerdy when the primary goal was being cool (part of being people-oriented). Now and during the '50s and early '60s, they enjoyed making a fashion statement out of something geeky (part of being thing-oriented).

Let's take a closer look at what specific features tend to go together during a given zeitgeist, and how that changes over time. There's a good variety of pictures and item measurements at this vintage eyeglass store on Etsy. Then there's this rich collection of old pictures of famous people wearing glasses.

Here's a representative sample of glasses for women, and then men, from the '50s and early '60s (click to enlarge):

Their most defining feature is the tiny height of the rims. Since the width is about the same for any two pairs, the smaller height gives these ones a narrow, almost squinty look. I get the feeling of being looked at suspiciously, as though I'm trying to get into a building and there's someone scrutinizing me through a slit in the door, asking me for the passwoid.

The frames are also fairly thick, particularly the temples (the arm parts). The colors are usually quite dark, though there's the odd beige or light grey pair. And the surface tends to be opaque and reflective. Thickness, darkness, and opaqueness all give them a more solid material presence -- more clearly a gadget that's been grafted onto your face.

Fans of these styles call them "architectural," but to me they seem more mask-like, especially combined with the narrow openings. And they're celebrating the thing-ness of glasses, rather than trying to make them blend organically with the human face.

People in cocooning periods are suspicious of each other on an interpersonal level (institutional trust is distinct, and related to the inequality cycle), and are more thing-oriented. The popular glasses above are just what you'd expect to have been popular during the mid-century.

Turning now to the '80s (glasses from the '70s look similar, but the traits are more pronounced further on):

Glasses were HUGE back then. Typically the height is at least 2", and I found some that were 2 3/8". The ones from the '50s and early '60s were generally at or under 1 1/2", and I found some that were as narrow as 1 1/8". So, glasses became about twice as wide open. It exaggerates the wide-eyed look of someone who already knows you, trusts you, and is devoting their full attention to you.

The frames are also thinner, only somewhat for women's glasses but more so for men's -- the temples that look like 2x4's whacking you upside the head are long gone. The colors are also lighter, either lighter shades of dark colors or new brighter colors like yellow, orange, and red (although they're not very saturated or loud). And the material looks less material -- translucent plastic for thicker frames, and wispy wires for metal frames.

Those features all work toward making the glasses blend quietly into the background rather than stand out or get in the way of the person's face.

The stereotype of '80s design and fashion is that everything was loud and attention-seeking, but here's a clear counter-example. Outgoing people-people don't want to be loud about something so unavoidably nerdy.

With the return toward cocooning as the mainstream form of social behavior, the set of features that was popular over 50 years ago has returned, sometimes quoting the original but usually not paying attention to history. Like-minded groups of people will independently develop similar cultures (in those domains where they are like-minded). Homosexuals are particularly drawn to the nerdy look, since as Peter Pans they don't care at all about being cool.

Finally, to help us remember a rather indistinct style (nothing wrong with that in this case), here are some real-life pictures of people from the late '70s through the early '90s, taken from the Bespectacled Birthday blog.

Christopher Reeve was meant to recall the nerdy Fifties office worker, yet they didn't give him narrow black glasses. That would have made Clark Kent look less trusting and keeping others at arm's length. The way-wide-open contemporary glasses give the character a more open and vulnerable look. It makes him easier to sympathize with, and it heightens the contrast with his more confident and in-charge alter ego.

Carl Sagan, perhaps the closest thing there was to the Nerd Laureate in the '80s, doesn't look very nerdy at all. Unlike the '60s and the 21st century, intellectuals didn't feel like they had something to prove by desperately sporting thick, conspicuous Intellectual Glasses. The wide openings place the rims away from the eyes, where they might distract you, and the rims and temples are so thin that you don't notice them. The large eye spaces also look more understanding than indiscriminately judgmental, always a worry for intellectuals.

That's Charlize Theron as a teenager. The temples are kind of thick, and the color is on the dark side, so they stand out a little bit. But because they're so wide open, they still look inviting rather than distancing. She looks like she'd be eager to talk to boys, not bothered by their presence. Isn't it strange how mature teenagers looked then, compared to 20-somethings today?

The one on the right is Heather Locklear, a rare example of a woman wearing super-thin frames. Not much of a fashion statement, although she has some golden and purple color to liven them up. It's probably the expression she's making for whatever TV show this is from, but she doesn't look as inviting as Charlize Theron. Still, she doesn't look stuck-up or high-maintenance. No-nonsense, maybe, but not catty or bitchy. Those women are long gone too, not just their glasses.

You often hear the '70s and '80s aviator style glasses on men being referred to as serial killer glasses, pedophile glasses, and so on. Here's subway vigilante Bernie Goetz and cat person Stephen King doing their best to prove stereotypes. I don't think the glasses themselves make them look weird. I think the association people make between these glasses and serial killers and pedophiles is that they were both a lot more common back then and are much rarer now.

Perhaps their creeped-out reaction is caused by the disconnect between the traits suggested by the glasses and the individuals wearing them. To me the squinty mask-like glasses look more voyeuristic.

Add eyeglasses to the list of things that used to be unpretentious but are now required to be conspicuous design objects. Time to buy a new old pair.