July 30, 2014

Kids more afraid at school these days, despite being much safer

Most people today feel a lot safer walking around their neighborhood compared to 20 or 25 years ago, when the rates of violent and property crime were at their peak. Likewise, people felt less safe in the early '90s than they did 20 years earlier, when crime was rising but not yet at its peak. People's fear of their surroundings moves along with the crime rate, with a delay of about two years. See this old post, which looks at data on fear from the General Social Survey, alongside homicide statistics.

Something different is going on with teenagers, though, and probably children as well. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (site) is a national probability survey like the GSS, only given to high school students — a group that is usually passed over in surveys because there are stronger regulations on studying minors. They have asked questions about your experiences with violence at school, and whether you've skipped school because you feared for your safety there. High schoolers, like adults, live in a much safer world today, but unlike adults, they have only grown more afraid.

The question on school violence asks whether you have been in a physical fight on school property at least once in the past year. The one on fearfulness asks whether you've skipped school at least once in the past month because you feared for your safety at school, or going to or coming from school. These make a great comparison since the potentially dangerous location is the same for both, namely the school.

Both questions were first asked in 1993, and most recently in 2013. I've calculated the changes in both violence levels and fear levels between those two years (only, not mapping the micro-changes in between), separated by sex and race (white, black, and Hispanic/Latino).

I've expressed the change in standard deviations rather than how many percentage points they've gone up or down.* This treats proneness to violence and fearfulness as "bell curve"-shaped traits, as most psychological and behavioral traits are. Standard deviations give us a better sense of how far the average teenager has moved in one direction or the other. It's like knowing how many inches taller or shorter they have become, not merely whether they are some percent taller or shorter.

The data are shown in the graph below (click to enlarge).

Change in violence is on the horizontal, and all values are negative, reflecting the overall decline in violence since the peak in the early 1990s. The change of about 0.5 SD for males and about 0.3 for females is huge, given how quickly they have occurred. If safety were a kind of "height," then males today are about an inch and a half "taller," and females nearly one inch taller, than their counterparts 20 years ago.

Change in fear is on the vertical, and five of the six groups are more fearful than they used to be (i.e., lying within the positive upper half). Bear in mind that the question about fear is not simply about feeling afraid, but actually skipping school because you were afraid. Most groups are around 0.1 SD more fearful. If we thought of feeling secure as a kind of "height," it's as though kids today feel about a third of an inch shorter than they used to — despite being taller!

The males (squares) cluster off to the left, where violence levels have plummeted further and kids are only a bit more fearful than before. The females (triangles) cluster to the right, where violence hasn't plummeted by as much (since it was so low to begin with), and kids are more fearful than before — particularly for white females. There's no overall pattern for where the different races lie within the clusters. (Remember these are changes over time, not absolute levels, which do show race differences.)

Is there at least a positive correlation, despite the general confusion that is shown by most points revealing declines in violence and increases in fear? If groups who have seen larger declines in violence showed larger declines in fearfulness, then the points should slope up and to the right.

When you look within race and compare males to females, the lines connecting points of the same color slope up in two cases and is flat in the other. This is the only sign of kids being in touch with reality here: males have seen greater declines in violence than females, and show greater declines in fearfulness, controlling for race.

However, when you look within each sex cluster, the line running through the three races slopes down! Controlling for sex, the racial groups that have seen greater declines in violence show greater rises in fearfulness.

Just about every way you look at it, there is a profound disconnect between school violence and fear of school violence, among the very teenagers who spend their days there. What gives?

It's not the rise in school shootings, since kids don't purposefully skip school because they're afraid that today is going to be the day when that one kid snaps and shoots up the school. The question is phrased to ask about fear of garden variety fights, bullies, and so on (e.g., the part about being afraid going to or coming from school, where spree shootings would not apply).

It's not cocooning and social isolation either, as though they were afraid that no one would have their back in case a fight broke out. That would apply to adults as well — yet adults are cocooning and less fearful of their neighborhoods, as crime has fallen.

My only good hunch is that it's the coddling from helicopter parents and their agents in the school system, especially all this propaganda about the omnipresent menace of bullying. Grown-ups bombard kids with a constant stream of dire appeals to watch out for bullies, report the slightest hint of bullying — IF YOU STAY SILENT, MILLIONS COULD DIE — etc. This makes it sound like school is one great big death trap, and if every grown-up sends you the same message, you'll tend to trust their expert consensus.

Now, if kids were more in touch with their surroundings, perhaps they wouldn't be so naive about what the grown-ups were warning them about. Over-protectiveness prevents the kid from having an awareness of the school's true danger level (or for that matter, how dangerous his own neighborhood is), which would lead him to dismiss the paranoia of his parents.

Adults may be cocooners these days, but they do get out some of the time, albeit with their guard always up. They are keenly aware of how safe every place has become over time, in a way that their sheltered kids are not, for want of exposure to the outside world.

I think this pattern can be found everywhere in young people's lives today — safer environments, but greater anxiety. And for the same reasons — over-protective sheltering has disconnected the kid's inner view of the world, from the actual state of the world.

Your kid is decently less likely to come home from school with a black eye than he was 20-25 years ago, but they're way more stressed-out and fearful than teenagers were back then. "No problem," the parents assure us — just pump them full of mind-altering drugs to calm them down.

Two abominations do not cancel each other out, it just looks even more fucked-up. Some kid who lives in such a safe world, lumbering around like a lobotomy victim because without the drugs he'd feel overwhelmed by the stress of living in such a safe world.

But y'know, it's really no big deal if the kid is warped into a confused, stressed-out, zombie-like freak — at least the parents feel relaxed that their pet child is all under control. Helicopter parents continue their glib, self-righteous boasting about their adherence to "good clean family values," while producing an entire generation of abominations against nature.

Pity the children, and punish the parents.

* This is La Griffe du Lion's "method of thresholds." Convert the fraction who meet some criterion into a Z-score, for each group, and subtract the Z-scores to see how far apart the means are.

July 28, 2014

The liberal mind and stereotyping — aversion or inability? The case of gaydar

While browsing through the NY Post today, my eye was caught by a pic-and-blurb about reality star / model Kendall Jenner "being caught" getting flirty with NBA player Chandler Parsons.

I immediately detected gay face — over-smiling mouth and dead eyes — and concluded that she was serving as his beard. Not unlike the failed case of Taylor Swift and NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. A quick check on Google Images confirmed that Parsons shows gay face in all his pictures, and sports one form or another of the whooshy, hi-top fade / faux hawk hairdo that is found only among homosexuals in 2014.

Does it make any sense to say that Parsons is "in the closet"? If we mean that he is trying his best to keep all those gay-betraying signals from getting out, then no: from his facial expressions and hairdo, he's pretty openly gay. A closeted homo would be working with a trainer to control his mannerisms and hide his give-aways. However, if we mean that he has affirmed the proposition that he would prefer to catch AIDS from a dude rather than a chick, then yes, he is still in the closet.

This distinction between corporeal signals and logical propositions highlights one of the fundamental splits in human psychology — between the senses and reason. Sensory experience supplies enough "data points" for the intuitive lobe of the brain to detect patterns or stereotypes. No experience, no intuition. Abstract propositions and rules of inference and deduction allow the reasoning lobe to construct and analyze complex arguments — which may or may not have anything to do with reality.

A good thinker has both a wealth of experience to draw on for pattern detection, as well as a dexterous way with reasoning to articulate what he believes to have discovered, and to analyze what others believe to have discovered. More often than not, though, it seems like people are better suited to one or the other. Some have good intuition but cannot articulate it for others, or criticize the claims that others have arrived at. And some have good reasoning skills but too few data points stored in memory to draw a worthy pattern out from.

Intuitive folks are more like animals, who cannot reason very well but who can sniff out a rat, while rational folks are more like electronic calculators, which do not have rich senses of their own through which to collect experience, but are superb at building up and evaluating abstract propositions.

Unfortunately for cerebral human beings, though, they don't come pre-packaged with a basic set of truths from which further complex nestings of truths may be deduced. Universal and timeless truths may become innate through natural selection — such as "two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time" — but anything more interesting than that must be learned through the senses.

How does this psychological split relate to political differences? Recall this earlier post that reviewed some literature and presented more discussion on the finding that liberal brains are more emotionally blunted, while conservative brains are less powerful at reasoning.

They don't directly test the idea of liberals being less in-touch-with the world of the senses around them, but that's not a giant inferential leap to make. Emotions give our experiences an intensity that ensures they get stored in memory, and they color-code our experiences so that there's a rich variation to draw patterns out of. Without variation, there are no correlations. Yet without the high-octane proposition-nesting algorithms that formulate our thoughts and analyze the thoughts of others, much of this intuition remains tacit. (Thought not necessarily private — people may share intuitions if they've had similar experiences and have similar pattern-detection skills.)

The upshot: liberals are clueless, conservatives inarticulate.*

This leads us to ask whether liberals, who fall into an apoplectic fit when someone points out a stereotype that they don't like, are bristling at the stereotype whose kernel of truth they recognize but do not want to accept, or are instead perplexed at what esoteric chain of reasoning led to such a conclusion?

The former view rests on ideas about cognitive dissonance (alleviating or preventing it), and selective attention — don't notice data which would cohere into a pattern that would threaten your ideology. The latter view rests on the broader pattern of liberals being blind to the real-life, grassroots, face-to-face facts of the world around them — regardless of whether they would serve for or against their ideology.

Liberals want a quick argument for which they can form a quick evaluation. "Quick" may mean several days or a week to digest a book and put down their thoughts. But that's far less time and effort required than having to take in hundreds or thousands of data-points across all our years of experience.

Thus, how does the liberal mind react when presented with the claim that so-and-so is clearly gay — just look at his face and mannerisms, listen to his voice, and get a load of that hairdo. Utter astonishment. That is pure pattern-recognition, with no reasoning whatsoever. And knowledge of what gay-face looks like, what gay-voice sounds like, and how gay-hands flit about, is not included in that tiny set of innate ideas that would obviate the need for real-world experience.

The conservative could homoerotically claim that so-and-so "pinged my gaydar," whereas the liberal has a weak or non-existent gaydar to begin with. Hence, they are not arguing over whose gaydar is giving the more accurate reading. They begin at an impasse over the very style in which a debate, however brief, is going to proceed.

I wonder if the corporeal vs. cerebral difference is a better explanation for Jonathan Haidt's finding that conservatives understand liberal morality better than liberals understand conservative morality (and are unaware that they're clueless). His work shows that conservatives draw on five distinct moral frameworks, while liberals draw mostly on two of them. Conservative morality is a superset of liberal morality, and it is easier to dial down some switches that are already well built, than it is to build good switches when they have been absent for your entire life.

That works, but it still seems like the difference could just be another example of conservatives being more in tune with the world of the senses, and therefore having better pattern recognition. They not only have a better intuition about what "the typical liberal" is like, but what the typical anything is like. And liberals are not only clueless about what "the typical conservative" is like, but what the typical anything is like.

Cases like gaydar are the crucial pieces here. We could appeal to cognitive dissonance, etc., for why liberals would not want to notice how typical Mexicans behave, or how typical liberals think. But what about where it would score points for their own team? That is ideological ammunition left behind in the arsenal during a time of intense warfare — hence unseen.

Nothing hurts more, or is more damning, than the truth. So why do liberals make up "the typical conservative" out of whole cloth? Why not skewer them for what they are truly like? And why ignore the multitude of obvious homosexuals in contemporary popular culture, when these could be claimed to boost the coolness level of liberals? "See, even a star NFL quarterback is gay! See, even our era's Cary Grant — George Clooney — is gay!"

They certainly show a desire to claim all sorts of other historical stars as queer, though usually on wrongheaded and tone-deaf grounds. Their detection skills are so weak that they must rely primarily on evidence relating to the figure's sexual behavior, when so-and-so (say, Michelangelo) could just have easily been asocial, asexual, autistic / spergy, chaste, celibate, and so on. Not being a poon hound is a poor distinction between faggots and normal men. They never bother looking into accounts of Michelangelo's mannerisms, voice, facial expressions, etc., to see if he fit the profile of the typical queer. ("Profiling — does not compute.")

These separate lines of evidence point to the liberal mind — whether it votes Democrat or Republican — being unable rather than averse to forming stereotypes.

More importantly, it underscores the difficulty of debate and consensus between liberals and conservatives, as they have such trouble playing in the same ball park by the same set of rules. Conservatives favor pattern recognition, tacit values, and implicit understandings about what should be done. Liberals favor abstract reasoning, articulated values, and explicit conclusions about what should be done.

If we are to keep our country from blowing itself up — or at least, if we are to heal the wound once it is inevitably cut open — then we need to send representatives from each side who are the closest to speaking a common language and set of assumptions. That means conservatives (not Republican voters) who can score well on a test of verbal reasoning and reading comprehension, and liberals who can muster their sense of disgust while realtalking about the world around them.

That's what worked the last time there was a long period of status-striving and inequality that nearly blew up society, around the turn of the 20th century. It was the combined forces of the Progressive movement and the Temperance movement that finally leveled Gilded Age inequality and exploitation, and drained the swamp of fin-de-siecle decadence.

* When conservatives do deliver a memorable speech, it's more in the form of pointing out patterns in the physical world, and leaving the values and conclusions implicit. Note how free of abstractions or statements of values the following description is, even when they would fit in (like "welfare queen" instead of "20-year-old mom with four kids"). Here's pro baseball player John Rocker on what's wrong with New York City:

It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing... The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?

July 26, 2014

Harm-obsessed morality of helicopter parenting leaves liberals impotent to criticize it

From a recent comment, here is a post about a woman who got her 9 year-old child taken from her after she left her to play at a local park while the woman was working. The hosting website, xoJane, is some kind of lifestyle feminist place where 20 and 30-something women go to get themselves off on an orgy of not-judging-each-other.

The writer and her commenters share stories of how much less supervised their childhoods were (they appear to be late Gen X-ers), and how they could never bring their own kids up that way because of busybody parents around them, who would sick CPS on them if they let their kid play by themselves in the front yard. They didn't want to become helicopter parents -- they were peer-pressured and bullied into it.

Yet how do they argue back against the mainstream paranoia that says children are so fragile that they need 24-hour coddling or else baby holocaust? Like all good liberals, they share the moral framework that rests mostly on concerns about harm/care, and after that, fairness or equality of outcomes. (A review of the research on the different moral frameworks of liberals and conservatives can be found in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.)

The unwilling hoverers differ in claiming that the world is not as dangerous as the hyperbolic death trap imagined by the willing hoverers. Like Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids fame, they might cite statistics on the far greater risk of a child dying from a car crash vs. being murdered (kidnapped, molested, or other disgusting crime), and asking rhetorically if you are never going to let your kid ride in a car? Presumably not, so why shield your kid from a far less dangerous activity like playing for the afternoon at a neighborhood park, without you present?

Somehow, few hoverers have changed their minds after hearing this attempt to win a logical debate by appealing to rational concepts like transitivity and reductio ad absurdum. Not surprising: as Haidt emphasizes, our moral decisions come from intuition rather than reason. When we try to articulate why we made a certain moral judgment, we are fumbling for rationalizations after the fact, not trying to uncover what mix of intuitions gave rise to our moral hunch that something was right or wrong.

The parents who call CPS when you let your kid skateboard down the driveway with no helmet on, are not reasoning logically -- they just have a gut feeling that this poor child is being carelessly exposed to harm, and something must be done to rescue them. Hence, statistical evidence and logical reasoning will fall on deaf ears.

That only leaves liberals with their other, weaker framework for arguing the rightness or wrongness of an action -- fairness and equal outcomes. If a mother gets punished for leaving her kid at the park while working, this will result in a DISPARATE IMPACT on working mothers, poorer mothers, and mothers who are simply less emotionally attached to their kids. Given different parenting styles by race, this will also translate into a disproportionate share of black and Mexican mothers being the target of CPS.

The woman who inspired the whole discussion in the first place embodies all of these sacred victim groups in one person -- single, poor/working black mother whose preferred childcare arrangement had been to bring her daughter to work and hook her up to an IV of digital Benadryl for hours on end (laptop computer in a free WiFi zone). So many layers of injustice!

Yet most helicopter parents don't belong to a sacred victim group -- at best, "working women" or "single mothers." Hardly a male-to-female immigrant from Guatemala. Telling the parenting nazis to cool their jets because they're having a disparate impact on middle-class white women with jobs is just way too much of a stretch of the fairness principle.

Having exhausted the principles of harm/care and fairness/equality, the unwilling liberal hoverers have no other sticks with which to beat back the liberal paranoia that we call helicopter parenting, whether practiced by Democrat or Republican voters.

Rather, turning the tide against over-parenting will require a more conservative morality, which includes but extends beyond the two principles of liberals. Social-cultural conservatives (to distinguish them from Republican voters) also tap into intuitions about authority, in-group loyalty, and purity/sanctity/taboo, the last one being their most distinctive vis-a-vis liberals.

I'm not going to link to every post ever written here about the broader corrosion that helicopter parenting has led to -- see the "over-parenting" category tag over in the right-hand column. (And those are only the ones since I began using tags a couple years ago.) But all of those case studies and details can be distilled into the following points regarding the three additional conservative moral frameworks.

1. Helicopter parenting erodes parental authority by treating the children and parents more like peers, activity partners, and teammates, flattening out the hierarchy that exists between a caregiver and her charge, or a patron and his client. Permissiveness, a la Dr. Spock, is the rule, and corporal punishment comes under harsh suspicion. When children perceive their parents to be playing more of an egalitarian role, they don't allow them to raise their hand or boss them around -- none of us would allow our friends or teammates to do treat us that way. But it's not supposed to be that way between children and parents.

2. By hermetically sealing off the household from the broader community, whom they treat with indiscriminate suspicion, helicopter parents corrode the bonds that hold together social-cultural groups larger than the nuclear family.* As public gathering places are abandoned and guest/host interactions at the household level become rare, the sense of group membership becomes more cerebral, and hence more wispy and uncertain -- reduced to knowledge that we hold the same beliefs and follow the same practices as... well, y'know, the other people like us out there somewhere. Practices as simple as seeing the local mall all decorated for Christmastime, and hosting the neighborhood trick-or-treaters on Halloween, made our membership feel more corporeal and face-to-face -- and therefore more real, and more reassuring.**

3. Where to begin with the desecration wrought by helicopter parents? First, note that the very feeling of taboo in parenting disappears and is replaced by an engineering mindset asking which inputs result in which outcomes, with no "do not cross" boundaries set by taboos. Human beings are plainly not meant to be brought up cut off from social contact outside the nuclear family, and so will grow up warped and twisted rather than normal and wholesome. Not necessarily all the way out at the "abomination of nature" extreme, although more of the distribution does now reach out that far.

What cultural contacts the children are allowed to make require that the work be Bowdlerized -- sacrilege -- or had its purity watered down, or designed from the get-go to feel fake rather than organic. Worse, most of this diluted content-gruel is served up to them at a mass media trough, where the kids are parked in a state of vegetation for hours. (Search Google Images for "1950s kids television set," and marvel at how contemporary it looks to see the zombie-like trance of kids huddled no more than five feet from the TV, all to ease the anxiety that the smothering mother has about children playing outside unsupervised.) A good chunk of what they consume in private, with parents pretending not to notice, is lurid beyond belief -- the horror comics of the Midcentury and the gory and sociopathic video games of the Millennial era.

About the only case where helicopter parents show more, or any, interest in purity is in foisting an elaborate set of OCD hygiene rituals on the poor little dears. Both at home and, at least back in the '40s and '50s, at school through hygiene reel films. If anything, these superstitions appear to corrupt the child's health by preventing it from building up a tolerance to common stressors, as seen in the stereotypes of the sickly teenage nerd of the '60s (a stock character who seems to be missing from the '80s), as well as the Millennial who's allergic to everything.

I've dwelt at greater length on the theme of purity/sanctity/taboo because it is what most distinguishes liberal from conservative morality. Your typical liberal just does not get what's so wrong with a social and cultural climate that is warped, lurid, unnatural, and fake. "Whatever, I mean maybe it's like a little unfortunate to lose it, but it's not like there's something sacred about ____. The way we do things now is, like, way more convenient anyways." Glib and amoral attitudes carry the day.

Unfortunately things have to get pretty twisted in everyday life before the momentum halts and reverses direction. The social isolation in Nighthawks at the Diner did not look quite as dysfunctional as in Rebel Without a Cause or The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

I think I'm noticing more widespread second-guessing of the helicopter parent norm, especially among new parents, who were the movement's first victims (the Millennials). They're aware that one of their most defining traits is how socially awkward they are -- and even they sense on an intuitive level that there's something fucked up about an entire generation being awkward. "If only we'd had less social engineering when we were growing up!"

Gen X parents and observers understand this as well, but it doesn't hit home so hard when it's some other group who were socially lobotomized in childhood. You'd have to have more of a conscience to go against helicopter parenting as a Gen X-er. If you're a Millennial, undoing the hovering and meddling style is not just correcting some abstract or remote wrong, as though you were sending off a donation to a worthy cause. In your eyes, it's correcting a personal injustice -- one that you and your age-mates were the victims and survivors of.

Every generation focuses on and exaggerates the bad parts of its formative years, and vows to change the world one household at a time when they start raising a family of their own. Millennials may have had a permissive liberal upbringing, but I predict that when it's their turn as parents, they will take a turn toward re-establishing the child/parent hierarchy, encouraging the kids to get to know and become a part of the broader community, and aiming for organic development rather than artificial programming.

* Civic and political-economic groups can be held together at the grassroots level even during an age of cocooning / helicopter parenting, as during the '30s, '40s, and '50s. The waxing and waning of civic groups reflects the cycle in large-scale status-striving and inequality, not the separate cycle in interpersonal-scale cocooning and crime.

** In these respects, the helicopter parents are no different from the cocooning society that they are a facet of, although they do tend to have an even more paranoid mindset since they have children to protect from the community, and not just themselves.

July 24, 2014

Gay-themed music groups found highest success in the homophobic 1980s

An earlier post about how the all-female band was undone by '90s feminism got me thinking along the same lines with queers in pop music. Seems like every other synthpop group in the '80s had a gay singer, not necessarily one who was out at the time -- well before the movie Philadelphia, sassy gay TV characters, pride parades, and Heathers-esque hysteria about gay teen suicide. Back then, the popular view of homos was sexual deviants, child molesters, and spreaders of AIDS. (How much the culture has forgotten, so quickly.)

Wikipedia has a category page for LGBT-themed musical groups. What counts as gay-"themed"? The talk page says that they must have at least one gay member who was out at their peak of popularity, and was portrayed that way to the audience. This would leave out Queen but include the Village People. I'm going with this list because we can't infer that the audience was either tolerant of or willing to give a pass to a group with some gay members, unless they were out.

Still, I'm going to exclude three major groups whose homo members were not obviously out, in the audience's mind -- Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Right Said Fred. (Willing to be corrected on that, though.) Including them would only strengthen the overall pattern below, so if anything the analysis understates how successful the gay groups were in the '80s.

First an overview of the groups who charted in the top 40 to 50 on the American or UK charts. If I couldn't tell whether the gay members were out or not at their peak, there's a question mark before their name.

Disco-Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes
Tom Robinson Band
Village People

Bronski Beat
Culture Club
Man 2 Man

? 2wo Third3
Army of Lovers
? Indigo Girls
Kitchens of Distinction

Scissor Sisters

Scissor Sisters
Tegan and Sara

Now let's look at the number of songs in each period. I'm using the UK charts now since most of these groups were big only or primarily in Britain. The following songs cracked the top 20. (Year, group name, song name, highest chart ranking.)

74 Disco-Tex... "Get Dancin'" (8)
75 Disco-Tex... "I Wanna Dance Wit' Choo..." (6)
77 Tom Robinson Band "2-4-6-8 Motorway" (5)
78 Tom Robinson Band "Glad to Be Gay" (18)
78 Village People "Y.M.C.A." (1)
79 Village People "In the Navy" (2)
79 Village People "Go West" (15)

82 Culture Club "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (1)
82 Culture Club "Time (Clock of the Heart)" (3)
82 Culture Club "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" (9 US)
83 Culture Club "Church of the Poison Mind" (2)
83 Culture Club "Karma Chameleon" (1)
83 Culture Club "Victims" (3)
84 Bronski Beat "Smalltown Boy" (3)
84 Bronski Beat "Why?" (6)
84 Bronski Beat "It Ain't Necessarily So" (16)
84 Culture Club "Miss Me Blind" (5 US)
84 Culture Club "It's a Miracle" (4)
84 Culture Club "The War Song" (2)
85 Bronski Beat "I Feel Love (Medley)" (3)
86 Bronski Beat "C'Mon! C'Mon!" (20)
86 Culture Club "Move Away" (7)
87 Man 2 Man "Male Stripper" (4)

95 2wo Third3 "I Want the World" (20)
97 Placebo "Nancy Boy" (4)
97 Placebo "Bruise Pristine" (14)
98 Culture Club "I Just Wanna Be Loved" (4)
98 Placebo "Pure Morning" (4)
98 Placebo "You Don't Care About Us" (5)
99 Placebo "Every You Every Me" (11)

00 Placebo "Taste in Men" (16)
00 Placebo "Slave to the Wage" (19)
03 Placebo "The Bitter End" (12)
03 Scissor Sisters "Laura" (12)
04 Placebo "Twenty Years" (18)
04 Scissor Sisters "Comfortably Numb" (10)
04 Scissor Sisters "Take Your Mama" (17)
04 Scissor Sisters "Mary" (14)
05 Scissor Sisters "Filthy/Gorgeous" (5)
06 Gossip "Standing in the Way of Control" (7)
06 Placebo "Because I Want You" (13)
06 Scissor Sisters "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" (1)
06 Scissor Sisters "Land of a Thousand Words" (18)

10 Scissor Sisters "Fire with Fire" (11)
12 Scissor Sisters "Only the Horses" (12)
14 Tegan and Sara "Everything Is Awesome" (17)

There are 7 hits from the '70s, 16 from the '80s, 7 from the '90s, 13 from the 2000s, and 3 so far from the 2010s. Not only does the '80s lead, it features the only all-gay band, Bronski Beat. The peak is more like the early-to-mid '80s, not the mid-to-late '80s as we saw with all-female bands.

Now let's apply an even more selective filter -- songs that made the top 10 on the Billboard charts here in faggot-hatin' Amurrica. More or less, disco plus dance-y synthpop from the early MTV days.

74 Disco-Tex... "Get Dancin'" (10)
78 Village People "Y.M.C.A." (2)
79 Village People "In the Navy" (3)

82 Culture Club "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (2)
82 Culture Club "Time (Clock of the Heart)" (2)
82 Culture Club "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" (9)
83 Culture Club "Church of the Poison Mind" (10)
83 Culture Club "Karma Chameleon" (1)
84 Culture Club "Miss Me Blind" (5)

Ideologues must find it hard to believe that a band fronted by a flaming transvestite homosexual garnered six top 10 hits during the administration of a president who TURNED HIS BACK ON AIDS. And worse than that, the society-wide pat on the head of the homo "community" was not reflected in pop music tastes of the '90s and after.

Back in the '80s, even flamers like Boy George had to appeal to normal audiences who weren't brainwashed by "just like us" propaganda. What a revelation -- people prefer listening to a singer who's a fag than a fag who's a singer.

Bonus exercise for the reader: spot all the gay Peter Pan-isms on display by singer Jimmy Somerville in the music video for "Don't Leave Me This Way" by the Communards (he was also the singer for Bronski Beat).

July 23, 2014

Will creepshots erode the demand for exploitative pornography?

A comment I left on this Uncouth Reflections post/debate about "creepshots" -- pictures taken of girls in perfectly public places, without their knowledge, and possibly shared digitally:

Someone should troll the feminist sites, along the lines of creepshots being a blessing in disguise — with creepshots easily and freely available to young males, the demand for pornography will dry up, and so put an end to mankind’s most patriarchally exploitative rape industry.

From the comments at Jizzabel, they seem to think the opposite — that creepshots are not a substitute for porn, but a separate vice of getting off on violating a girl’s privacy / consent without her even knowing. They glibly conclude that this is the obvious motivation, since otherwise they’d just be watching porn.

It never occurs to them that maybe the creepshot takers and consumers are turned off by tattooed sluts, feel pathetic relying on fake paid women to jerk off to, can’t tune out the fact that the women are broken screw-ups and feel dirty watching them, are turned off by vileness, don’t feel like hearing “actresses” shouting fake orgasms like retards and taking them out of the mood, prefer a little mystery (identity and clothing-wise) to remain surrounding the girls they’re jerking off to, or any other number of reasons why they’d substitute creepshots for porn.

When you think about what their alternatives are now, and have been recently, the creepshot phenomenon looks more like a turn back in the wholesome direction. More like a high schooler pointing out to his friends the chick who’s bending over her desk, than the sad isolated middle-aged bachelor fapping to Throatfuckers 27 HD.

July 20, 2014

How weird is too weird? Degrees of unfamiliarty among fantasy, surrealism, and psychedelia

A post at Uncouth Reflections on the surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky got me thinking about why some types of "weird" or cult classic movies work better than others.

I can't speak about his movies since I haven't seen them, although I did look through tons of stills of his most acclaimed ones. What follows is just some off-the-cuff thoughts on why movies like Jodorowsky's have remained more cult than classic, compared to The Shining, Videodrome, or Blue Velvet, for example.

It seems to come down to a form of sensory overload, or weirdness overload. Perhaps a typology will help.

In trying to present something weird, unusual, etc. to the audience, or to work them into a disoriented, unnerved, altered state of consciousness, there are two classes that the artist can target to weird-ify: 1) people, places / settings, and things (the "elements"); and 2) the rules that govern the behavior of those elements, both by themselves and interacting with each other (the "laws").

We can make one of those nifty 2-by-2 tables to categorize the four different types possible.

1. Neither the elements nor the rules are weird. Nothing to see here in terms of the unusual, then. Call this pure naturalism.

2. The elements are clearly unfamiliar -- an ice planet, a half-man half-wolf, artifacts unknown to us -- although the laws governing how they all interact seem familiar enough. Call this fantasy.

3. The elements seem familiar, but both on their own and especially as they relate to each other, they just seem to be following a slightly unfamiliar set of natural laws. But following a set of laws nonetheless -- not behaving randomly. Call this surrealism.

4. The elements are distorted, not-too-recognizable, or just plain weird, and the laws of behavior (alone and interacting) appear to have come from another planet as well. Call this psychedelia.

The easiest to achieve is fantasy -- Star Wars being the most famous example of a movie whose "laws" are as old as time, albeit involving creatures, environments, and technology that we've never seen before. Our minds know that we haven't seen everything under the sun, so we don't get so shocked or disoriented by encountering new, even weird elements, as long as they behave as they should according to what kind of thing they are.

Surrealism is much more difficult to pull off. You have to walk a thin line between making the laws governing the elements seem weird enough, but still following some logic. Otherwise it just looks like a tornado is tossing the elements around randomly. The performers are also tempted to make the familiar elements behave, well, in their familiar way.

Which is harder for an actor -- to play a typical avenger role while wearing a wolfman costume in an ice planet setting, or playing a normal-looking person who shows a disturbingly odd reaction to what you'd think would elicit a revenge motive in a normal person? And again, not just some randomly different reaction -- something that seemed to be following a logic, only one that you can't immediately understand.

The human mind expects natural laws to apply everywhere and every time, whether the elements that they govern be familiar, exotic, or fantastic. But for those laws to be replaced by a different set? That disrupts our sense of laws being permanent, unlike the elements, which are regularly coming into and going out of existence.

Surrealism may be hard, but when the director and performers get to psychedelia, it's just too weird for the human mind. Our brain needs to ground itself somewhere, and if both the elements and the laws are from outer space, we can't get hooked, can't get into it. Most folks will just tune out or shut off the movie, while others will attempt to study the weirdness at a formal distance. Perhaps tripping on hallucinogens would help the viewer get into a psychedelic movie for the whole ride, and audiences after the early '70s just don't know what they're missing.

Perhaps, but I'm not going to risk psychosis to find out.

Artists whose formal or thematic focus includes altered states of consciousness are usually interested in the brain and psychology. The psychedelics ought to have foreseen that their approach would result in a kind of sensory overload, with little that was familiar to anchor the mind. Or maybe this would have been hard for us to predict as well, if we had been in their place, and we're just enjoying hindsight.

In that case, their experiments in art proved valuable in figuring out how the human mind works: there is such a thing as too weird, and we can even pinpoint which variable is more tolerant of being made unfamiliar, and which takes much greater intuition and skill to make weird.

July 19, 2014

Taylor Swift believed a sham gay boyfriend could truly fall in love with her, and a speculation about Promise Rings

Closeted homosexual quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been looking to protect his reputation with his conservative fan base by shopping around for a "beard" — a sham girlfriend who will give him a normal, even ladies-man reputation. This item from Blind Gossip mentions that Taylor Swift was an early option for Rodgers, both of whom appeared for photo ops to float the idea of them as a couple.

Nothing unusual about beards and homos in the entertainment industry, but what's striking about Swift's story is that she had begun telling her friends that she thought or hoped that eventually her fake gay boyfriend might start to actually fall for her. The woman who Rodgers' team ultimately opted for, late Gen X-er Olivia Munn, had no illusions about gay men falling for women.

Swift's delusion reveals two major changes in the psychology of young women over the past 20-odd years.

First, the Millennial generation that Swift belongs to, and speaks on behalf of, has been so socially isolated by helicopter parents and yet so propagandized by the mainstream media and the educational establishment that "queers are normal just like us," that a 25 year-old female could be so pathetically clueless as to think that one of them would have a change of heart... er, change of cock? Whatever. They are that out-of-touch, and rely primarily or exclusively on the media to tell them how the real world works. Young women in the '80s sought to become savvy and streetwise, not naive and stunted.

Second, the ideal relationship for Millennial girls is shown to be one where the non-boyfriend will "fall for" the girl, i.e. shower her with attention and make her feel desirable, while expecting and asking nothing in return from her physically — perhaps even feeling averse to the very thought of it. Maximum ego-inflation, and zero putting-out? — awesome sauce! Back in the '80s, girls were more boy-crazy, and put at least equal weight on getting it on as on getting attention.

Now that I think about it, this may be what's underlying the whole "Christian dating" / Promise Ring phenomenon. The guy is supposed to be getting nothing physically, or not very much at any rate. Nothing wrong with that, if it's part of a larger religious lifestyle of chastity and modesty. But is the girl being denied by him as well — denied the attention, flattery, etc., that is meant to puff up her pride and vanity about how desirable she is?

My impression is that the girl is still getting plenty of attention and ego-inflation lavished upon her, and gets to feel the thrilling rush of desirability on a regular basis. (Remember that this is what the average female wants most — to feel desirable, not to feel a man's body.) This undercuts the argument that this phenomenon is a counter-trend to the broader zeitgeist. Rather, it is just another example of girls having their egos inflated, which corrupts their character, while the dude gets jack in return. Only there's a veneer of Christian / religious respectability to it.

I don't think this fig leaf is there only for moralizing to non-Christians. Most of them live in fairly religious regions, and there's little point when you're a teenager or young adult to moralistically antagonize your enemies in a different part of the country. Instead, the rationalization is meant to make female ego-inflation palatable to religious males — the non-boyfriend, both sets of parents, and the menfolk in the wider community. "Not to worry, Daddy — why would I put out when he's already puffing up my pride for free?"

July 17, 2014

Hovering parents give children short attention spans

Millennials and small children these days have the attention span of a fly. Yet kids were more comfortable just being at ease, perhaps having nothing much to do, back in the '80s. As boring as the day may have seemed, something was bound to come along and make things engaging again. That's the natural rhythm of human interactivity. Or even when you're playing by yourself -- sometimes there's a lull in your imagination, then it picks up again.

It's like eating to satiate your appetite. Most of the day you're not-so-hungry, then there are a handful of times when your stomach starts growling, and hence only a handful of times when you devote special attention to satisfying your hunger with a proper meal. Craving nearly constant stimulation ("entertainment" AKA distraction) is like jonesing for a snack every five minutes, and is a sign of malnutrition since no person can thrive on snacks alone.

Kids who grew up after the Midcentury heyday of Dr. Spock -- and before his resurrection under helicopter parents -- learned this natural rhythm from not being constantly attended to by their parents, other adults, or even their peers. In a climate where folks are treated more equally, rather than children being the center of the universe, there were good stretches of time when whoever you wanted attention from would be otherwise occupied.

With helicopter parents cocooning their children in the home for their entire upbringing, they never learn the rhythm that comes from trying to set something up with their peers. Y'know, sometimes your best friend is home, and sometimes he isn't. Sometimes they're available to talk on the phone, sometimes they aren't. Peers and friends don't place you at the center of the universe, so you gradually learn humility, compromise, and patience -- rather than remain stuck toddler-like with arrogance, stubbornness, and impatience. By preventing contact with peers, helicopter parents have shut off this pathway toward social and emotional development.

The same goes for unrelated adults, not that a kid has many opportunities to interact with them. Still, you go to ask a shop clerk a question, and they might be busy for a few minutes. You go by yourself to a fast food place, and you can't just whine and shout your way to the front of the line, or get the workers to speed up your order. Children who are locked indoors have no experiences like these: they scream "Jump!" and their parents say "How high?!"

More important for children of a bubble-wrap generation are the interactions with their helicopter parents. Such parents want to keep their kids constantly stimulated, whether passively soaking up mass media content or actively participating in activities (around the home or one of the many that they're shuttled to and from).

It needs to be emphasized that even if the parents shut off the TV, DVD, video games, internet, etc., they are still at their kids' beck and call. They respond right away to complaints of boredom, have back-up lists of dozens of activities they can "entertain" their kid with, and generally aim to fill up 100% of the kid's free time with activity.

What other outcome is possible than a mind that expects to be doing something, always?

I think it's that mindset that drives their adoption and excessive use of digital distractions like "feed" websites and "leveling-up" video games. Gen X is fine walking around with nothing in particular to do, hence we do not lock our heads down into smartphone mode the second we step foot outside (or inside for that matter).

I know, we should be more understanding of helicopter parents -- they're only trying to make up for the unsupervised childhoods that they had, and want their own kids to be attended to more closely.

So, if the parents had grown up in lean times, we'd forgive them for stuffing their kids with starch and sugar to fatten them up, as part of a continual regimen of eating-eating-eating? No, we'd say, "Look, we know food was scarce when you were little, but get a grip -- look at how your fanatic over-reaction is warping these children."

What strand of common sense leads these parents to believe that constant activity and being the constant center of attention will be good for their social and emotional growth? Seeking constant stimulation in order to alleviate boredom moment-by-moment is like masturbating all day long instead of just going for a roll in the hay a few times.

When mass hysteria goes so hard against common sense, it's tough to cut the parents some slack "based on how they grew up." If they were only providing more supervision than they'd received, fair enough. But their obsessive-compulsive extreme is not a mere correction back to normal, it's throwing things farther outta-whack than they ever were before.

For better or worse, the Millennials will someday have kids of their own, and they'll have the opposite parental impulse -- let the kids roam around and get into a little mischief ("like I wish I could have!"). A good chunk of roaming-around time, though, isn't very engaging or exciting. Only when they are allowed more unstructured free time will they learn to cope with boredom and come to realize that the whole rest of the world is not at their beck and call.

July 14, 2014

The all-female band died from '90s feminism and cocooning

You are probably starting to hear louder and more desperate attempts to make that whole '90s revival happen, but it ain't happenin'. Way too lame of a decade.

One of the major exhibits that's always brought out to establish the politically correct bona fides of the Nineties is the so-called surge of the girl bands, such as L7 and Luscious Jackson, and mostly-girl bands like Elastica and Hole.

This was an obviously bogus argument at the time, and has only gotten more shameful 20 years later. The peak of female bands was back in the good old 1980s, while during the '90s the format was in fact in steep decline, and is non-existent today. (Data and analysis to follow below.)

How can that be, when the Eighties were more macho and gung-ho than the Nineties, which -- so the feminist theory goes -- should have scared off or crowded out women more so than during the decade of meek and mopey? Dial down the testosterone level, and women will feel more comfortable stepping forward and taking part, right? Wrong.

Women produce testosterone, too, and it makes them feel confident, too. When T-levels fell off a cliff during the wussification of the '90s, they were still high enough for guys to continue working in teams to make music -- just not nearly as well as in the '80s, when the rising-crime climate had average people in a higher state of arousal. But since women start with much lower levels -- even when they're relatively high -- a decent drop will leave just about all of them below the threshold necessary to play in a real band. (Unserious and unknown bands that exist only to indulge the feminist vanity of the performers, do not count.)

Along with confidence, you need trust to hold a band together. Folks in outgoing times are more trusting -- otherwise they would isolate themselves like they do in cocooning times. Social groups among women are harder to hold together than a guys-only group, not because there's no drama or fighting among men, but because we trust that we can make amends and move on, while women are more likely to perceive drama as "dealbreaker" events, burn their bridges, and cut their losses. So, when trust levels fell during the '90s, it left far many more women below the threshold for holding together a group of genetically unrelated people.

This is the greatest and least remarked-on irony of the past 20-some years -- that the feminization of society has made it nearly impossible for women to accomplish something impressive in popular culture.

Now onto a look at the cold hard facts, which you aren't going to read about in some puff piece about how the '90s were da bomb (...NOT!).

I'm ignoring girl groups and sticking with bands because playing instruments requires more skill than just singing. I'm also sticking with female-only bands to make the interpretation unambiguous; if I included mostly-female or female-fronted bands, you wouldn't know what the relative mix was over time. Wikipedia has a category page for all-female bands, most of which are wishful thinking and vainglory for the feminazi editors, but which do contain many legit examples.

As for pop culture visibility and resonating with the average person, I'm judging by the Billboard and UK charts. The band had to have at least one hit in the top 40 or 50. What particular chart didn't matter too much, but not an obscure one. Top 40, Mainstream Rock, Modern / Alternative Rock, Country, etc. I looked up the chart success on the discography entry for the band, or if there was none, from scanning through their main page.

Here are the all-female bands who enjoyed some level of chart success (as defined), by the decade that their singles were released in. Bands are listed only once, no matter how many hits they had.


Belle Stars / Bodysnatchers
Calamity Jane
Coyote Sisters
Wendy & Lisa
We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It
Wild Rose

Babes in Toyland
Dixie Chicks
Drain STH
Indigo Girls
Luscious Jackson



Wow, zero bands from the '60s. Hardly any from the '70s either, just two. The peak of 11 is where everyone who isn't brainwashed should expect it to be, in the '80s. Then it's all downhill from there: 8 in the '90s, 3 in the 2000s, and 1 from the 2010s so far.

Let's set the bar a little higher. A clueless person might think that those groups from the '80s were just a series of tokens, while the real chart-toppers blew up in the '90s. Here are those that scored a top 20 hit on the main chart (not a genre chart) of either the US or UK. And now let's list them by songs to show just how enduring the success of the earlier groups used to be, spanning three or four calendar years. Each line has the year, band name, song name, and highest chart rank (US if blank, UK if specified). Again they are separated by decade to make the pattern jump out.

78 Clout "Substitute" (2 UK)

81 Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed" (20)
81 Go-Go's "We Got the Beat" (2)
82 Go-Go's "Vacation" (8)
82 Belle Stars "The Clapping Song" (11 UK)
83 Belle Stars "Sign of the Times" (3 UK)
84 Go-Go's "Head Over Heels" (11)
85 Klymaxx "I Miss You" (5)
86 Bangles "Manic Monday" (2)
86 Bangles "Walk Like an Egyptian (1)
86 Klymaxx "Man Size Love" (15)
87 Bangles "Walking Down Your Street" (11)
87 Bangles "Hazy Shade of Winter" (2)
87 Klymaxx "I'd Still Say Yes" (18)
88 Bangles "In Your Room" (5)
89 Bangles "Eternal Flame" (1)
89 Belle Stars "Iko Iko" (14)
89 We've Got... "International Rescue" (11 UK)
89 We've Got... "Pink Sunshine" (14 UK)

99 Thunderbugs "Friends Forever" (5 UK)
99 Hepburn "I Quit" (8 UK)
99 Hepburn "Bugs" (14 UK)

00 Hepburn "Deep Deep Down" (16 UK)
00 Dixie Chicks "Goodbye Earl" (13)
07 78violet "Potential Breakup Song" (17)

13 Haim "The Wire" (16 UK)

Now things are looking even worse for the supposedly women-empowering Nineties. That decade had merely 3 big hits, and all are British-only hits. It's just as sparse in the 2000s, and so far there's only 1 hit in the 2010s. Just 1 hit remains from the '70s. And then there's the reliable Eighties to give us 18 positive role models for songs performed by women-only bands. You can also see a peak more in the later part of the '80s, when cocooning had reached its minimum (and so, just before the whole society would change direction circa 1990).

Let's raise the bar higher still, and make the dominance of the '80s unambiguous. Below is every song by an all-female band that was a top 10 hit in the US. (Not coincidentally, the bands are all from the L.A. area, back when California was more conservative, and not from the liberal bastions of the Upper Midwest and the East Coast.)

81 Go-Go's "We Got the Beat" (2)
82 Go-Go's "Vacation" (8)
85 Klymaxx "I Miss You" (5)
86 Bangles "Manic Monday" (2)
86 Bangles "Walk Like an Egyptian (1)
87 Bangles "Hazy Shade of Winter" (2)
88 Bangles "In Your Room" (5)
89 Bangles "Eternal Flame" (1)

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It's an attempt to measure women's independence from men in movies. A pretty bad attempt, but I think it would work better in a short medium like pop songs.

We already have groups of women who have a recognizable name and perform together. Of the elite songs listed just above, which ones are not primarily about boy-girl relationships? "We Got the Beat," "Manic Monday," "Walk Like an Egyptian," and "Hazy Shade of Winter." One of these four was also written by the band themselves -- "We Got the Beat." The Bangles did co-write most of their hits, but these three were by outside songwriters.

Funny -- it's almost as though not beating women over the head with feminist guilt allows them to live and behave like natural human beings, and to write and perform songs that are about topics other than boys. Once there is such a self-conscious feminist cocooning impulse, then the focus shifts to boys only -- sometimes as part of the usual boy-girl song, sometimes as part of the new self-aware "Independent Woman" song. But you aren't going to hear something that's not self-consciously not-about-boys, like "Manic Monday," that anyone can relate to.

It may sound obvious after discovering it, but let's repeat that point: outgoing people's music is easy for the audience to relate to, while cocooners' music is bland, distancing, and harder to relate to -- and in both cases, by design.

And yet, as socially and emotionally avoidant as the climate may have become by now, women, being naturally more fearful, have withdrawn much farther into their cocoons than men have. And that makes all the difference in playing a role where you're meant to break through and connect with a broad audience.

As any strip club performance will show, there need be no emotional connection with the audience for a woman to parade herself around and soak up free attention. That's about all that is left in a women's culture that is so profoundly afraid of men. Female bands have vanished, and in their place are the quasi-strippers and pseudo-sluts that make up "girl groups" and "strong independent singers" nowadays.

We've heard a lot from lefty circles about how the mass media disseminates frightening images and messages in order to create a "culture of fear," the better to paralyze the populace and sap away their "agency." Well, what do they have to say about the widespread hysteria stoked by feminists about how all men are crypto-date-rapists, and hence you can only be safe by keeping apart from them? That has paralyzed women into holing up inside their domestic prisons all day long, on the one hand, and removed the "agency" of the counter-minority whose imaginary empowerment comes from strutting their stuff to get a rise out of men.

Hardly the outcome that the feminazi propagandists envisioned, is it? That's what happens when you get arrogant and fuck around with something that's already working well. Women were already competent and confident back in the '80s -- how exactly was becoming frightened of everyone, everything, and every place going to improve on that? But then you can't expect hysterical ideologues to really be thinking any of this through, down the line.

Now let's end on a more pleasant reminder of the good old days.

Competent, confident, engaging, curious, revealing, fun-loving, and tender.

July 12, 2014

In wholesome graffiti, families have replaced peer groups as the participants

I went for a stroll around the old neighborhood today, keeping an eye out as usual for signs of what's going wrong in the world nowadays.

In an earlier post, I covered the rise and fall of wet cement carvings -- a harmless rite of passage for 10-15 year-olds. I look for this stuff almost anywhere I'm walking and have the time to browse around my surroundings. I wouldn't change anything from that original post, but have noticed further patterns in the meantime.

One is that, in this domain as well, we see the nuclear family replacing the peer group as the only social unit for young people, as cocooners distrust everyone beyond close genetic relatives. I found a very rare sidewalk carving from the current decade (2011), right in front of a suburban house. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the names and handprints of the family that lived there -- two names were noticeably more out-of-date-sounding and were next to two much larger handprints.

In the good old days, it was a group of friends, a couple, or an individual who happened upon the wet cement alone. Siblings were nowhere to be seen -- let alone their friggin' parents. Now that the parents have fenced their kids off from all the other kids in the community, the only possible group that will leave a memento in wet cement is a nuclear family.

It also feels like, even if our parents had brought the wet cement to our attention and encouraged us to carve our names, they would not have taken part themselves. They understood that it was a rite of passage for children, hence something that grown-ups were forbidden from. The family's sidewalk carving is not a rite of passage for a peer group, but an expression of family togetherness, and of all activities needing to be "for the whole family" -- thereby precluding any rite of passage specifically for the young ones.

About 10 minutes away, there is a park at a former Boys & Girls Club (itself on the site of a former elementary school). I was checking all over for recent graffiti, coming up empty-handed, until I spied something on the top of the backrest for a bench -- not a typical spot to leave your mark on. There were nine names, followed by the phrase "oldest to youngest." Definitely not a peer group -- what social group would contain both a Jessica and a Jenny, alongside a Gabby and an Ada?

The two oldest were female names, so that ruled out the parents from being present. Still, it was a group of siblings -- not friends -- who wanted to memorialize their group identity by leaving their names in a public space.

(I suppose the oldest name could've been the single mother of eight children, but the phrase "oldest to youngest" makes it sound like they all come from a group where ages may vary. The parent is obviously way older, hence would sound weird to be specified as the "oldest.")

No date was left with that one, but since "Ada" isn't even in the top 1000 most common baby names until 2004, I'm guessing this is another rare example that has been left within the past 5 years.

July 11, 2014

Suburban woods reverting to overgrown jungles -- an effect of cocooning?

When I've visited home the past several years, I've been amazed at how overgrown the woods are around suburban Washington, DC. I started playing around or trekking through these woods in the mid-1990s, so I know them pretty well -- at least I thought I did.

Many paths have shrubs and saplings blocking their entrance and obstructing the way off-and-on along the rest of the course. The only exception is paths that are paved. There is so much underbrush sprawling in all directions that there are hardly any more clearings to be found. Not to mention a number of invasive species that would have been totally unfamiliar just 20 years ago.

With so much overgrowth and so few human beings tramping around, there are now deer thriving in spots just behind suburban parks. And they've become so settled-in that they don't startle and run off when they see a person nearby. Twenty years ago, you had to travel farther back into the woods to see deer; now you can spy them from a playground in a residential area.

I would've taken pictures, but that would only be useful if I had similar pictures from the '80s or early '90s to compare them with. Nothing much comes up on Google Images, though. For lack of a closer comparison, then, let's take a look at the woods as they appear in two horror films, a genre that loves to shoot on location. The first is from Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), the second from The Lashman (2014), a movie that turned up when I searched for "friday the 13th woods," and which is an attempt to shoot an '80s slasher flick in the 2010s.

Granted, the two shots are not from the same spot in the same woods, may have been filmed in different seasons, and so on. But all the memorable wooded scenes from movies of the '70s and '80s look walkable -- Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Swamp Thing, The Princess Bride, Heathers, and so on and so forth. They're just how I remember them, and the shot from The Lashman and other candid pictures from Google Images look just like my neck of the woods today.

The simplest explanation seems to be that in a climate of cocooning, people have abandoned the woods as one of those public spaces that they visit every now and then. Each person has a small effect on tramping down the underbrush and knocking twigs, branches, and shrubs out of their way, but cumulatively the effect is huge -- carving out entire paths and clearings in what would otherwise be a hostile habitat.

When I've gone out to the woods these days, I've never seen another person back there who was wandering off of the paved path. At most you see folks walking, jogging, biking, or walking their dog along the official bike path. So even when cocooners do visit the woods, they are still paranoid and fearful of what lurks just 10 to 20 feet away from the officially designated path.

In an earlier post I mentioned another clear sign of how the woods have been abandoned over the past 20-odd years -- the decline in tree carvings (which usually carry dates), and the sparse amount of litter from recent compared to earlier years. Close to the official paths, you can still find current-day beverage cans and plastic wrappers, but once you go off the beaten path, you are only going to find glass Coke bottles, rusted cans, pull tabs, narrow-mouth openings, old logos, and long defunct brands like Schlitz, Stroh's, and Nehi.

July 9, 2014

German national soccer team from the hills and mountains -- an influence of pastoralism?

Not being a soccer fan at all, my basic picture of which countries dominate the sport is the Mediterranean and its off-shoots in Latin America. But Germany has one of the best records in the World Cup. How does that fit into the big picture?

When Germany joins with the Mediterranean more than Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, it must really be a fact about Western and Southern Germany, not Northern or Eastern. Recall this original post on the great civilizational fault-line that runs through Europe, separating the hilly and mountainous regions from those of the Great European Plain.

Western and Southern Germany are Catholic like the Mediterranean, while Northern Germany is Protestant like Scandinavia, and Eastern Germany is increasingly de facto godless like the Balto-Slavic Plains. Also recall this post showing that Eastern Germany has historically been more (Balto-)Slavic than Germanic.

So let's take a look at the roster of their 2014 World Cup team. Of 17 ethnic Germans, only 2 were born in the North, and 0 in the East. (There are also 2 Poles from Silesia.) In contrast, 5 were born in the South, and 10 in the West.* This does not map onto the size of the population in each state. Rather, there is something about hailing from the Western and Southern regions -- and it's probably not the Catholic church.

Hilly and mountainous areas tend to be favored by on-the-move livestock herders more than sedentary farmers. (The farmers squat on the low-lying fertile plains, and the herders have nowhere to go but up.) This hunch is supported by the ethnic backgrounds of the German players who aren't from the general area. One is Albanian and another Turkish, both from the mountainous region of Southeastern Europe. Another is half-Tunisian and half-German (I couldn't find out where in Germany that parent is from), and Tunisia is another mountainous pastoralist region of the Mediterranean. Another is half-German (I couldn't tell where that parent is from) and half-Ghanaian. West Africa is generally less pastoralist than Eastern Africa, although there are a good deal of herders and milk-drinkers in the West as well.

Also, Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe failed to qualify for the World Cup to begin with. Tiny little Alpine Switzerland out-performed all of Mother Russia. Nords and Slavs dominate those strongman competitions where the goal is to re-enact the daily tasks of Conan the Barbarian.

What about pastoralism selects for good soccer players? Beats me, since I haven't given the sport any thought since elementary school. It does seem like more of an endurance sport -- all that constant jogging around -- and mobile pastoralists are going to be better at that than farmers who only need to stoop over a small plot of land all day long, day-in and day-out. (Hence the absence of Chinese soccer players.) See this earlier post about pastoralism and endurance sports.

I think being constantly vigilant is another big factor -- herders need to be on alert for anything that might run off with their livestock, whether an animal predator or a human rustler. Is the soccer ball like a member of your flock that you're steering along a course, and the opposing players are rustlers trying to drive your property away from you, and you then have to be vindictive enough to chase them down and get it back, rather than cut your losses or rely on a central authority to go get it for you? Soccer as ritualized cattle raid.

If there is an influence of pastoralism, it wouldn't be the more nomadic kind. We don't see Ethiopians and Kenyans dominating soccer like they do distance running, where we see selection for being on-the-move for a long time. Nor do Central Asians rank very highly.

The type of pastoralism practiced among the soccer nations way back when was transhumance, not nomadism. They roamed around a decent amount each day, but they did have something like a "home base" for days, weeks, and sometimes months. Over the course of the year, they'd move toward more favorable areas -- mountains in summer and valleys in winter -- but it was not like the constant meandering around with no particular destination in mind that the nomadic pastoralists practice.

There's more to look into here, but this exhausts my interest in soccer.

* Here is the list of the player's birth state and name. The non-Germans and half-Germans are listed below.

Bav, Goetze
Bav, Lahm
Bav, Mueller
Bav, Schweinsteiger
B-W, Ginter
R-P, Durm
R-P, Schuerrle
R-P, Weidenfeller
NR-W, Draxler
NR-W, Grosskreutz
NR-W, Hoewedes
NR-W, Hummels
NR-W, Kramer
NR-W, Neuer
NR-W, Zieler

L.Sax, Mertesacker
M-V, Kroos

Boateng - Berlin, Ghanaian / German
Mustafi - Hesse, Albanian
Khedira - B-W, Tunisian / German
Klose - Polish
Ozil - NR-W, Turkish
Podolski - Polish

July 7, 2014

Kids today not excited by games and toys, as helicopter parents forbid play (a field report)

During a day-long excursion with my 6 year-old nephew yesterday, I decided to take him to Toys R Us. I remember getting lost in there for over an hour when I was his age, and it must have been a welcome break for my dad — just turn them loose and gather them back after awhile. I didn't know what to expect in the opposite role, but I knew it would be a good opportunity for observing "kids these days" no matter what.

It didn't sink in until after we'd returned home, as I began replaying the mental videotape. The whole time we were there in that sprawling toy store — around 45 to 60 minutes — there wasn't one moment where he started begging me to buy something that he'd had his mind set on for awhile. Nothing fascinating that he had been waiting for the right big occasion — Christmas, birthday, etc. — to finally get his hands on.

He showed up with an almost blank set of expectations about what would be on offer, and he therefore had no ranking of what mattered more than what else. It was as though he'd never seen a single toy commercial in his whole life.

(Perhaps that's no joke - I thought back on all the hours and hours of kids' TV shows I've seen him watch, and I don't recall seeing commercials for any of the major toy categories. They may have been in there somewhere, but it's not like when I was his age, and our parents saw us watching commercial after commercial for the next big thing that we just had to have, and dreaded the endless begging that followed.)

When we were six years old, we always had a list in the back of our minds of the toys and games that we were dying the most to play with. I'm using "toy" broadly — action figures, play weapons, board games, stuffed animals, pocket-sized vehicles, kid-sized vehicles, and sports-like novelties (the pogo ball, the Koosh ball, Nerf fencing, Skip-It, and so on).

This not only showed how much our parents encouraged the spirit of play in children. It also taught us how to weigh competing alternatives, rank them, and set about trying to reach those goals. And in the case of trying to get our hands on desirable toys, it gave us a vivid and frequent reminder that we don't always get what we want right away, and may have to wait awhile until we do — Christmas, birthday, visit to a spoiling grandmother, or what have you.

Since my nephew had no clear picture of what would be there, and which things he wanted more than which others, he instantly latched onto the first dazzling display upon entering the store — some small wind-up toys that didn't look cool or do anything cool, and that were cheaply built.

I left him unattended for about 10-15 minutes, telling him to look around the store, and I'd check in with him then to see what he really wanted — after inspecting more than just the first thing he saw. When I got back, he was still with those dumb wind-up toys, raised his voice about wanting these and nothing else, and nearly went into a meltdown when I told him he was going to look through some other things before he made a final decision.

Well, whaddaya know? The next place that had toys for a boy his age, he latched onto the first thing that caught his attention — some kind of hot wheel vehicle, only in the form of an elongated reptile. He nearly threw another fit when I told him to keep browsing through the other aisles again.

Amazingly, with every aisle we looked through, it was the same thing — no recognition of something he'd been waiting for and was dying to get. Not only that — no real attachment to anything he was seeing for the first time. Something that he would keep in his mental list for later. After we left, he didn't bug me for any of the things that he was shouting about just a half-hour earlier, and he didn't mention that he couldn't wait until next time when he could get his second or third-choice toys. He'd totally forgotten about all of them.

His mindset was just, latch onto the least boring thing in the array of things that I'm looking at right now, and let's get out of here already. Who knew that children have come to view a visit to the toy store as one of those "just get it over with" kind of activities? There were quite a few other families there, and their experience didn't appear to be any different.

Now, he did recognize the brands of many of the toys (Spiderman, Star Wars, etc.), but he didn't recognize the toys themselves, and wasn't drawn to them as toys — only as a product that came from a familiar brand.

Contrast that to when I was his age, and a good deal of the sought-after toys were from a wholly unfamiliar brand, and as far as we knew, only existed in toy form (although there were often very brief, basically invisible tie-ins like cartoons and comic books). Starriors, Inhumanoids, Battle Beasts, M.U.S.C.L.E., Cabbage Patch Kids, Teddie Ruxpin, just to name a few hit toys, were known to us only from the toy shelves.

If children nowadays don't get excited about games and toys, then what? I do recall seeing commercials on today's kid shows for glowing-screen "content" - other TV shows, movies, video games, "visit the website / download the app," etc.

Why give your kids toys and games for a spirited round of playing around, when you can knock them out with digital Benadryl instead? I also recall seeing ads on kids' shows for food and drink, AKA a steady injection to feed their sugar addiction. That's about the only exciting event in the day that they have to look forward to - their hourly fix as they plod along the carbohydrate treadmill, while vegging out in front of a screen.

Remember: helicopter parents are the ones who lobbied both the government and the private sector to filter out all stimulation from children's products, whether real or virtual. The uber-helicopter parents in Sweden are nazis about "advertising to children," so it wouldn't come as a surprise to find a similar movement going on in America. Ban commercials that offer children a means to use their imagination and get a little rambunctious, and rationalize it as shielding our darlings from the corporate Pied Pipers.

Thus, to soothe their own anxieties about where playing with toys and games might lead their children — drugs, pregnancy, murder — parents have weeded out play, engagement, and using your imagination in favor of vegetation, distraction, and painting-by-numbers.

Declining innovation in toys and games
Familiar mega-franchises supply most toy lines nowadays
Thing-oriented toys most popular with today's not-so-empathetic children
Millennials nostalgic about not having a life as kids

July 4, 2014

Hit shows from the '90s were shot on film

After regularly tuning in to Seinfeld for the first time in about 15 years, I started to notice how much better it looks compared to either today's digital shows or the video-taped shows from the '70s and '80s. And sure enough, IMDb says it was shot on 35mm film stock.

It doesn't have video's fast frame rate which makes it look more like you're right there in the audience of a live play performance. The slower frame rate stylizes movement enough to distance you from the show's world. The lighting and colors also come out much better than on a typical sit-com from the '80s, which were shot on video.

And it wasn't only Seinfeld -- ER, Friends, Frasier, Murphy Brown, Law & Order, The Drew Carey Show, just to name the ones I checked. Some were still being video-taped if they were in the vein of the '80s sit-com, such as Roseanne and Home Improvement.

Perhaps that's one reason why some people respond best to TV shows of The Nineties (meaning, '93 and after). They probably didn't know it, but just sensed that they had better visual production put into them. Like me, you might not respond to some of them for reasons of tone -- wacky/zany, emo, glib, etc. -- but at least they are nice to look at.

During the 2000s, first it was all the game shows and reality shows that brought the video look back to mainstream TV. Reality-based content calls for greater photorealism in capturing motion, so video's high frame rate won out. Now even the comedies and dramas are leaving film for digital. The Big Bang Theory, about the only 21st-century sit-com to break into the top of the Nielsen ratings, started out on film but switched to digital.

Why didn't they care to shoot all the big shows on film in the '80s? (Some in the action genre were, like Magnum, P.I.) I think TV shows that looked film-y only appealed to audiences once the cocooning climate had set in. Since then the ideal has been to never leave the house. But they still want something cool-looking to watch for entertainment. If the small screen was the new big screen, then why not start shooting TV shows on film?

July 2, 2014

Not Earth to Echo: Characters who looked and sounded creepy, but proved themselves as trustworthy friends in '80s kid culture

Coming out this week is another one of those nauseatingly cutesy, inoffensive, painless, and unchallenging kids' movies, Earth to Echo (trailer here). By all accounts, the plot is a shameless rip-off of E.T. In one major respect, however, they deliberately took the opposite approach from the original -- in designing the alien creature to look like a cute baby owl who purrs like a guinea pig.

I guess an ugly-ass naked midget with a slow raspy voice would be too much for today's generation of wimpy kids.

Although it may seem like a trivial difference, making the alien so cutesy completely undercuts the intended themes of bridging a trust gap between wary strangers, tolerance of that which we initially fear if it proves itself friendly, and judging others by their character and conduct rather than their outward appearance. The cute little robo-owl looks harmless, and acts harmless -- wow, what a challenging lesson to learn!

Children haven't been exposed to characters like E.T. for so long that it's worth taking a look at how common that type used to be back in the '80s. They all frightened us at first, with their ugly appearance and weird voice, but by asking for our help and then returning the favor, they proved that they were to be trusted as friends, not turned away as enemies.

E.T. from E.T. (1982), the prototype who started the phenomenon.

Lame rip-offs of E.T. are nothing new. But back in 1988, Mac and Me still featured an ugly-looking alien because that was such an important part of the whole "strangers growing to trust each other" thing.

Even when the tone was purely comedic, not dramatic, the alien was still ugly. In the TV show ALF (1986-'90), the alien is a wisecracker who creates and "odd couple" dynamic with the serious and cautious head of the household, Willie, who nevertheless does his best to keep others from finding out about his family's new alien companion. ALF was also made into a popular stuffed animal for kids.

Speaking of hideous-looking, potentially frightening stuffed animal friends, 1986 saw the release of My Pet Monster, which was like the My Buddy doll, only ugly and scary. Its bulbous green schnoz was covered in warts, its eyebrows pointed downward, and its yellowy fangs hung out in plain sight (although it looked more like an overbite than an aggressive display). But it still looked friendly enough to be your partner-in-crime when you were playing make-believe.

In Labyrinth (1986), Ludo the gentle beast has an ugly mug, and Hoggle the cynic looks downright repulsive. After an initial scare, both of them help the protagonist Sarah navigate the dangers of the labyrinth to rescue her kidnapped baby brother from the Goblin King, whose glamorous evil contrasts with the ugly yet kind-hearted pair of helpers.

Just about all of the friends that Atreyu makes along his adventure in The NeverEnding Story (1984) look weird, ugly, or creepy. In fact Morla, the giant old tortoise, looks almost like E.T. in the face. But by far the most disturbing is Falkor the luck dragon, whose likable doggie face does not seem to match with his pedo grooming voice, or the reptilian scales that cover his back. (As a kid I thought those were large blisters -- no joke, it made my skin crawl when I first saw it.) But he helps the kid along his journey, rather than take advantage of him, so our initial revulsion was misplaced.

Then there was that creepy, personal space-invading robotic fish eye lens, voiced by Pee Wee Herman himself, who commanded the spaceship that the young protagonist flew in Flight of the Navigator (1986).

Gizmo from Gremlins (1984) has a soft voice and a generally cutesy look, but his naked wing-like ears look a little off-putting when seen against his overall primate appearance. If they really wanted to take it easy on the kids, they wouldn't have included those freaky-looking ears.

Also in the vein of freaky primates was the sasquatch Harry who befriends a middle-class family  in Harry and the Hendersons (1987 movie, 1991-93 TV show). Something about how close together his eyes are, and how often you see his lower row of teeth, give him a disturbing rather than cutesy primate look.

Then there's the title character of the children's picture book Gorilla (1983), who startles a little girl when he comes to life from her imagination, but then earns her trust as he whisks her away from her depressing latchkey kid existence for a night of adventure around town.

Is he human or not-quite-human? Sloth from The Goonies (1985) scares the hell out of all children when his twisted face and horrible scream are first revealed. Yet this lovable abomination of nature proves himself ever faithful and sacrificing when the shit is about to hit the fan for the adventurous kids who stumble upon him chained up in a dark cellar.

By the early '90s, the alien/monster gave way to more familiar creatures who were still creepy-looking yet benevolent. In Home Alone (1990), there's a sinister-seeming old man who turns out to only be upset from being estranged from his son. He and the pint-sized protagonist Kevin have a heart-to-heart understanding in church, and the old man later clobbers the pair of robbers who have Kevin cornered in his own house.

Finally, in The Sandlot (1993), a band of baseball-playing kids discover that the neighborhood dog with Cujo's reputation is in fact a gentle giant, and that his blind owner is not as creepy as they'd thought either. The avuncular owner simply prefers his privacy.

That's about the last example I came across in looking things over. Since then, any aborted attempts at the character type have made it too cute on first impression, or disarmingly campy (which amounts to the same thing). The Nickelodeon show Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Quasimodo in Disney's take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pixar's cute-ification of Shrek (who looks grotesque in the original picture book from 1990), Monsters, Inc., How to Train Your Dragon, and so on and so forth.

Helicopter parents devote their entire effort toward insulating their child's body and brain with bubble wrap. No hard falls, no hard lessons. Anything awkward must be smoothed over, anything yucky must be sterilized. If this warps your kid's development and stunts them permanently, don't worry -- at least you won't personally feel uncomfortable having to watch them grope toward maturity.

With such a seismic change in the goals of parents, it can come as no surprise to see the repulsive yet trustworthy character from the '80s replaced by the cutesy and harmless ones over the past 20 years.