November 30, 2015

Spectre: A two-and-a-half-hour music video cycle (not bad)

I allowed myself to get dragged to the movies with family over Thanksgiving weekend, since I'd heard that the new James Bond movie, Spectre, wasn't as bad as the last couple. I'd only seen the Pierce Brosnan ones before, and pieces of the Connery and Moore movies on TV over the years. Not going in with high expectations, I still didn't mind the experience.

The acting was OK, the storytelling implausible and forced in many places, and the cinematography too bleak (not unlike Interstellar, which the D.P. also shot). But the score is viscerally engaging, placed into the foreground of the experience, and lasts for over two-thirds of the movie (100 minutes of music during the 148-minute running time).

It's hard to nitpick the plot, characters, and cinematography in what amounts to a cinematic take on the overwrought music video form circa 1990. The dialog, acting, etc., is just that one-third of the really long video where the director tries to make it larger than life, with honest-to-God actors in addition to the music playing.

The movie is not treated as one single long video, either, but more of a cycle of videos that are only loosely related by narrative. Breaking the movie down into a series of shorter, more easily digestible videos made the running time fly by, whereas mediocre action movies feel bogged down after 90 minutes.

In a welcome change, the locations, set design, and costumes were not used to turn the movie into one long metrosexual ad campaign from GQ, but more to set the mood for one of those music videos that shoots in exotic locations just 'cuz.

The only down-note was the dispensable music video over the opening credits. It was flamboyantly homosexual, decadent, and full of falsetto, making a horrible contrast with the opening action scene where Bond stalks an assassin while tribal percussive music plays.

And as it happens, this one must be the gayest Bond production of all time. Open gays include the singer of the theme song, Sam Smith; the screenwriter John Logan; and actors Ben Whishaw (Q) and Andrew Scott (C). Blind Gossip ran an item about the actress playing the lead Bond girl, Lea Seydoux, being a lesbian (other than having a wasp waist, she had no sex appeal). Daniel Craig has gay rumors surrounding him, has zero chemistry with any woman in the movie, and is sporting the closest thing to a gay-whoosh hair-do that the producers will allow James Bond to wear. Director Sam Mendes seems like a huge closet case (also directed homoerotic American Beauty starring not-so-closeted Kevin Spacey). Actor Christoph Waltz (the main villain) shows a decent level of gayface on Google Images, as does Ralph Fiennes, who may have pioneered the gay-whoosh trend back in Schindler's List.

I mention all this to show that despite the Young Republican level of gay influences, Spectre wound up basically watchable and entertaining, albeit as a series of music videos rather than a proper movie.

Sometime I might torture myself by watching Skyfall, which was made by largely the same team with about the same level of gayness going into it, only with Javier Bardem being the closeted gay actor playing the villain (the character himself being a bit less closeted). I haven't heard great things about the score, so I'm assuming that it won't follow the music video cycle approach that Spectre did. That would leave only the toxic levels of homoeroticism typical of 21st-century blockbusters -- no thanks.

I've been wanting the music video medium to make a comeback, so we can enjoy a little visual storytelling while being engaged by music we haven't heard before, with the narrative elements being an after-thought. Now that Hollywood screenwriters can't seem to write good dialog, characters, and plot, they might as well take a back seat to the composers and cinematographers. Once the ability comes back, then shift the focus back toward storytelling.

And really, what other than a James Bond movie lends itself so naturally to being a series of music videos shot on exotic locations, featuring models, and mostly dispensing with narrative? If they took this way forward (and removed the gay elements), I'd be a regular viewer for sure.

November 26, 2015

Transplant-ism breaking down large family reunions on Thanksgiving

It's striking how many Facebook posts and pictures I've seen, for years now, about 20-somethings having Thanksgiving dinner by themselves / with their partner / with their friends.

I searched Google Images for recent Thanksgiving pictures, and even when you do see a family, it's usually of a single nuclear family, not an extended family. And even the handful of extended family pictures tend not to include both a vertical and horizontal dimension -- including as many generations as possible, and as many siblings and cousins within a generation. Maybe there's a grandparent, one of their children, and their grandchildren through them -- but not all their children and all grandchildren. Or maybe there's a large group of middle-aged siblings and their children, but no grandparents.

I attribute this to the transplant phenomenon, which has grown during the status-striving climate of the past 30-40 years. It's not related to the cocooning trend, since Midcentury pictures of Thanksgiving all show extended families, vertically and horizontally around the family tree.

The Greatest Generation didn't move far away from their hometown, while the Me Generation (Silents and Boomers) left for greener pastures in the career world. Gen X-ers and Millennials are leaving for a different reason -- greener pastures for lifestyle striving (Portland, Brooklyn) -- but still to pursue individual status at the expense of duties to one's community (there's only one -- the one where you were raised).

This not only separates generations but also family members within the same generation -- one careerist sibling may head north, another south, another east, and another west. One lifestyle or persona striver from Iowa may head off to Portland, and another to Brooklyn.

And it's not always easy to simply re-trace the transplant paths. If the Greatest Gen member lives in a small town or rural area, which was way more common in the pre-striver era, it will be hard for the urban and suburban Boomer children to all make it back, let alone the grandchildren who are even more urban-dwelling. The nearest airport may be awhile away. That puts the onus on the Greatest Gen member to head for the suburbs of their Me Gen children, which in their old age they may figure isn't worth it (although mine did, up through their 60s).

When there was only one generation of transplants, it wasn't so difficult to get everybody together. But now that the second generation, too, are transplanting, there's another degree of scattering. My hunch also says that the careerist transplants didn't move as far away from their hometowns as the lifestyle strivers do. Both of these mean that the problem has accelerated over time, and has probably only become noticeable during the past 10-20 years, as the Gen X-ers and later the Millennials began to transplant away from their transplant parents.

My memories of Thanksgiving in the '80s still included most of the extended family, aside from an uncle and his wife who moved Out West awhile ago (my cousins through them were absent, too). For those of my mother's siblings who stayed in the general region, it was common to see all the aunts and uncles, as well as the cousins, and of course the grandparents on that side. But those get-togethers involved one-way travel times of at most three hours by car for all involved, and usually under two hours. You could travel there and back in the same day, so nobody needed to put you up.

Contrast with today, where transplants spend seven or eight hours door-to-door, one-way, and will have to be put up for one or more nights.

There's another way in which the lifestyle strivers seem to be making things worse. Since they're foodies, meals are a fashion contest, and fashion corrodes tradition. So why would a foodie want to trek all the way back to family, just to have the same old things for Thanksgiving? They would rather spend Thanksgiving alone and pick up a pre-made dinner from Whole Foods, as long as they put sriracha in the stuffing. That's something you could post to Facebook for status points -- not whatever your non-foodie parents would have prepared.

And of course lifestyle strivers would want to show off whatever trendy plates, glasses, and silverware they've bought in the past month. You can't do that if you're eating at a family member's house, where you can't bring your own trendoid items and would have to post Facebook pictures that showed your host's IKEA place settings from the '90s.

* * * * *

I'll be thankful for being able to share Thanksgiving with four generations for the first time in a long while, and for having had this kind of Thanksgiving during my formative years. Here are some reminders of how extensive the family relations were not so long ago, one from real life and another from Hannah and Her Sisters.

November 25, 2015

Minimum wage history: New Deal required closing immigration to strengthen civic cohesion

An earlier post looked at the history of income tax rates, which rose only after the country became more ethnically homogeneous. The foreign-born part of the population began to steadily decline after a peak around 1910, whereas income tax rates didn't start climbing until ten years later during the '20s, when immigration was closed down. Only with an increasingly similar population would voters support taking on higher income taxes -- they wouldn't be going to some faction or another of a fragmented society.

Something similar happened with the minimum wage, another hot topic nowadays with rising income inequality. Only here the delay was even longer: despite some regional attempts in New England in the 1910s, it wasn't until the early '30s that a national policy was enacted, and even then it was declared unconstitutional a few years later by the Supreme Court. Not until around 1940 did a minimum wage law survive at the national level.

It's also worth noting that just because there's been a minimum wage law since the New Deal era, doesn't mean its value has stayed the same over time. In fact, its value rose during the Great Compression -- ending around 1980 -- and has fallen during the current era of hyper-competitiveness and status-striving. The graph below shows the inflation-adjusted value in the light shade:

Thus, pushing for a higher minimum wage in today's climate of soaring immigration and competitiveness would be putting the cart before the horse. The lesson from history is that we first need to kick out the foreigners who don't belong here, close down immigration, and allow the population to grow more homogeneous, trusting, and civically engaged (see the Robert Putnam study on diversity corroding trust). Only once Americans have reversed the "Bowling Alone" mindset and lifestyle will they be more willing to raise the minimum wage.

By the way, this should temper the enthusiasm that some populists on the Trump train have for Ted Cruz being appointed to the Supreme Court under a Trump presidency. He would almost certainly rule like the Lochner Era Justices (roughly 1900-1940), who shot down the first national minimum wage law. Restoring populism is going to require a hell of a lot of support among the Supreme Court, just like it did the last time around, and Cruz is not the man for that job.

November 23, 2015

A Gen X-er as First Lady

While watching the 20/20 interview with Donald Trump's family, I thought how nice it would be for the country to enjoy a break from First Ladies who were attention-seeking do-gooder Boomers (Clinton, Bush, and Obama). Melania Trump seems like a reserved homebody, who may take part in various neutral causes such as disease prevention, but will not promote herself as a crusader (an approach to being First Lady that she would probably view with a healthy dose of skepticism).

Her unpretentious personality contrasts pleasantly with her model's looks. Born in 1970, she's from the same cohort of early Gen X-ers as those who were stars back when the supermodel was a pop culture phenomenon (circa 1990: Paulina Porizkova, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, etc.). Unlike the carefree exhibitionistic Boomers, they were more aware of the camera and ambivalent about letting their guard down, while still doing so. It lent a mystery and allure to their personas.

I can't think of a better person than a media-shy homebody to turn the tide against the striver pretension of "First Lady as Secretary-at-Large". From the interview, she seems to feel her main duties are supporting her husband and nurturing her son, not pointless career advancement (she does design jewelry on the side). America can't wait to be rid of a First Lady who comes off as bossy, nagging, self-important, and plain ol' ugly. We need one who is domestic, warm, and maternal.

Plaid carpeting appreciation

Homes have never looked more bleak and dull than today, with blank, smooth, drab surfaces where there should be patterns, textures, and colors. Endless, undifferentiated drywall in neutral paint is the main offender, but people have some conception of what an alternative would look like -- colored paint, patterned wallpaper, wood paneling.

Floors suffer more because the alternatives to smooth beige carpet are further back in memory, and some younger homeowners may not have experienced them at all. Hardwood flooring, the cousin of wood paneling on the walls, is still popular, but many people insist on carpeting to save on costs, to soften the feel under foot, to prevent cavernous echoes, or whatever else.

With the natural texture and grain of hardwood off the table, that leaves colors and patterns to provide visual satisfaction. But who ever heard of colored, patterned carpet?

Millennial homeowners, who were children during the 1990s, may have grown up deprived of examples from the heyday of plaid carpeting. But it may not be too late to get them to replace the bleak beige look they have grown accustomed to, since they're at least used to the trendiness of plaid in clothing. If it looks pleasing on a shirt, why not on a carpet? I really don't care if they do it to be trendy, as long as living spaces stop looking so depressingly lifeless.

Here are just a few examples of how much cheer and charm some plaid carpeting can provide (plus one from the '70s where the only surface that isn't plaid is the carpet -- wouldn't want to over-do it).

November 19, 2015

Terrorists now attack leisure targets: Will it wake up young Westerners more than 9/11?

There has been a change in the ideology and practice of radical Islamic terrorists. Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups put a strictly economic and political spin on their jihad, seeking revenge for the economic and political policies of the United States in the Middle East. In return, they attacked targets that stood as symbols of economic and political power -- the World Trade Center (big business), the Pentagon (military / government), the Charlie Hebdo magazine (media / fourth estate), and the subway systems that get employees where they need to go to work for these institutions of power, wealth, and influence.

Their leaders are primarily Baby Boomers; whether or not that has the same larger meaning over there that it does here, the point is they belong to the same generation.

The generation after them -- the ones who would be Generation X over here -- have shifted to put a more cultural and lifestyle spin on their jihad. Millennials are following their lead. They are ISIS and affiliated groups. They are much more puritanical, attacking icons, graven images from ancient civilizations, churches, and other cultural sites throughout the Middle East. In Paris, they attacked a concert hall, a sports stadium, and restaurants, cafes, and bars.

They were also planning to attack a shopping mall in Paris. They have already brought down one airliner, and have been planning to attack other airports. For the most part, people fly in order to vacation or pursue leisure, rather than for business and workplace reasons (unlike a daily commute on the subway).

In their propaganda, ISIS did refer to France's political and military role in bombing Syria, but they also heaped scorn on Paris for being the "capital of prostitution and obscenity" (other translations say "capital of abominations and perversion"), clearly more in line with their general focus on attacking leisure, lifestyle, and culture that they find religiously objectionable.

Their new threat against New York City does not point to the United Nations building, Wall Street, or any other political-economic power center. Rather they show Times Square, a hub of tourism, shopping, dining, theater-going -- and in the not-too-distant past, drug deals, prostitution, and pornography (although today there are topless women who you can take your picture with for a small donation). It's a lifestyle and leisure target.

Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are fine with killing civilians, but the basis on which they are judged guilty is different: for Al-Qaeda, it's being complicit in the power structure, whereas for ISIS it's taking part in decadent culture and lifestyles. There is a strong dispute between the two groups about targeting, say, pedestrians in a cultural center of a city, with ISIS finding it perfectly legitimate, as they have begun to make abundantly clear.

I think this shift in the propaganda and practice of Islamic terrorists is going to profoundly change how Westerners, particularly those under 50, are going to react. Recall the generational difference in status contests, with the Silents and Boomers focusing on career, wealth, power, and influence, and the X-ers and Millennials focusing on lifestyles and personas.

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on 9/11, people who are a part of the career-and-power contests would have felt a greater shock. To this day, it seems like Silents and Boomers are angrier about 9/11 than Gen X and Millennials are (not to say that the younger generations were not disturbed, just less so than the elders). Perhaps the same is true of the Madrid and London subway bombings (disrupting business-as-usual for commuters), and the Charlie Hebdo killings (attacking the fourth estate), but I'm not in Europe and couldn't say.

With the attacks on a concert hall, sports stadium, and nightlife spots -- on Friday night, no less, when everyone is going out to have fun -- the more lifestyle-focused X-ers and Millennials are going to feel like it's now their domain that is being attacked. No more shopping, no more traveling, no more dining on the outdoor patio, without feeling targeted. This is a level of free-floating anxiety that these generations did not feel when the targets were office buildings and military bases, which younger generations do not hold very near and dear to their hearts. Now that terrorists are targeting foodie spots and indie rock venues, it's a whole 'nother ball game.

Non-hipsters will not feel any safer in their lifestyles either, once ISIS begins to attack churches in the West like they have already been doing in the Middle East. Going to church on Sunday is a regular practice that falls under lifestyle, not something that connects one to the greater power structure.

Furthermore, the demographics of the new victims make them far more easy to relate to for X-ers and Millennials, especially white ones, than the victims of 9/11. The earlier victims were demographically diverse in age, class, and race. The new victims, at least judging from the pictures available, are much younger, whiter, and middle-class. They are probably also more liberal than the victims who worked in the WTC or the Pentagon. Their clothing and hairstyles are more hip. For that matter, there are loads more pictures of them from their social media accounts, which did not exist back in 2001.

All these differences mean that the lifestyle strivers, who are expressing solidarity with France in order to grab quasi-French cultural identity, are going to be less inhibited than earlier about Doing Something about the Islamic terrorist problem. Yet this will extend beyond those who are changing their Facebook profile picture, to anyone who values lifestyle and culture concerns over career and political concerns. If Islam, whether radical or mainstream, destroys Parisian culture, it would be akin to us dropping a nuke on Mecca.

This may make it easier than you'd think to get moderate young people to agree that Islam is not compatible with preserving the culture we treasure. The romance of Paris is not based on halal meat shops, burqas, and mosques -- but on wine, unveiled women, and Notre Dame cathedral. Once they agree, it's no great leap to conclude that Islam ought to be kept back where it belongs -- without needing to hate it, or to drop bombs on its adherents, but still needing to exist over there while we Christians and agnostics exist over here.

Such an approach also obviates the need to talk about whether Islam is inherently violent or peaceful. The terrorists of today are only a violent expression of the overall puritanical view of Muslims toward us, and their behaviors and practices in our societies. Even if they peacefully transformed Paris into New Baghdad, or London into New Karachi, it would be a profound loss to the lifestyles and culture that we cherish.

This strikes me as a much easier conversation to start and maintain, as opposed to talking about political, economic, and military matters like we did when the earlier terrorists attacked the institutions of the power structure. Not only is lifestyle-and-culture more what they orient their lives around, it's just more tangible than economics and politics. You can almost hear the nervous chatter among the shoppers at H&M:

"Having to wear a bullet-proof vest every time we go to Starbucks? I don't think so -- muzzies out!"

November 18, 2015

Female bloodsport porn now starring a steroided tranny

If you'd only vaguely heard of Ronda Rousey before last weekend, you've certainly been seeing blanket coverage of her loss to Holly Holm.

I won't link to nerd porn here, but do an image search for both their names and "Nov 15", and look at how obviously roided up Holm is in the fight. She is too big and too shredded for a 34 year-old white girl. Especially in the upper body, neck, skull, and hairline. Rousey and the previous women she's fought look instead like tomboys who hang out at the gym (notably softer looking than male fighters), not women using steroids and male hormones to transition to men.

So, what amounts to a man just beat the snot out of a girl, and is getting worldwide acclaim for it.

MMA junkies say that Rousey is obnoxious and gets way more press than she deserves. So in a sense she had a humbling coming sooner or later. But that just turns the fight into one of those wurlstah videos where some ghetto ape puts his fist through the face of a mouthy aggressive ho. And here it's given a freakish tranny twist to appeal even more powerfully to the fetishists watching two women in skimpy clothing grapple with each other.

Recall an earlier post about guys who get off on girl-on-girl porn being what I call "latent transgender" -- they aren't openly presenting as female, but they fantasize sexually about being a woman, namely one or more of the women in the porn they watch or who they visualize in their mind.

The same phenomenon is obviously at work in guys who are on the edge of their seats for a women's MMA fight. Guys watching a fight are projecting themselves into one or the other of the fighters, and resonating emotionally with what the fighters are going through. If both fighters are women, they are resonating with being a female fighter. And given the viewer's clearly sexual interest in the women, they are in fact indulging in a latent transgender fantasy while watching the fight.

Unlike run-of-the-mill girl-on-girl porn, however, women's MMA is violently antagonistic, so the viewer is being stimulated further by the thought of getting bloody revenge against a woman, who represents the many that have rejected him. They would feel too dirty watching an outright man beat up a woman, though, so they seek plausible deniability about just wanting to watch a woman beat up a woman -- that certainly wouldn't belie their revenge fantasies against the vapid bitches who ignore them.

With the entry of juiced-up Holly Holm, we are seeing a shift toward a more overt man vs. woman bloodsport. We just might get to that point, given how degenerate our society is getting, and how bloodsports flourish during a period of societal instability (like gladiator spectacles during the decline of the Roman Empire). At least the Roman decadents had the decency not to involve women.

The whole thing is so odd when you consider how little attention guys show in just about all female sports. Basketball, soccer, softball, field hockey, golf, volleyball -- zero interest. It's strange that the fetishists avoid watching women's soccer or volleyball, where the girls aren't too bad looking and where their uniforms show off their lower bodies. But there's no way to construe what you're watching there as a sexual interaction, which requires close physical contact between two individuals (or maybe three, but not an entire team, let alone two teams, and golf is solitary).

Combat sports are the only ones that meet the most basic cognitive template of a sexual interaction. (That's true for man vs. man, too -- wrestlers are far more likely to be teased for homo behavior than are football or basketball players.) Therefore, they're the only women's sports that latent transgender viewers will tune into. The fact that they also indulge the violent revenge fantasies of rejected fetishists only adds to their emotional appeal.


Seriously guys, the vast majority of Mongols are perfectly law-abiding people. It's only a small handful who are destroying civilizations across Eurasia, raping and pillaging at will.

Closing our borders? I mean, it's the year 1237 already -- do we really wanna just stay backward forever? SMH.

November 16, 2015

Persona striving and the end of family

All forms of status striving lead an individual to withdraw investment in others and re-allocate it to the self, the better to climb up whatever pyramid they're trying to conquer. This is easiest to see in family ties since everyone has them. Strivers will tend to lose touch with their siblings, let their elderly parents fend for themselves, and maybe not even bother with having children of their own to take care of.

And yet not all forms of status competition have the same strength of impact. Here I outlined the three basic forms, based on career, lifestyle (external, regular behaviors), and persona (internal, character traits). It looks like the career side will stay closer to family formation, while the persona side will be the furthest removed. Lifestyle strivers may be an exception, preferring more family involvement.

Part of this is because what drives people to seek out status in the persona arena is that the career arena is already saturated, so persona strivers won't have as much income or wealth. Career strivers may be making enough money to pay someone to take care of their parents, whereas a persona striver has nothing to show for their efforts but reputational coolness points. Not exactly what the owner of the assisted living facility will accept as payment. So while career strivers will be remotely involved with their elderly parents, the persona strivers will be removed altogether.

Ditto for paying for all the things and services that go into raising children -- just at the very basic level, let alone all the extra junk that goes along with making them pawns in the parents' status contests.

But there's a separate pathway from persona striving to the divorce from family, aside from having less money. It's that persona construction and maintenance is such an inward-focused set of activities that there's really no way that other people can contribute toward it.

Maintaining ties with siblings or parents could be a way for career strivers to network, get their foot in the door, get a loan, etc. Having children means they have yet another way to show off their wealth -- sending them to exclusive schools, dressing them in expensive clothing, hiring armies of tutors and coaches, and so on and so forth. Every investment in others is an investment away from the self, but at least the other family members can help the career striver recoup some of their lost striving effort.

Lifestyle strivers seem to be more involved in family life. These are the Gen X overly involved parents who want to do everything as a family -- all those activities that make up a lifestyle. They make their parenting style part of their lifestyle identity (parenting being an ongoing set of external behaviors, not a persona). Whether it's the hyper-concerned food-allergy parent or the free range kids parent. They get to express their foodie lifestyle by bringing their kids to the organic yoghurt bar, fixing them striver cupcakes (and posting pictures to social media), etc. They are concerned with their kids learning how to become lifestyle strivers at college, not how to score high-paying jobs.

However, lifestyle strivers appear to not be very connected to their parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. Not very much to their siblings either. After all, it's hard to make your mother or your brother enhance your lifestyle points. Your own children don't really have much of a choice about eating your foodie meals, acquiescing to your parenting "philosophy," and tagging along on regular trips to your leisure haunts. There's no room for Aunt Edna in the striver version of family vacation.

Persona strivers have even less use for family in boosting their status points. The whole goal is meticulously crafting and maintaining an image of one's internal characteristics -- how are other people supposed to reveal one's own inner psychology? Not by their actions, which reveal their own inner traits. If they're family, though, perhaps their persona is correlated with your persona based on genetics.

This is terrifying news to the control-freak persona-shaper. Just think -- the audience's perception of your character could get flushed down the drain if your clashing-persona of a father waltzes into the frame. The audience of a story likes to know who the family of a character is, and forms an image of the character in part on that knowledge. Therefore, all family members will be kept very far out of the frame -- outside of the entire artist's studio, and ideally in another region of the country.

The same goes for not wanting to have children. Their actions do not reveal your persona, and their inner traits will be similar to yours by inheritance, but you're not projecting your true self to others in the status contests -- you're portraying your crafted persona. The child doesn't yet have the ability to shape their persona to harmonize with yours and make you look good as the genetic donor. You could try to make it seem that the way you treat and raise your children reveals your persona -- your beliefs, opinions, attitudes, philosophies, etc. But that's really putting you in the lifestyle striver arena, which was already so full that you opted to seek status in the persona arena instead.

It's not impossible to make children play into your persona crafting this way, it's just a lot harder than conscripting them into a lifestyle contest. Dragging your kids to a foodie ice cream parlor, sending them to get their hair cut at a trendy kiddie salon, or hiring a private tutor, doesn't need to imply much about the parents' core personal beliefs, preferences, and attitudes. Merely participating in the activity makes them part of a lifestyle contest, whatever it may or may not suggest about the parents' inner character traits. For persona strivers, parenting decisions would all have to reveal something meaningful about the parents' special snowflake personas -- and how special and unique is it to want your kids to have a decent haircut and a helpful tutor?

So do persona strivers remain totally childless? Not quite -- they may adopt pets, whose own characteristics will either be seen to not reflect the personas of the owners (no genetic relationship), or can be carefully chosen to harmonize with those of the owners. They're more of a decorative item in the LARP-y stage design of their home. But, it is a living creature that needs their care, so it's about the best they can do without risking a major hit to their own personas, or a major distraction from them.

Pets play a different role as substitute children for lifestyle strivers. They are taken out on walks to the dog park (a leisure hangout akin to the cafe that the owner visits), they are taken to the doggie spa, and so on and so forth.

Career-oriented strivers are more likely to want their pets to win at something, the way their owner does -- a dog show, a hunting competition, or some other kind of doggie career.

It's going to be interesting to see if Millenial strivers actually have any kids. Those who are not caught up so much in status contests will, of course, but I mean in a place where competitiveness is high -- the middle-class and above in California, Texas, New York, etc.

And as before, I want to emphasize that it's not just one narrow sub-culture of persona strivers that is cut off from family maintenance and family formation. The wannabe models on Instagram, the YouTube characters, the SJWs on Twitter and Tumblr, or the neo-pagan cosplayers on the right. All of them feel a visceral rejection of their own existing families, and do not seem very interested in making many babies to start a new branch of their family tree.

November 14, 2015

In empty signals of solidarity with France, really a grab for status points by claiming quasi-French identity

In the wake of the Islamic attacks on Paris, the status strivers are seizing the opportunity to boost their coolness points by "identifying with" the French victims, as though they themselves were quasi-French in identity. They are changing their Facebook profile pictures to show the colors of the French flag, or a mash-up image of the Eiffel Tower and a peace sign, or posting #JeSuisParis on Twitter, or whatever fleeting empty gesture it will be later in the day.

Notice the baldfaced striver pretensions of using the French language in #JeSuisParis -- you wouldn't want to show your solidarity for terrorist victims like one of those bumpkin tourists who doesn't even speak French. So much more cultured than the #PrayForParis hashtag, which is also embarrassing for bringing religion into the coping process.

By portraying themselves as vicarious victims, the strivers hope to add a bit of coveted French cultural cachet to their identity. Naturally this appeals more to persona strivers than to lifestyle strivers, although the latter certainly want to be seen as someone who has vacationed in Paris, shopped for authentic French bread at a boulangerie, and generally lived the lifestyle of the locals. Former Parisians-for-a-week also feel the pain of the attacks.

Some are taking extra measures to make the link clear. A Millennial girl among my Facebook friends initially posted a generic expression or image like everyone else was doing. Then she saw the chance to assert her higher level of quasi-French-ness by mentioning that she had been a foreign exchange student in Paris (and so, she felt even sadder than those less cultured folks who had not studied abroad in Paris), as well as changing her profile picture to one of her and her boyfriend in Paris, with the French flag color filter over it. Nothing to do with sympathy for terrorist victims -- just a rare opportunity to cement in her peers' minds that she is more quasi-French than they are.

Contrast this case with the Russian civilian airplane blown up by ISIS not even two weeks ago, which killed nearly twice as many people as the Paris attacks. Nobody changed their Facebook picture to show the colors of the Russian flag (the same colors as the French flag, incidentally), nor did they rush to Twitter to say #МыВсеРоссияне ("We are all Russians").

But then, what status boost would you receive from staking out a claim for quasi-Russian identity? Zero. Not because of Cold War hatred of the Soviet Union, or of the Slavic people. Simply because historically Russia has been more culturally backward than France. Identifying with Russia would make you seem more provincial than cosmopolitan, so status strivers want no part of Russian identity.

You won't see this level of faux affiliation if Madrid is attacked again either. Aside from showing up on the foodie radar for tapas and sangria, Spanish culture is largely outside the target of SWPL striving.

However, if Stockholm gets attacked, it'll be a whole different story -- strivers can't get enough of pretending to be Swedish. And with as many Muslim immigrants as there are flooding into the ripest of naive Nordic targets, it may only be a matter of time. Expect all of the internet to turn blue and yellow forever.

It's the same with the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Identifying with Ground Zero gave a lot of strivers a way to get their foot in the door for the coveted New York City identity. Sympathy would have been far less if the hijackers had crashed into a high-rise apartment building in Astoria. Sad, but who would want to identify with Queens over downtown Manhattan? There was never any display of solidarity with the Pentagon, DC, or its northern Virginia location. I mean, the Pentagon... isn't that part of the military? Not very fashionable. Neither is DC. And just the thought of sympathy for Virginia -- like, seriously?

You can bet that if the main target on 9/11 had been in a culturally backward flyover state like Kansas, none of the strivers would have tried to carve out a role as vicarious victims.

This state of affairs does not bode well for fellow Westerners helping the French people to close their borders and deport Muslims already there, which is the only effective and humane solution to their terrorist problem. (Bombing the Muslim homelands even further back into the Stone Age would do nothing to drain the swamp within France, would put French soldiers' lives at risk, and would kill innocents through collateral damage.)

For, if the whole appeal of "supporting the French" is for status strivers to claim quasi-French identity, it would utterly devastate their worldview to hear the French people proclaim "France for the French," or "Keep France French". The strivers wouldn't care so much about the plight of the Arabs being deported -- they don't care when France shows a little backbone and deports the Gypsies. Rather, they would fear that the next step in the process would be that Americans (or whoever else) would also be branded as non-French foreigners who may be welcome to visit the country, but who must not be allowed to melt into the French population and adulterate its pure Frenchiness.

"First, the French came to culturally exile the Muslims, and I did nothing... Then they came to culturally exile the former study-abroaders, and there were no strivers left to speak for me."

It's one thing to point out how empty and ineffective these displays of "solidarity" are, compared to real action like securing the French borders. However, it would neuter the social media hype even further if we pointed out that their displays are not only weak but insincere opportunistic grabs at quasi-French cultural identity to boost their status in front of their peers.

November 9, 2015

Persona contests: The next development in status competition

An earlier post detailed the two different types of status contests being waged during this climate of rising competitiveness that began sometime in the '70s: career striving vs. lifestyle striving.

A key ingredient of any status contest is an objective and honest indicator of everyone's status -- otherwise everyone can lie and deceive others about satisfying the criteria for status, and no one really knows who ranks where on the great big pyramid.

The least fake-able form of status is income, wealth, and material success -- you live in an expensive home in an expensive zip code, drive an expensive car, send your kids to expensive schools, and so on and so forth. Some of that will be financed by debt rather than wealth, but wealthier people can borrow larger sums, so it doesn't matter. This is the domain of life where the status contests first took place during the '70s, with the Me Generation and later the yuppies of the 1980s. It is primarily the game played by Silents and Boomers.

After the career arena became saturated by entrenched combatants from the Me Generation, wealth and materialism came to look less and less appealing as a way to shoot up the status pyramid as fast as possible. Thus, the bulk of Gen X-ers turned to the uncolonized niche of lifestyle striving, with only a small minority going head-to-head with Silents and Boomers in the career niche. Who cares if you don't make so much money, and if you're stuck in your career, as long as you go out more often to trendy Thai restaurants and order esoteric drinks from obscure local coffee shops?

Lifestyle contests are marked by less honest signals than in the materialist domain, where you can invite people over to your McMansion in an affluent suburb, show up in a luxury car, and pay for things using a not-for-plebes credit card. These signals are things, and things are always around available to be displayed. Eating dinner at a trendy Thai restaurant is an evanescent experience that may not leave any material trace, so how can the other foodie strivers really know you went there and deserve status points? Well, perhaps by going there with you, or seeing you around the trendy foodie places every now and again. But more likely, by checking their Facebook feed and seeing the pictures you took of the meal (or of the foodie meal you prepared yourself at home).

It's a mistake to view all the pictures people post on Facebook as "over-sharing" of what ought to be private. Rather, the constant stream of images of foodie meals, vacations, etc., is a form of submitting irrefutable evidence to the jury of your peers in the lifestyle competition. Withholding such proof would prevent you from earning your status points. So in context, these pictures belong to the public, and that's why they're so openly "shared" (submitted), and why there's no expectation of privacy.

The lifestyle contests aren't exactly cheap, but they are less expensive than trying to buy a 19th-century home in a 1% zip code. Nevertheless, they still cost more than the non-striver versions -- regular coffee, regular vacations, regular etc. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a cost-free type of status contests? And by 2015, these lifestyle domains are increasingly saturated near the levels that the career domain was saturated 20 to 30 years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if there were another uncolonized niche for striving to take place in, where enthusiastic new entrants could rocket up the pyramid, relatively uncontested?

I think we're starting to see the Millennials, and some late X-ers, shifting their status contests to what I call "persona" striving -- crafting and projecting a persona that may be related to your lifestyle, but is more about the internal than the external. Related post: in status-striving times, a shift toward voluntarily constructed identities rather than inherited identities.

A lifestyle is defined by recurring behaviors -- you can't be a foodie "in theory," and you can't "affiliate as" a foodie. You have to actually go out every so often and dine at that trendy Thai restaurant, start every morning off with that esoteric drink from the locally owned coffee shop, and pick up your weekly groceries at Whole Foods. To score points as an outdoor enthusiast, you have to buy and wear the performance clothing, go kayaking, pitch a thousand-dollar tent at the local non-touristy park, and so on and so forth.

Persona striving is more about what you're like on a mental level, regardless of how often (if at all) that manifests in your habits and routines. It's about your beliefs, opinions, affiliations, preferences, and temperament. You "reveal" (project) these core traits to others by blurting them out, as well as by broadcasting your reactions to every little thing that goes on (your reactions stemming from your enduring psychological makeup).

I thought about calling this "identity" striving, but your identity could also be based on your career or your lifestyle. "Persona" gets more at the navel-gazing subject matter, and the fact that it is often more of a mask displayed to an audience or jury.

In persona contests, signals about your career and lifestyle are subordinate to fashioning the persona. You don't refer to your job as a freelancer to stake out a claim in the materialist competition, but to suggest the gypsy-like inner traits that are revealed by such a career choice. And you don't refer to your hobby of rock-climbing to imply that you're a more elite rock-climber than the others who are making that their lifestyle contest, but to suggest the ambitious and kinesthetic core traits that are revealed by such a choice of hobby.

In the career contest, it doesn't matter what your persona is -- if you've got the expensive house in the exclusive neighborhood, case closed. The same goes for lifestyle striving -- whether a rockclimbing enthusiast is a free spirit or a rigid disciplinarian, doesn't matter as much as the external measures such as how many places they've climbed, how challenging they were, how top-notch their gear is, and so on.

There is a heavy cosplay / LARP-ing aspect of persona crafting, so clothing and grooming do play a central role. However, it is not an end in itself, i.e. who has the most fashionable haircut (a lifestyle contest) or the most expensive shoes (material contest), but a means to an end of establishing the persona. It takes the form of an OCD approach to "getting the character right".

On social media, career striving has almost no presence, other than competing over who has the most impressive resume on LinkedIn, which still leaves out all the signs of material success (net worth, residence, etc.). Lifestyle striving has a decent place on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, with contestants submitting proof of having completed the outward tasks required to level up. But it's persona striving that takes the social media cake -- how else are you going to let the whole world know what your carefully cultivated inner self is like? Mass media are best suited to contests based on intangible qualities.

The demographics of social media sites back this up. LinkedIn is primarily a site for wealthy, educated Boomers, while Instagram is most popular with those who cannot pursue career or lifestyle contests -- poorer-to-middling, younger, non-whites. Annoying Twitter bios come in three flavors for each type of striver: "CEO. Investor. Guru." or "Mom to free-range kids. Foodie." or "Crusader. Vintage sweater-wearer. Unwelcome guest."

The Millennials have always been told that they're special snowflakes, and now they're making that the domain of status contests -- whose unique inner self is the most amazing?

Persona striving cuts across all other boundaries, though. For example, SJWs dress up in nerd glasses and sideways hair-dos, and Young Republicans dress up in preppy cosplay. Both are carefully constructed costumes to signal their beliefs, ideologies, and affiliations (weird costume = novel = progressive, staid costume = familiar = traditional). Both skinny and obese chicks attempt to carve out their own separate niches on Instagram (seeking thinspiration fame vs. plus-size positivity fame). And character-revealing reaction tweets are eagerly broadcast from all sides of the precipitating event. (What's unique to persona striving is not sharing your reaction to some event, but defining your identity through your psychological reactions rather than overt behaviors.)

Certainly this level of competitive persona comparing had not been seen before, so it is an unexplored niche aside from careers and lifestyles. And it sure does cost a lot less to participate in this kind of striving -- all you need is free WiFi, a smartphone or laptop that your parents bought (or that the public library provides), and a little spending money for costume selection.

However, the signals going on in persona contests are even less honest than those in lifestyle contests. How do other people really know you're a dreamer, a liberal, or a Seahawks fan? These inner traits tend to be more open-ended to verification, eschewing as they do the focus on external behaviors and routines.

Perhaps that's why competition here is even more ongoing and all-encompassing -- it takes a lot of convincing evidence to accept a character's reality. Once you have that desirable house in a desirable location, that's it. You don't have to publish multiple pictures of it throughout the day, every single day of your life. Lifestyle contest signals are in between for how ongoing they are. The behaviors are part of a regular routine, but not necessarily one that occurs daily or hourly.

There's plenty more case studies to detail, speculations about future directions, and what role the three types of contests will play in reversing the striving trend of the past 40 years. I'll post whatever follow-up observations strike me.

November 8, 2015

Wow, SNL still sucks 20 years later

Only because Trump was hosting it, I tuned into Saturday Night Live for the first time in about 20 years. I've only caught it occasionally since then in re-runs on Comedy Central, and snippets of the live broadcast.

Tonight confirmed that the trend continues to this day: ever since the major cast overhaul of the mid-'90s, it's been consistently lame. All that changes is the flavor of crappy tryhard, or not-so-hard, comedy. Super extreme in-your-face characters of the mid-to-late '90s, self-aware awkward types from the 2000s, and now apparently just commentary on pop culture du jour.

That really struck me tonight -- how few characters there were, acting out situations that were based on real life, however absurd. Everything was some kind of pop culture reference.

Then again, maybe it's not so surprising since the peak of SNL coincided with the golden age of the sit-com, during the early-to-mid '90s. The SNL sketches were just that -- a sketch of one scene from an imaginary sit-com, with the situation being more absurd because it only had a few minutes to get laughs, unlike the serial-form sit-com that could stretch the characters out over weeks and years.

Another great sketch comedy show from the late '80s through the mid '90s was Kids in the Hall, also produced by Lorne Michaels, though for gay Canadian audiences. The anarchic take on real-life situations was well suited to the free-wheeling late Boomer actors.

The Gen X actors of The State on MTV did a decent job, too, although you could tell they had to force it a little bit. Early X-ers are a tad more self-aware than late Boomers, and it keeps them from turning off their internal monitor and just getting into the role and running with it. Still, its time was only '93 to '95, before the over-the-top extreeeeme form of self-aware caricatures took over in the second half of the '90s (like that cheerleader group from the Will Ferrell / Cheri Oteri era).

Side note about generations of SNL actors: all 10 of the victims of the "SNL curse" -- dying before age 60 -- were Boomers. Some died in their early 30s in the early '80s, others in their late 50s in the 2010s. The only constant is a cohort effect, namely imprinting on the self-destructive approach to life during the hedonistic Seventies and succumbing sooner or later to a premature death. Although Robin Williams wasn't a cast member, he could have been, and he barely cleared the 60-year mark before killing himself.

There were some Silent Gen actors like Chevy Chase, and he's still doing fine. The early X-ers are well over 40, and aren't about to drop dead. There are some borderline X-er / Millennial actors in their early 30s, and they aren't going to OD any time now like John Belushi did.

Speaking of the current cast, they're pretty old. Most are in their 30s, with a few in their late 20s. During its heyday in the early '90s, the median age must have been at least 5 years younger, most of the hit players being in their mid-to-late 20s. And back in the doldrums when it was just The Eddie Murphy Show, the star was in his early 20s.

The fast-paced, anarchic approach that is required of sketch comedy simply doesn't work so well when the actors are old enough to have school-aged children. Unless they're going for a somewhat higher-brow angle, a la Monty Python, where the actors were still in their late 20s and early 30s rather than further advanced into their 30s (and 40s).

SNL, however, works the opposite angle -- appealing now to juveniles and overgrown children. It was depressing to see how bad it had gotten, but I'm not about to tune in again out of pity. Like The Simpsons, which I also stopped watching after the mid-'90s, SNL needs to be allowed to die already. It stopped being funny or even relevant a long time ago.

November 5, 2015

Transplants more laissez-faire about porn and pot

Voters in Ohio just defeated a ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana. Some are saying it was only because the sellers would have formed a monopoly, and that the vote was against this monopolistic aspect.

Doubtful -- libertarian politics are only popular out West, where the four states with legalized pot are located (Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska). Not surprisingly the West is also the capital of porn production and prostitution (L.A. and Vegas), and of gambling (Vegas again).

This geographic split is no different from 150 years ago when the Wild West was host to more saloons and brothels than you could shake a stick at. And not just the southern swath from Texas to California, where hotter temperatures could have been blamed. In fact, two of the most notorious sin cities of the Gilded Age were Butte, Montana and Tacoma, Washington.

The main underlying difference between the frontier states and the historical core states is the degree of rootedness. That suggests that the same kind of impulsive and footloose preference in their living patterns would also be expressed as a do-what-you-feel attitude in other domains of life.

Does this relationship still hold today? The General Social Survey asks respondents where they lived age at 16, and where they live now, at the regional level. So we can figure out who are transplants and who are natives to their region at the time of the survey. They also ask if you think pornography should be illegal for everyone (not just minors), as well as if you think marijuana should be legal.

I restricted respondents to whites (to control for race), and to people aged 30-49, when they're in their prime family-forming years and would be most worried about porn and pot corrupting their children's lives.

Sure enough, transplants are more laissez-faire. The effect is a little stronger among women, perhaps because women's moral grounding is somewhat more dependent on contact with family, while for men it is relatively less dependent on which community's welfare they're thinking of.

On the porn issue, among men, transplants are about 2 percentage points less in favor of criminalizing porn altogether, and about 2 percentage points more in favor of legalizing it even to consumers under 18. Among women, transplants are about 5 percentage points less in favor of total criminalization, and about 2 percentage points more in favor of legalizing it to minors.

As for pot, transplant men are 4 percentage points more in favor of legalizing it, while transplant women are 5 percentage points more in favor.

These results don't really change if you move around the age window, if you look only at married people, married with children, liberals, conservatives, etc. Being a transplant in itself is associated with supporting more libertine social policies. If you don't want to be tied down by roots, you probably don't want to be tied down by moral rules either. Boo regulation -- go wherever and do whatever!

Note: search this blog for "regtrans" to see all other posts addressing the differences between natives and transplants.

GSS variables: pornlaw, grass, regtrans (formed from reg16 and region), race, age, sex, marital, childs, polviews

November 3, 2015

Jeb Bush out of race before Christmas (inside source)

Here is a heartwarming not-so-blind item about the failing campaign of low-energy Jeb Bush, from Blind Gossip:

- - - - -

This politician is feeling the pressure of the GOP Presidential race.

A source close to his campaign tell us:

You won’t hear anybody from [the campaign] say it out loud, but he is panicking. It kind of sucks, but he really doesn’t handle pressure well. He just doesn’t have the stomach for it. Good at whining and crying. Not so good at fighting.

Does he have enough money to hold out?

[The financial situation is] not good. There isn’t as much there as people think. If he drops out, the big money goes back to the Super PACS, and he’s burning through the rest of it so fast, we don’t think there will be much of anything left.

So, is he going to drop out before the next debate?

No, he will be participating in the next debate, but he’s been given a number to reach [in the polls]. If he doesn’t jump 4 full points in the next six weeks, it’s over, and he’s done by Christmas. It would be too embarrassing for him to get killed in the primaries.

- - - - -

Throughout October, Jeb was polling between 5-8%, meaning the money men want him to break into double digits -- he hasn't been that high since July, and has only steadily fallen since the Trump machine kicked into high gear. He stinks at live debates because he's easily flummoxed and flubs all of his would-be one-liners. So, there's no hope left for him.

Stick a fork in the Bush family -- they're done! All Trump has to do now is cook Hillary's goose, and the Clinton dynasty will come to an end as well. Truly an unbelievable time for the American people, all thanks to the Trumpinator.

Foodie supermarkets as the last hang-out place in a cocooning climate?

In an earlier post, I asked if there was going to be any type of place to replace the moribund coffee shop as a public hang-out spot.

Outgoing behavior peaked in the '80s, and was linked to particular types of public hang-out places -- the mall above all, but also video game arcades and roller rinks for youngsters, and bars and dance clubs for adults. As cocooning set in during the '90s and malls died off, the emblematic public hang-out space shrunk from the mall to the bookstore-and-more (Border's and Barnes & Noble). During the 2000s bookstores became abandoned, and the even smaller coffee shop took its place. Now that coffee shops are dead, I speculated that this would be the end, since you can't get any smaller of a hang-out place than Starbucks.

I was right in the sense that there are no new places where people linger indefinitely, perhaps showing up in a group or perhaps alone, and maybe interacting with other patrons and maybe not.

But there is a fairly large place where bustling crowds turn out every day, and where the patrons go in to feel an emotional rush by being part of that crowd. The only trouble is, nobody will linger there -- indeed, the nature of their trip requires them to leave as quickly as possible. And that is the foodie supermarket.

Sure, Whole Foods has tried to create a cafe / cafeteria kind of atmosphere outside of the main shopping aisles, akin to the mall food courts of the '80s or the Starbuckses of the 2000s. However, hardly anyone treats it like a cafeteria, campus dining hall, etc. The benches are usually sparsely occupied, and not for very long. A handful of folks show up with their laptops, like just about anywhere, indicating they want to hang out there indefinitely (while not actually paying attention to anyone else, of course). Still, very few do this, nowhere near the device-addicts' opium den that the coffee shop now resembles.

Nope, most of the crowd that goes there to feel a little excited in a social public place is there to pick up groceries. That's not to knock it, since this is about as open and letting-their-guard-down as people are willing to be in the 2010s. To their credit, they aren't walking around staring into their phone or laptop, they're mindful of their environment, including other people, and they actually make some eye contact and the occasional facial expression to strangers.

And since foodie-ism is a thriving cultural scene, it really does feel like you're all part of the same club, unlike the people who are filling up their cars at the adjacent pumps at the gas station. People look forward to going, and feel excited while they're inside.

Nevertheless, by its very nature a trip to pick up some groceries is destined to be brief, non-interactive, and inconvenient for groups to show up together.

Unlike clothes from the mall, books from the bookstore, or coffee from the cafe, what you purchase at the supermarket is going to spoil unless you get a move on. This is a built-in way for cocooners to avoid succumbing to the rare temptation they might have to hang out for awhile in public -- can't, ice cream melting, gotta go! It also supplies them with plausible deniability so they don't seem like an anti-social retard, like someone who showed up to a bar for a single drink and left in under 30 minutes on a happening night. It's not that I want to go -- I have to, or the food will spoil!

Moreover, you know that all the other patrons are going to be doing the same thing, so you're excused from not bothering them with any interaction. And they know not to bother you. And they know that you know that they know that.... It's all common or shared knowledge, so there's no awkwardness or misunderstanding about everybody keeping to themselves and clearing out ASAP.

Aside from other people being pressed for time, they're technically out running errands. They're supposedly in utilitarian mode, not leisure mode, so approaching them would be an interruption of their to-do list for the day. Wandering around the mall, browsing a selection of books, waiting for your coffee to cool off -- these are all clearly leisure activities. Filling up your basket with items to stock up the fridge and the pantry -- clearly not. Grocery shopping is the prototypical "errand-running" activity.

And why would you show up with friends to buy groceries? You're only buying for those in your household. At most you'd go with your spouse, cohabiting partner, or housemates. It's rare to see a group of friends shopping for groceries as a group -- and almost never if they're all guys (not counting a pack of homos cruising for their next STD). At the mall or at a dance club in the '80s, it was rare not to show up in a group.

Public places with large crowds cannot support much socializing unless small groups show up to begin with. An individual feels uncomfortable without an intimate home base to return to while out navigating the crowd, and it eases the tension for one group to approach another group, rather than one individual approaching another individual. Responsibility can be spread out over each member of the group, so no one feels the spotlight, as opposed to the will of the approaching individual being totally clear. Without this nesting of smaller into larger groups, the supermarket offers little opportunity to get to know anyone else.

The lack of interaction is even stranger when you consider that a lot of the patrons at any given time are regulars and may in fact recognize each other. But, no time to chat, the fresh spinach is wilting as we speak. It would be odd for regulars at a coffee shop or bar to never interact. Perhaps you only go as far as being friends within the cafe or bar, not outside, but that's a far stronger bond than making eye contact with another regular at the Whole Foods.

The only people you will regularly interact with are the cashiers. Cocooners may be afraid of socializing with their fellow community members, but not with someone who's being paid partly to exchange pleasantries with the customers. There's a clearer expectation of boundaries and not getting to know each other very well, if they're a worker and you're a customer.

Very few of the cashiers are middle-aged or old people (unlike the regular supermarket, where debt-saddled Boomers who won't retire are stealing jobs that belong to youngsters). They're chosen to be as hip and good-looking as possible, just like the baristas you got to know back when coffee shops were the go-to hang-out. But unlike the workers at Starbucks who you could chat with off and on, there's a constant rush in the checkout line at the supermarket, so unless you've got over a thousand dollars worth of stuff, you won't have much time to shoot the breeze with them, learn about who they are, what's going on in their lives, and so on.

In every way, then, the foodie supermarket is even less social as a public hang-out than the coffee shop, much less the mall from way back when.

Related to that is the increasingly narrow demographics of the regulars. Everybody from all groups used to hang out at the mall, including senior citizens who were there as long as the teenagers, and who also traveled in pairs and in packs. The bookstore narrowed it down quite a bit, mostly on age, but also on worldview, politics, and the like. The coffee shop, even more so.

At the foodie supermarket, it's narrower still: you don't see many people over 50, nor are there high schoolers looking for something to do after school. The sex ratio is biased much more in favor of women, especially in groups -- like I said, no group of guys would head off to a supermarket for a social trip. A good deal of wealth strivers rather than lifestyle strivers showed up to the Starbucks, whereas just about everyone at the Whole Foods is a hardcore lifestyle striver. They're almost 100% liberals / libertarians, and even higher in median income than the coffee shop regulars.

About the only advantage that supermarkets have over the earlier public hang-outs are the lack of colonization by creeps, weirdos, and bums. As normal people abandoned the mall, scummier people took it over. Ditto with bookstores, and now with coffee shops. Supermarkets are avoiding this because they do not lend themselves to squatting -- everyone goes in and comes out within 30 minutes max. Bums can't pretend to be shopping for items for hours on end, in the way they can squat in a bookstore or coffee shop all day long.

This would seem to be the end-point of public hang-out cocooning, since the arrival of parasites would eventually drive out normal people from the Whole Foods. Now that cocooners have discovered the strategy of hanging out on-the-run, they won't have to worry about the atmosphere becoming polluted after the dregs of society figured out that this is the place to creep out the normals.

Before too long, people will tire of having no public hang-out places whatsoever, and will get sick of having to sneak in their public "socializing" in 15-minute snippets while busily running an errand. With no bums and creeps around to remind them of the possible downsides of public hang-outs, they'll wonder why we aren't spending more time just enjoying each other's company at a leisurely pace in public. It's not like any bad people are going to show up.

Once that thought process begins, we'll start hanging out in public more, first only at the level that people were comfortable with in the late '50s, coming out of their Midcentury cocoons. It'll still be a couple decades after that for people to be as un-self-conscious in public places as they were in the '80s. But even that will probably happen within most of our lifetimes, so it's something to look forward to while we wait things out here in the doldrums.

November 1, 2015

The over-use of gory, filthy sets in horror movies

While I tune out the boring plot and ham-fisted dialog of modern horror movies, I try to find a silver lining in the visuals, although they're usually just as off-putting as the narrative.

One of the most ubiquitous of these visual cliches is a set where gore and filth cover as many surfaces as possible -- walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, fixtures, you name it. The idea is to gross out the audience, rather than to create a frightening or disturbing atmosphere, but even that attempt fails.

Let's review some examples first and then explore what is so off about the approach. In movies, the style began with Saw in 2004, although it appears to have made the jump from video games of the survival horror genre, such as Silent Hill 2 from 2001. At any rate, it continues in both media through today.

The Cabin in the Woods

Dementium: The Ward

Evil Dead

The Evil Within


A Nightmare on Elm Street


Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2

Putting aside any concerns about color palette and lighting, and sticking only to the application of details to surfaces, what goes so wrong in this approach?

First, it's information overload. There are simply too many details to attend to, across the entirety of the frame. Worse, there's no pay-off to inspecting them, as though one of the details held some plot clue or revealed something about someone's personality. The result is to leave the viewer confused, frustrated, and annoyed -- but not disturbed or afraid.

It also prevents tension from building in what is supposed to be a frightening scene. While your eye is busy scanning through all of those details on the walls, floor, ceiling -- everywhere -- it doesn't get a chance to rest. Tension cannot escalate except from an initial resting state (sparse details, silence, minimal action).

Nor can a surfeit of gory details represent an emotional climax, if it doesn't follow a period of tension-building. The approach is trying to blow us away with too much too soon -- we aren't awed but, again, puzzled about how the hell the scene got to look that way. And with so many details, no one of them stands out to grab our attention. Each bit of gore is only a drop in the bucket, as it were.

And although the intention is to portray a gritty naturalism, the overly filthy and gory surfaces strike us as incredibly unnatural. No dirty / abandoned / squatted place has so many sources of filth continually renewing the filthy look. Over time organic matter decays, so a long-abandoned bathroom will not have copious stains from urine, feces, or vomit. Blood dries and decays too -- are we to believe that every one of the myriad blood stains are fresh, without having seen them made? Decay of building materials is more likely, but most of that is structural rather than chemical -- stuff breaks down into smaller pieces, not discolored (as though every building material and fixture corroded like cheap rusty nails). Airflow blows dirt off the walls to settle on the ground.

Aside from how recently all these stains would had to have been made, there's also the matter of how they could've gotten to where they ended up. What source and path could have led to the placement that we see? Copious blood stains high on a wall or ceiling? Filth and grime dripping down a wall with no source above? When every stain is a mystery stain, the whole thing feels made-up. It strikes us as staged and therefore fake, reminding us that it's the result of deliberate and exaggerated set design. It's as though one of those shabby chic decorators was asked to apply their overly distressed style to a horror geek's bathroom.

Thus, the approach to gross us out fails because our disgust reflex is not triggered when we aren't convinced that we're seeing a plausible scene of gore and filth. It doesn't have to look 100% realistic, but it does have to feel plausible, and we don't feel convinced when it looks like some set decorator let loose with a gore-hose over every square inch of every surface.

Contrast the filthily encrusted look of contempo horror with the restrained or sometimes clean sets in classics from the late '60s through the early '90s. Really the only filthy shot is a close-up of a toilet in Candyman, but the establishing shot of the entire bathroom shows no gore, and not even that much filth -- more graffiti and trash than anything.




The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Exorcist

The Fly


Night of the Living Dead

The Shining

The Shining

With less cluttered surfaces, and only the occasional splotch of blood or filth, all of the problems are solved. There's no information overload, and we can start off in a resting state to build tension toward a climax. If that climax produces gore, there won't be that much since it comes from a single event, and we'll have seen its source and path, making its residue on the walls, floor, etc. believable and unobtrusive.

Fairly stain-free surfaces are also more what we see in everyday life, even when the place has been subject to weird, violent, and disgusting events. This relatively cleaner-looking set lends a naturalism to a story that is beyond the ordinary -- demonic possession, butchering, and the like. What truly disturbs us is the sense that something so bizarre could take place in our ordinary settings.

The restrained approach to set design not only succeeds in creating a disturbing atmosphere, it even succeeds at the goal of grossing out the audience, since we can focus better on the gross-out event, its source is known and convincing, and it just stands out a lot better in contrast against the cleaner setting. Costumes play a role here, too: the gross-out event is more disgusting when people are wearing normal clean clothes, than if one of them were dressed in overly filthy clothes. Regan spewing vomit in The Exorcist, for example, compared to a similar scene in the recent remake of Evil Dead.

In the 21st century, horror makers have encrusted their sets with gore and filth based on the belief that clean sets = dull sets. In reality, cleaner sets allow for a disturbing atmosphere to gradually develop, and for occasional gross-out moments to trigger disgust in the audience. Overly messy sets are just distracting, unconvincing, and therefore non-threatening. Perhaps that's the ultimate goal in this period of falling crime rates -- to make horror sets so unbelievable that we won't be in any danger of feeling unsettled.