Posts tagged with culture

Silicon Valley “maker” culture insists that if you don’t like something, it’s incumbent on you to do better. Bollocks. If we applied that logic to everything we’d say:

  • Marcovaldo’s paintings bore me. Maybe you should paint a better one!
  • The seats on this bus are uncomfortable. Maybe you should engineer some better bus seats!
  • I’m so frustrated that this plane won’t take off for another two hours. Maybe you should re-figure the logistics for the Civil Aviation Authority so planes can get off the ground faster!
  • Sylvia Plath is obnoxious. Maybe you should write some better poetry yourself. I don’t see you writing any poetry!
  • I hate Palazzo Pants. They’re coming back and I can’t stand it. So don’t buy any!
  • Economic theory is wrong. Maybe you should come up with a better theory!
  • Star Trek is racist and paternalistic. Well, I don’t see you writing a hit TV show that’s not racist!
  • I don’t like that restaurant. So don’t go there.

How could it seem reasonable to obligate someone to years of reparations for a one-minute whinge?


Kvetching may be a waste of time, but it’s also a natural part of life. We are a verbal species.
Just as innate as it is to

  • angrily debate politics or
  • to make an ugly face when you ask someone what they do and they say “Mathematics”,

it’s very simple and natural to express delight or disgust at good or bad design, craft, or taste—even outside one’s expertise. How is it incumbent on a whiner to spend ten years learning how to write software, because they said they disliked what you made?

If I say I didn’t like that restaurant and you say So don’t go there again, what just happened is that I expressed how something made me feel, and you instructed me. Maybe it is rational to not go there again … ok, fine … maybe it’s also rational to have feelings and to want to express them, even if I’m not going to take any further action beyond expressing myself.

It’s of course possible to override the natural instinct to complain. I could if I really wanted to. But Rails programmers in San Francisco already get enough remuneration. I’m not also going to grant them the power to dictate culture as well.

  • Linux is still hard for most people.
  • Mathematics is still boring for most people.
  • If someone complains to you, a totally fine response is: “I see”.

But there were also more profound features, which took me a long time even to notice, because they are so at odds with modern experience that neither New Guineans nor I could even articulate them. Each of us took some aspects of our lifestyle for granted and couldn’t conceive of an alternative.

Those other New Guinea features included the non-existence of “friendship” (associating with someone just because you like them), a much greater awareness of rare hazards, war as an omnipresent reality, morality in a world without judicial recourse, and a vital role of very old people. …

Many of my experiences in New Guinea have been intense—a sudden encounter at night with a wild man, the prolonged agony of a nearly-fatal boat accident, one broken little stick in the forest warning us that nomads might be about to catch us as trespassers …

Jared Diamond, The World Before Yesterday

via University of David

Evolutionary psychology … popular … media … people latch on to these stories and use them to justify the status quo. One … is that men prefer women with small waists and big hips. This is measured using the Waist to Hip Ratio (WHR). The WHR is the circumference of your waist divided by the circumference of your hips. The links below will tell you that men are irresistibly drawn to women with WHRs of .70. This number is apparently imbued with evolutionary significance because prepubescent girls have WHRs close to 1 (their waists are the same size as their hips), while post-pubescent girls have WHR less than 1 (waists smaller than hips); and also because low WHRs are associated with a good hormonal balance. One thing that makes this idea attractive is that it conforms to our modern, western experience—many women who are considered to be extremely attractive have low WHRs and it’s difficult to generate examples of women who are famous for their beauty, but who have high WHRs. …

… here are a couple recent stories about the WHR: 1 (this one includes exercise tips to help women appear to have a more ideal WHR ratio) 2, and 3 (this one also claims that “men’s perfect lovers come with a waist-to-hip ratio of .70”, implying, I suppose that WHR ratio influences how good you are in bed??). Science reporting is rarely subtle and these articles are no exception. They talk about “males”, “females”, “mate preference”, and “evolutionary” indicators of fertility. This language suggests to the average reader that these results are universal. That they reflect the preferences of people in general. But, does the research behind the headlines support this universality?

The burden of any serious evolutionary psychology research program must be to establish the generality of their results across cultures. It doesn’t matter how cool the evolutionary angle is— oh, look, this co-varies with fertility!!. It doesn’t matter how obvious the effect seems to us. If male preference for women with low WHRs doesn’t obtain across cultures then it’s not universal. This isn’t to say that there couldn’t still be an evolutionary component to our preferences. It would be remarkable if there were not. But, genetic contributions to behaviour are complicated. So, failure to establish the generality of a preference for low WHR doesn’t necessarily imply that men aren’t sensitive to information that conveys fertility in potential partners. But, it does mean that there is not a universal reliance on this one particular type of information. It is quite likely that a whole lot of cues interact in a complex system of perceived attractiveness, to the extent that it doesn’t make much sense to isolate one variable. So, anyway…

What IS the evidence for a low WHR … preference across cultures? Well, it’s actually quite muddled. Westman and Marlowe (1999) provide a pretty good intro to the evidence for the WHR preference, so I’d recommend their paper for a quick overview. They point out that the majority of studies on WHR rely on American undergraduates, although there is also evidence for a similar preference in Hispanic, British (although see below), and American-Indonesians. Some researchers (e.g., Singh, 1993) suggest that this preference is universal across cultures (p. 305). But, rather than jump straight into a statement of universality, Singh says something a bit more measured. He claims “the fact that WHR conveys such significant information about the mate value of a woman suggests that men in all societies should favor women with a lower WHR over women with a higher WHR for mate selection or at least find such women sexually attractive.” That last bit is interesting. It merely suggests that men shouldn’t find women with low WHR unattractive. This is a very different argument than the oft repeated universal preference for low WHR.

Unfortunately, Singh’s … prediction has morphed into a presumption of universal preference for low WHR. ….
But, as it happens, there is quite a bit of evidence against this claim. Westman & Marlowe (1999) tested the effect of weight and WHR on perceived attractiveness, health, and suitability as a wife in the Hadza of Tansania. The men in that society showed no preference for women with low (.7) or high (.9) WHR, but they did show a distinct preference for heavier (cf. thin) women. Yu and Shepard (1998) also failed to find an effect of WHR on attractiveness among the Matsigenka. Swami et al (2007) looked at WHR preferences among males in Spain, Portugal, and the UK.In all three countries BMI, not WHR, accounted for the most variance in perceived attractiveness. WHR influenced attractiveness judgments for Spanish and Portugese, but not British men. However, even in the Spanish and Portugese samples WHR accounted for only about 18-19% of the variance, while BMI accounted for over 70% of the variance in perceived attractiveness. This paper also has a great summary of methodological issues with prior WHR studies (e.g., the use of two dimensional line drawing, failing to control for BMI). Cornelissen et al (2009) looked at patterns of British male gaze fixation during attractiveness judgments of pictures of women. Men tended to look at the upper abdomen and face, not the hip or pelvic area. The pattern of gaze fixations matched the way men evaluated the same pictures when estimating body fat, and did not match the way men evaluated WHR. Reading these papers suggests a lively debate in the literature about the universality of low WHR preference. I am not an expert in this area, and these examples don’t even scratch the surface, but they do indicate lack of consensus on the generality of the low WHR preference.

So, what does WHR even mean, evolutionarily speaking? Most people seem to argue that low WHR indicates a good balance of estrogen to other hormones, which is important for fertility. Fertility, undoubtedly, is essential to evolutionary fitness but 1) WHR isn’t going to be the only cue to fertility and 2) there are other important characteristics that may account for more variance in reproductive success in some situations (e.g., if the vast majority of women in a certain age range are fertile). Cashdan (2008) looked at actual average WHRs in a variety of cultures, mostly non-Western. She found that the average WHR was > .80 (remember, .70 is supposedly the magic number). Cashdan pointed out that androgens and cortisol both increase abdominal fat in women (increasing WHR). But, higher levels of these hormones are also associated with increased strength and stamina, which come in handy in less than optimal circumstances. She says: “Waist-to-hip ratio may indeed be a useful signal to men, then, but whether men prefer a WHR associated with lower or higher androgen/estrogen ratios (or value them equally) should depend on the degree to which they want their mates to be strong, tough, economically successful, and politically competitive” (p. 1104). This suggests that it’s possible to construct a perfectly reasonable evolutionary account for why men might prefer a high, rather than low, WHR (i.e., given a stressful environment where strength and stamina matter). The variables that dominate in a particular situation will likely depend on a number of specific environmental and cultural conditions. In other words, it’s complicated.

This story, unlike the one about low WHR preference, doesn’t seem to reflect our (modern, western) experience, so it’s less likely to catch the popular imagination. We don’t tend to think of male attraction based on female heartiness, but we also live in a particularly rich culture where we don’t spend a lot of time physically searching for / killing food or building shelters. So, here’s the psychologist’s fallacy again. Evolution is complicated and the features that confer fitness are necessarily dependent on context. This means that it’s not too difficult to think of a number of plausible evolutionary explanations for a particular phenomena. The preferred explanations are most likely going to be the ones that fit with our current experience, but this doesn’t make them better explanations.

via until a single soliton survives

Draupadi (द्रौपदी) with her five husbands (the five Pandavas पाण्‍डव).

Draupadi (द्रौपदी) with her five husbands (the five Pandavas पाण्‍डव).


It is therefore, I think, a mistake to think of the individual as a sort of elementary nucleus, a primitive atom or some multiple, inert matter to which power is applied, or which is struck by a power that subordinates and destroys individuals. In actual fact, one of the first effects of power is that it allows bodies, gestures, discourses, and desires to be identified and constituted as something individual.

The individual is not, in other words, power’s opposite number; the individual is one of power’s first effects. The individual is in fact a power-effect, and at the same time, and to the extent that he is a power-effect, the individual is a relay: power passes through the individuals it has constituted.
Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended” (14 January 1976)

Girl in an expensive American city tells me to travel often and quit my job.

Chuck Palahniuk holds a gun to a man’s head and makes him promise to follow his dreams.

Paul Ryan Spending Final Day Of Campaign Reminding Homeless People They Did This To Themselves

(As I tried to submit this to @pastabagel, I saw an ad by an institute of higher learning suggesting that I further my career by giving them money. A nice coincidence made possible by the fact that ads for higher degrees are more ubiquitous than weight-loss ads.)

(Beware: some of the images beyond “Read More” are violent.)

Read More

The most obvious image of a laughable hipster should be a half-time art-school student whose parents are going to provide him/her with a cushy job and/or money so s/he doesn’t really have to work but can just learn some stuff, party/hang out, make some art, and do a little-of-this little-of-that. Maybe have his/her own record label or vanity company or charity or eat instagrammable food or wear cool clothes or whatever, and be beautiful.




Hey, that actually sounds like a nice life I would like to have for myself.


Since art and learning and performing and consuming of those kinds of things are ends in themselves, it’s like this stereotypical character already has what the rest of us would use up our potential leisure time working to be able to afford. In that case the hipster hatred can be just a form of envy.

Right, you can tell me all you want about crows figuring out how to use tools or babboons having a social culture. To me the proof that humans are different doesn’t need to rely on going to the moon, although that is fairly dramatic, or invoking our size differences, but just the fact that you will not see this elaborate of a ritual in animal cultures.

  • 10⁷ people standing still, with drastic psyche-driven internal state fluctuating
  • one person apart
  • one person singing
  • (and obvs the technology: microphone and Ka’ab)

"We earned it"

  • Mitt Romney: Everything Ann [Romney] and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.
  • @isomorphisms: Invading other countries?
  • @isomorphisms: No, no, he must have meant farming.
  • @isomorphisms: Or taxing some serfs?
  • @isomorphisms: Oh, wait, it's obvious. Owning the means of production. Yes, quite.
  • I guess this is the flip side of "poor Americans == temporarily embarrassed millionaires". The rich need a rags-to-riches self-narrative as well.
  • They can't be satisfied with: "Was born into a good family. Did not become Paris Hilton".
  • @isomorphisms: What's not meritorious about "I was born into wealth and worked hard?" I think that reflects quite well on one's parents for not raising a party brat and on one's self for having the discipline and morals to avoid that temptation.
  • @isomorphisms: So why does it have to be "It was all me, nobody helped me ever" ?
  • @isomorphisms: Obviously you couldn't have built your business without your customers, partners, employees, vendors, etc.
  • And just as obviously, you can't make money in finance without a well-functioning legal system. Imagine trying to do trades with someone "in the wild", without paper contracts.
  • 1: OK, you want this claim to 38% of my corp? That'll be 987e3 shekels.
  • 2: Dafuq? It was 900e3 shekels this morning.
  • 1: Well, the price has changed.
  • 2: (punches #1)
  • And yeah, I'm obviously joking about being able to deal with sophisticated paper claims without a government enforcing the rules of the game--which it does founded on various beliefs and Lockean tacit social agreements &c. Sure, you could still do crude finance (lending) at cost with a handful of goons rather than a debtor's prison / debt collectors / torts. But to be able to trade claims to sub-streams of payments (interest-only CDO's), paper claims of shares in paper companies with multi-national citizenship, and adjudicate disputes over such, requires a LOT of social agreement and a LOT of distance from the Hobbesian brutish primitive.
  • Anyone who made money in finance or insurance couldn't have done it, or at least not nearly as good of spreads, without a legal system backing them up, and social norms reinforcing that so most people "behave" (show up to work, don't destroy property, pay their bills) without needing the stick fairly often. I mean honestly, how could something like an LBO even make conceptual sense outside a "sophisticated" society with all our familiar concepts of money, debt, property, paper claims, courts, duties, saving, lending, owing, owning, and so on?

My friend and I were talking about hard bodies, which are normative in US culture.

Hardbodies Poster
Do you think it's feminine when a guy works out a lot to get a hot body?

She told me her theory that they are normative because US culture is pro-masculine in such a way that everyone has to perform masculinity in some way.

A feminine man, I was looking for a photo of a wimpy vegetarian in Birkenstocks shopping at an organic grocery store and being otherwise overly sensitive. But I was basically picturing Todd Louiso's character from High Fidelity. In this shot it looks like he's trying to appear more maculine. // The original conversation that led to this train-of-thought was about the Whitney Houston movie The Bodyguard, which I haven't seen but it came to mind as an example of perhaps a beautiful man being chased by a successful woman. But, still not having seen it, I speculate that there will be some point in the story where the man takes charge of the romantic pursuit, in order to maintain his attractiveness by recovering his masculinity.

I don’t know if I agree with that thesis or not, but it got me thinking about how a pro-masculine culture might be reflected in the economy, in the utility functions, and what an alternative on that dimension might look like.


So obviously, Estadounidenses work out; "Fitness is a $19 billion industry"; those who don’t are shamed.


But hard-ness might be reflected in utility functions in other ways as well.

  • preference of work (“I worked my #rse off to get where I am today”), busy-ness, regimens, organised workspaces, getting things done, goal-setting, achievement
    Larry Wall is disarrayed, chaotic, relaxed, embraces stillness, but I think he comes off as perhaps a bit of a feminine hippie.
  • a preference for doing over not-doing (or maybe doing over being-done-to)
  • a preference for hard-force over soft-relaxedness soft causing
  • shaming of laziness, softness, sloth, people who are too relaxed or don’t work enough, people who aren’t busy, have no career, have no ambition
  • a preference for my-own-space over shared-space
  • a preference for working hard, even if it’s to the point of overworking (overworking is actually kind of a compliment)
    "Work, work, and more work, and I expect it shall continue to be so." OK, obviously it's not _only_ US culture that preferes busy-ness to not-busy-ness.
  • a preference for individualism over communalism
  • a greater need for personal space (people stand relatively far apart from each other)
  • "I wish I could spend more time with my spouse and kids, but I’m too busy running this business empire!”
  • "I wish I could take a real vacation, or for longer”
  • Confidence, competence, winners, power over gentleness, flabbiness, passiveness, meekness, passivity, sensitivity.
  • creative destruction, building things, knocking them down, refurbishing, rebranding, striving for better, striving for more.

What about the alternative—what would a “soft” economy look like? Well, besides performing services and producing goods for each other, people can give utils to each other directly with

  • sex —the most obvious example of pure hedonic pleasure, uncounted in GDP, and “being good at it” (for men) may have less to do with a Big Man with a Big Dick, and more to do with openness, acceptance, creativity, curiosity, playfulness, sensitivity—characteristics which can be somewhat opposite to the Hard Body No Sleep Driven Successful macho man model
  • hugs
  • touching
  • softness toward each other
  • compliments
  • massages
  • Tumblr Likes
  • conversation
  • listening to each other
  • playing games together (think “childrens’ games” — why are they for children?)
  • sitting next to each other
  • holding hands
  • communicating that “I accept you as you are” or “I care what you think” or “I think you’re awesome”

(and equally they can harm each other with innuendo, bickering, hurrying or harrying each other, glares, invocation of rank/status, backhanded compliments, body language, and other perhaps “feminine” moves).

Somehow I got to think about Odo from Star Trek.
In at least one episode, the others of his shape-shifting race want him to return to live with them so they can all shape-shift into a goo and flow around in each other’s beings and experience each other. Which is one idea of Heaven. But Odo (a hero on a US TV show) wants to keep exploring, penetrating the cosmos to greater lengths. Maybe a “more feminine” economy, though, would look more like that. People touching each other, lazily hanging out,

I think there’s a reason that “California Buddhism”
looks like finding peace on a marathon instead of this:

Look at that fat guy! He’s just sitting there! So, but what do you do? I mean, what do you do, do?