Sunday, May 31, 2009

Movie / Up

Ho-Hum. Time for John Lasseter to Retire? [This comment may contain spoilers]

A rare stumble. When every movie you've made (before) was a breakout hit, a fatal malaise can set in where you think every idea you have is good.

"Up" is a case in point. Is this a kids movie or an Ibsen drama? The film starts with an unrelated short about storks bringing new babies. Already we are thinking, "huh?" Then the hero (a sidewalk balloon vendor) ages from 7 to 78. Touching but cartoonish. Scene change. Then he transports his house to South America with a mockery of an ethnic Cub Scout in tow, where they meet a giant bird. Then his childhood hero, an accused fraudster, who should be at least 120 by now, appears and turns out to be a creep.

All this time they never meet another human or animal, besides the villain and his dogs, despite that those forests would be teeming with tribesmen, lizards, other birds, and so on. Like a stage play in which a few characters do everything. Dora the Explorer does a better job of portraying wilderness.

The cardinal sin: the characters never change. The old man and the demented pseudo Cub Scout emerge exactly as they were before. Pixar markets itself as being about great storytelling, not just animation, but here they goofed. You'll walk out wondering, "what was that?"

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Friday, May 29, 2009

The Law of Equal Hotness

Are there laws that guide social and psychological interactions, and if so how can we learn them? As with any form of science, we gather observations, draw tentative conclusions, plan further observations to confirm (or refute) them, and look for plausible theories to explain them.

Over the last few years one conclusion I've reached is this: If you see two women walking together, there's a high probability they are very similar in looks. If one of them would be deemed good looking, it is rare that the other is not also, and vice versa. If they are more plain looking, older, or overweight they remain closely tuned to each other. I call this the "Law of Equal Hotness" (LEH).

The same is true of couples, men walking together, and pairs of couples, but it is most striking with pairs of women, who often seem to express a level of confidence in their appearance by the way they dress. Furthermore, they seem able to grade themselves into a series of very precise levels, like a spectrum. I haven't yet tried to count or name these levels, but there are more than six.

It would be simple enough to formally test this idea. Take photos or video clips of subjects, chosen fairly to include all pairs on a given street without deleting any that don't fit the hypothesis; devise a scoring sheet that includes indicia of class, ethnicity, clothing, age, beauty, and flair; and recruit panels of judges to score the photos. Better yet, take two separate photos, one of each member of a given pair, and shuffle them, so your panel won't know which ones were together and must score each one blindly. Compare scores to see how close they came for each pair. Develop measures of similarity and an estimate of variance within and between pairs.

Theory / Explanation

The LEH is a common example of a more general law I call "birds of a feather flock together" (BFFT). Irrespective of looks, people tend to feel more comfortable with others "like" themselves. Thus for example at a party people will tend to sort themselves into groups such as sports fans, computer nerds, aspiring actors, new parents, older guys, grandmothers, and so on.

The best explanation for why women tend to associate with others with similar looks, to a high degree of precision, is that due to their similarly ranked appearance, they tend to experience the social world the same way. Parents, teachers, boyfriends, older men, husbands, employers, people on the street and in bars, etc., will tend to treat them in similar ways. Consequently they will tend to have (and have had) many highly similar experiences, can share a point of view, and can give each other advice (about men and the world) that will be highly pertinent to the other's experiences and needs.

In slightly more formal language, the two women are both (a) open thermodynamic systems that tend toward higher degrees of organization, (b) cybernetic systems that receive, process, and act on information, and (c) self creating autonomous life forms that evolve socially toward specific levels of "fitness" or attunement to environmental conditions. As such they will tend to experience a very similar set of privileges, opportunities, expectations, and limitations imposed on them by society's ranking system, in terms of what they can do (or get away with), and where they hit rough spots. The experience and advice of one will be well suited to the other, hence they can speak each other's language.

Suggestions for Further Research
  • Develop a detailed analysis of the privileges / problems that female appearance brings.
  • Identify / enumerate levels or types of women who tend to befriend each other.
  • Carry out controlled studies as described above.
  • Take a deeper look at causal factors; for example, do pairs adjust to each other's mode of dress, to the situation, to the season, etc?
  • Look for practical applications, for example in the women's clothing, advertising, and entertainment industries.
  • Don't forget to cite me as the original source of these insights.
Perhaps in a "less material" world where media, advertising, and entertainment placed less emphasis on looks, this effect would be less pronounced and people walking together would appear more diverse. However, in the world we're living in now, women are increasingly sexualized by society as girls, leading them to live remarkably appearance-determined lives.

In more extreme cases we see the emergence of entire class / caste systems composed of individuals who share similar privileges, experiences, and appearance, and who tend to socialize primarily or solely with others of the same class / caste. However, this short article is focused mainly on beauty and its possible influence on social friendships.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Can She Bake A Cherry Pie?

The business press provides endless articles about the actions or strategies of companies and executives, and countless books exist to provide business and career advice. Yet I've never seen the advice I'm about to give you, despite that it could have an enormous impact on your business success.

Paranormal phenomena remain at the frontier (or outland) of science, not due (in my opinion) to lack of data, but rather due to the lack of (a) any coherent explanatory theory and hence (b) any ability to make controlled predictions. However many such phenomena have been studied in sufficient detail to qualify as descriptive sciences, and they are more accepted in India where they go by the term "siddhis" (perfections, powers).

One such phenomenon is clairvoyance, including an ability to "read" or intuit the thoughts and intentions of others. While still unexplained, this has been extensively documented in "ganzfeld" experiments and there is little doubt as to its existence.

As anyone with significant business experience can tell you, this would be extremely desirable, since the business world contains a large number of deeply unethical people. Bernard L. Madoff and Marc Dreier are only the tip of the iceberg. Some psychiatrists place the number of persons with sociopathic "character disorder" as high as five percent (5%) of the general population. (See "The Sociopath Next Door," by Martha Stout, Harvard University.) And in my experience, although you won't read this in the media, at the higher levels of business the percentage is much higher, i.e., this issue is really life or death.

Some select people do seem to have clairvoyant abilities.

For example, the reign of Charlemagne is celebrated as a bright spot in French history and early medieval European civilization. According to one story I heard from a history professor, King Charlemagne had a person in his court "who could tell him the true intentions of anyone standing before him." However, when that guy died, things went to hell, darkness fell again, and the ensuing rulers resumed murdering each other. (B. Frischer, personal communication.)

In a recent example, the famous entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell (Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, uWink) was asked "Who gives you the best advice about your business?" He replied, "... my wife Nancy ... can ferret out frauds and phonies better than anyone else I've ever seen." (Inc Magazine, April 2009, page 115).

How can this knowledge help your business career?

As a young man or woman focusing on a career in business, or graduating from business school, you could (following Bushnell) put this ability on your checklist of desiderata for a potential mate. Places to look include yoga or meditation classes, spiritual bookstores, or possibly your local church. If you wanted to be sure, you could introduce your date to someone known to be a pathological liar (such people are not rare) and see whether they can spot them.

Some men or women of a spiritual bent may consider this idea overly materialistic but spiritual people need financial support and the prospect of being well cared for by a successful, ethical business person could be a positive life choice for many of them.

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