An anecdote about the job market

Talked to a friend a week ago about his experience looking for jobs as a recent college grad. The reality bites.

Back in 2006, he says, when it came time to look for an internship as part of his high school’s “SIS” (Seniors take the last month or two of the school year to work on a project of some sort. It can be research, and internship, the creation of art of some kind, and other types of things) he had no trouble finding a place in New York City willing to take on an intern at a reasonable, but not horrible, wage. He ended up working on and off, during summers home from college, at the company for three years.

Now, college is complete, but there are just about no jobs to be found. No one is hiring, not even intern/entry pay level jobs. His best opportunity so far has been a job interview at a company that make products for pregnant women. The interview went well, but he has no desire to work in the field.

He thinks the universe has conspired against the class of ’10. I find it hard to disagree, seeing as I’m in the same “looking for employment” boat. I have barely any job experience and there really just aren’t any (college grad) entry level jobs around. He has 3 years and experience at another company as well, and he can barely find anything. The Huffington Post is blasting a headline right this moment saying that youth unemployment is higher than it has ever been since WW2.

This is all a long way of saying that I’m applying to both law and graduate school programs for next fall to hopefully boost my future chances at gainful (or any) employment while hoping that things get a bit better during the two or three years I’m hitting the books.

Population Problems and Mice and John B. Calhoun

Another subject on the laundry list of things I’m fascinated with is the effects of population (amount, density, growth rate, etc) on human life (happiness, loneliness, romance). For example, people in large cities have more difficulty in finding a spouse than people in smaller or less dense places. Why? Increased choice also means increased comparisons (and presumably, competition), making it more difficult to make the final “this is the best person in the world for me” decision as in a city one is, for example, looking for the best (fit) out of a million instead of the best out of one thousand.

Another interesting phenomenon is Dunbar’s number, the idea that the maximum amount of people that we are able to maintain regular stable relationships with at any given time is between 100 and 230 people (the wikipedia says 150 is the generally accepted approximation). This number/theory is important to consider, especially in the Facebook era. Dunbar himself has said that preliminary research is showing that the 150 number seen in non-digital life is the same number seen in digital life.

Moving onward!

The Daily Dish brought up an article about mice and population today. It is very cool. It’s an old study (from the late 70s) by John B. Calhoun: CABINET // The Behavioral Sink

Here’s the premise: instead of looking at population growth in terms of strain on resources, let’s look at what happens when all “strains” are controlled except for one: space

The Universe took the form of a tank, 101 inches square… Each wall had sixteen vertical mesh tunnels—call them stairwells—soldered to it. Four horizontal corridors opened off each stairwell, each leading to four nesting boxes. That means 256 boxes in total, each capable of housing fifteen mice. There was abundant clean food, water, and nesting material. The Universe was cleaned every four to eight weeks. There were no predators, the temperature was kept at a steady 68°F, and the mice were a disease-free elite selected from the National Institutes of Health’s breeding colony. Heaven.

Four breeding pairs of mice were moved in on day one. After 104 days of upheaval as they familiarized themselves with their new world, they started to reproduce.

Such a cool idea.

In their fully catered paradise, the population increased exponentially, doubling every fifty-five days. Those were the good times, as the mice feasted on the fruited plain. To its members, the mouse civilization of Universe 25 must have seemed prosperous indeed. But its downfall was already certain—not just stagnation, but total and inevitable destruction.

Anarchy! Except with unlimited food and cleaning and no natural disasters or weather problems. So how did the downfall begin?

Past day 315, population growth slowed. More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25, constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat, drink, and sleep. Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day, and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles.

Plenty of ways to extrapolate that to modern living. It’s a stretch, but not a huge one, as we’ll soon see…

Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers.

Ok, starting to get a bit creepy.

Procreation slumped, infant abandonment and mortality soared. Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.

Wild

 There would be no recovery, not even after numbers had dwindled back to those of the heady early days of the Universe. The mice had lost the capacity to rebuild their numbers—many of the mice that could still conceive, such as the “beautiful ones” and their secluded singleton female counterparts, had lost the social ability to do so. In a way, the creatures had ceased to be mice long before their death—a “first death,” as Calhoun put it, ruining their spirit and their society as thoroughly as the later “second death” of the physical body.

Well now I’m just plain scared.

This formula might apply to rats and mice—but could the same happen to humankind? For Calhoun, there was little question about it.

Oh, great.

And that lesson found a ready audience. “Population Density and Social Pathology” was, for an academic paper, a smash hit, being cited up to 150 times a year. Particularly effective was Calhoun’s name for the point past which the slide into breakdown becomes irretrievable: the “behavioral sink.” “The unhealthy connotations of the term are not accidental,” Calhoun noted drily. The “sink,” a para-pathology of shared hopelessness, drew in pathological behavior and exacerbated its effects. Once the event horizon of the behavioral sink was passed, the end was certain. Pathological behavior would escalate beyond any possibility of control.

More good news!

It’s entirely possible that without several social programs in the US we would be much closer to Calhoun’s predicted doom and gloom. For example, “The 1930 census…found 58 percent of men over 65 still in the workforce; in contrast, by 2002, the figure was 18 percent.” (NYT article from 2005) Imagine combining today’s employment woes with a US in which 3 times as many seniors hold jobs and in which, according to the same article, 30% to 50% of seniors were also being primarily supported by their children, friends or relatives.

Put plainly: more unemployed youth and more people living in close quarters, both factors that Calhoun showed to catalyze social decline. Social Security without a doubt helped slow or divert movement in that direction.

Moving back away from politics and over to science:

The misery of the rodent universes was not uniform—it had contours, and some did better than others. Calhoun consistently found that those animals better able to handle high numbers of social interactions fared comparatively well. “High social velocity” mice were the winners in hell. As for the losers, Calhoun found they sometimes became more creative, exhibiting an un-mouse-like drive to innovate. They were forced to, in order to survive.

More wonderful real-life correlations!

But Calhoun was optimistic about the problem.

Man, he argued, was a positive animal, and creativity and design could solve our problems. He advocated overcoming the limitations of the planet, and as part of a multidisciplinary group called the Space Cadets promoted the colonization of space.

Ok, I was hoping for something better than that.

Three cheers for the inevitable fall of mankind!

Closing words:

The point was that crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance. In Calhoun’s heaven, hell was other mice.

A response about Ellis and the dangers of satirization

This is a response to my Uncle’s comment here. I decided to make a post of it instead of a comment reply because I have been interested in expounding upon my briefly mentioned thoughts on satirization (and the inherent dangers in using it).

______

First:

American Psycho is Less than Zero on steroids in terms of disturbing-ness. Ellis’s books all kind of play out like Jimmy Page’s deep dark fantasies put through a filter of lithium and ambien then given a very good literary treatment. DEFINITELY not as crazy as Burroughs in terms of structure, but perhaps as wild or moreso in terms of content. Everything from Glamorama onward replaced much of the early gruesomeness with mystery and a sort of schizophrenic writing style, whereas American Psycho (and Less than Zero, and presumably Rules of Attraction) was much more lucid and therefore more disturbing on the surface.

One could make an argument though that part of Ellis’s point in American Psycho (and in Glamorama as well) is that there are far worse things than disturbing words and that figurative rape and murder of culture and society (by politicians? corporations? ad men? ourselves?) is what we should fear most. Not sure if I buy into it, but that is one way to look at his style in general.

Second:

As far as satirization, my fear lies in the fact that satirization that is misunderstood can have serious (and opposite) consequences. For example, there is quite a bit of strawman style satirism in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn that can go unrecognized by an untrained reader (perhaps reinforcing the idea that racism is normal or inherent in human nature). Same with nearly every paragraph in Catch-22 (things that can go unnoticed, not racial satirization). There are conservatives that enjoy The Colbert Report and don’t understand (or don’t want to admit) that he is not only making fun of them but reeeally reallly hardcore making fun of them when you unpack what he is trying to say. I’ve met some. They exist. It basically took his performance at the Correspondents Dinner for many to realize that he reeeeally despised the GOP and conservatives.

The problem begins with the fact that certain types of satirization walk a very fine line whereby the subtlety serves only to amuse those already holding very strong similar views while confusing those who are neutral and perhaps reinforcing the views of those holding the opposite view. On top of it, the things that are “done” or “said” in the satirization may inadvertently affect civil discourse. An example might be an overly racist rant as a satirization of how absurd racism is. Repetitive usage of certain words (the “n” word, or phrases like “master race”) may serve the satirical purpose, but enter themselves into the lexicon of accepted things to say, even if only in jest.

A concrete example is most of the sketches in The Chappelle Show. Dave Chappelle quit the show after signing (or being offered) a massive contract for new seasons. Part of his reason was that his satirizations had sometimes only served to reinforce racial stereotypes, something opposite to much of what he was trying to accomplish. Fans would go around constantly repeating the funniest lines like “I’m Rick James…biatch” or “Cocaine is a hell of a drug” from the famous Rick James sketch. This mostly annoyed Dave on a personal level (it was annoying), not a social level, though Chappelle decided he was maybe doing more damage than good and quit making the show. It seemed to be spurred by an incident in which Chappelle was filming a sketch in blackface and a member of the crew was laughing oddly.

CHAPPELLE: The way he laughed, made me feel like this guy’s laughing for the wrong reasons. And I dared him to laugh Anderson, so that’s my —

COOPER: Because people, I mean you want —

CHAPPELLE: It stirred something up in me emotionally that I was like, I don’t want to subject anyone else to.

So that is my fear of satire at a cerebral level. Satire can, and has, been used extremely effectively for good purposes. On a large scale, most (good) satire accomplishes what it is trying to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean that there is no damage caused along the way. As my first post about Bret Easton Ellis touched on, simple repetition of phrases or ideas can desensitize the viewer/reader/listener or cause one to think that something absurd is true. This is done in politics constantly, though not with satirical purposes, with less than helpful results most of the time.

At an emotional level, I love satire. It’s smart. It allows for wondrous nuance and layered humor, and unpacking each layer can magnify how funny a joke is.

But only if you understand what is going on or have the capacity (or time) to figure it out. And not everyone does. Especially children. With YouTube there is no easy way to filter such things from children anymore.

In the end, the fear isn’t that someone will take the satire literally. It’s that people will cherry pick the most humorous parts of the satirical work and through repetitive viewing/listening end up doing more damage than good because the core of satire is context. Selective quoting removes that, and therefore destroys the entire premise. “Cocaine is a hell of a drug” is said in the middle of a sketch about how insane Rick James acted back in the day and is said by a clearly physically and mentally broken down James. This is a guy that was arrested for decades ago burning a woman with a crack pipe. When it becomes a catch phrase that college kids use over and over again it becomes your friends saying that “cocaine is a hell of a drug.” Does that make one want to do cocaine more than before? No, probably not. Does it lessen the general social stigma (and distract from the serious problems that arise from addiction) associated with cocaine? I would argue yes.

So that is an issue that I think about from time to time. I don’t think there is an “answer” to the issue, but I think it is more than a simple thought exercise as well. I just don’t know.

It may come down to the fact that satire is a good way to “fight” gross societal injustice. If you visualize society (including public policy and laws, especially, but also social norms) as 80% evil and 20% good, you can use satire effectively to show how evil society is and tip the scale. However, I see satire as having the opposite effect in a society where there is 20% evil and 80% good. Satire, in general, is anti-majoritarian. Once the majority is more good than evil (this is incredibly subjective, yes), satire as a means of social change probably needs to be phased out in favor of traditional methods of change (protest, community organizing, political activism). That doesn’t mean satire for the sake of humor needs to be phased out, but I don’t believe the creator of that satire should be too sure that they are changing society for the better (if that is something they care about). The freedom to speak out against the government is also the freedom to do this:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

That’s just one way to look at the double edge sword nature of it.

Can probably blame YouTube and the internet for much of my primary concern on this matter, to be honest. Without them the problem would still exist but it would be much more localized and less easily spread among those who do not understand what they are seeing. But it also means I couldn’t instantly re-watch Colbert’s Correspondence Dinner speech too, so that would suck.

I’ll keep thinking about this issue. Perhaps there are actual writings and theories about this out somewhere. I’d be interested in reading those.

A post about literature and Bret Easton Ellis

Today I came across this post by Matthew Yglesias. In it he discusses a (female) blogger/writer’s long belated book review of American Psycho (by Bret Easton Ellis). Yglesias mostly talks about how the female writer, Sady Doyle, doesn’t really get the book.

…I was glad to see her write something at length about Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which I actually have read. Through paragraph after paragraph I kept wanting to say “you’re misunderstanding! you’re misunderstanding!”

I am a huge Bret Easton Ellis fan. I’ve read everything of his besides Rules of Attraction and the second half of The Informers. His first book, Less than Zero, is still my favorite, although the criminally underrated/under-appreciated Glamorama (his 5th book) is perhaps his most engrossing work.

I’m no literary scholar nor critic nor do I read all that much. But I have a basic understanding of Ellis’s style and subject matter/motivation as a whole, and that is sort of important for understanding American Psycho.

Yglesias goes on to quote the director of the American Psycho movie, as well as lead actor Christian Bale, to prove his point that the book is meant to be largely satirical and that Doyle misunderstands that. To call it “satirical” is true, though it ignores the nuance of Ellis’s larger direction of satirization, which can be seen more or less throughout all of his works.

Let’s look at part of Doyle’s appraisal of the book:

It’s rare that anyone plays the raping-and-beating-up-women thing hard enough or often enough to desensitize me. But Bret Easton Ellis, God bless his heart, managed to pull it off.

The whole book is like this: Thuddingly, numbingly repetitive, confined to making the same basic points approximately 1,000 times apiece. Patrick Bateman is very rich. Patrick Bateman owns lots of products. Patrick Bateman knows the names of all the products he owns, because consumerism is bad. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy restaurants where he eats ridiculous food. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy clubs where he does lots of cocaine. Patrick Bateman cares a lot about the fancy restaurants and clubs he goes to, because being status-conscious is bad. Patrick Bateman only knows other rich men; he hates them, because they are boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman is engaged to Evelyn, a rich lady; he hates her, because she is boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman cheats on Evelyn with lots of ladies; in a surprising twist, they are boring and shallow. Also, he hates them. Patrick Bateman hates women, generally. Patrick Bateman hates black people. Patrick Bateman hates gay people. Patrick Bateman hates the homeless. Patrick Bateman hates Asians. Patrick Bateman’s friends hate these people too, because bigotry is bad. Also, Patrick Bateman kills people. Patrick Bateman can get away with killing people. Patrick Bateman is only mildly more loathsome than his friends, because, as previously stated, the lifestyles of the rich and privileged are very bad. That is why we needed several hundred pages of excruciatingly detailed first-person description of them, because of how bad they are. You did not know they were bad before. Now you do. In summary, the ’80s were a spiritual wasteland. The End.

In most cases, you can excuse the banality and repetition as “necessary,” a technique that conveys how hollow and meaningless Patrick Bateman’s life has become.

It’s true. But it misses the point of what Ellis is trying to convey. Ellis’s major motif in all of his literary work is the idea of apathy. Less Than Zero is one giant pile of apathy. As Ellis grew as a writer he learned to wrap the problem of apathy in more complex stories and literary techniques. In fact, Doyle encounters it head on and doesn’t even realize it.

It’s rare that anyone plays the raping-and-beating-up-women thing hard enough or often enough to desensitize me. But Bret Easton Ellis, God bless his heart, managed to pull it off.

Ellis’s writing are partial performance art, and that is why his works have such lasting value. Whereas his first book was about apathetic people being apathetic about being apathetic, American Psycho, his follow up to the follow up of Less Than Zero, attempts to turn the reader into those same apathetic characters, perhaps in the hope that we would realize what we’ve become, or perhaps just because Ellis is amused by the subject matter and likes to write. I don’t know his deeper motivations.

But read what Dolye is saying and you see that Ellis has succeeded. Repetition of brutal rape and murder and torture scenes throughout the book end up desensitizing the reader. It’s purposeful, in my opinion, because the only other explanation is that Ellis is himself psychotic and just likes to write about these things and about restaurants and ties and face creams over and over and over again.

The “purpose” of Ellis’s satirism of apathy is up to the reader to surmise, but some obvious possibilities jump out. Doyle’s explanation that Ellis is just ranting that “the ’80s were a spiritual wasteland. The End.” falls flat. The most obvious explanation is that Ellis is complaining about consumer culture, both in his overt satirization in which Bateman, the protagonist, is obsessed about his clothing and going to the right restaurants and listening to the right music and giving a shit about mundane details that don’t really matter but are used to sell us things…long sentence here…and in his clandestine satirization in which he proves that repetition of things can desensitize us enough to not give a shit any more about how gruesome (or in the case of commercials- annoying or trite) they are.

Another way of looking at the story is perhaps thinking of Bateman as a “corporation” himself, who does whatever he wants because he has the money to do it then continues to do worse and worse things with less and less of a conscience because each transgression goes unpunished leaving little reason to heed any sense of self-control. Also part of that would be the fact that corporations are guided by a hivemind motivated by (financial and/or power/political) gain, and Bateman is meant to be a vessel to show us what happens when all morality is removed from such a powerful vessel (be it a corporation or a person in a high position of power). It’s a somewhat convoluted way of parsing the story, but it does match up with the fact that the book was published in 1991, after the very new rise of the Wall Street investment banking industry. If I recall correctly, the first investment bank to shift from being a partnership to being a corporation (therefore shifting risk to stockholders instead of the founders) did so around 1981. The movie Wall Street with Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” came out in 1987. It is not that much of a stretch to think that these things influenced Ellis. According to Wikipedia, Ellis moved to New York City (from LA) in 1987, so the book (which is about a crazy mergers and acquisitions lawyer on Wall Street) published in ’91 is grounded in some amount of reality rather than abstract notions of “this is what the 80s was like and stuff” as Doyle seems to believe.

….

Part of me is curious about whether or not there is a gender gap that cannot be bridged with this type of satirization. Kind of like how a conservative might not appreciate The Daily Show’s liberal satirical perspective, no matter how brilliant the show’s satirizations are. I’d imagine that if a book was written in which male political science students at the University of Connecticut were tortured and murdered one by one by a deranged female professor, all under the guise of satirically lamenting consumer culture, I would probably not be able to look at the work from an illuminated satirical viewpoint. Probably not.

But a lot of Doyle’s problems with the book come from looking at it through a lens of feminism. The protagonist certainly mutilates and kills a lot of hookers and girlfriends and womankind. But he kills bums and dogs too. The book is neither anti-feminist nor feminist, so it makes little sense to look at it in that type of lens, in the same way that I would be wrong to look at my hypothetical book through the lens of being a former political science major from the University of Connecticut.

Perhaps it is impossible to fully remove that lens, or any lens that we look through to view the majority of our life. The problem is that certain art, or really art as a whole, requires looking at things through uncommon lenses or through no lenses at all.

American Psycho is art. It is meant to change the reader’s perspective by using several techniques of repetition and hyperbole. And lots of blood and dark thoughts. It is a book about a man with no conscience, whereby Ellis dares us to insert our own. In a way, Doyle’s critique is exactly what Ellis probably wanted. He wanted us to get pissed off and angry and upset. He wanted us to seek out our own conscience instead of indulging in abstract notions of literary worth.

So maybe the joke is really on people like me and Yglesias after all.

Maybe the joke is not so much that Ellis wanted to prove that we can be easily desensitized. It’s that anyone looking at American Psycho as a work of great literature is already desensitized beyond repair.

Which then brings up the ultimate question of whether satire in itself is dangerous, a subject I find enormously fascinating. But this is the end of today’s post.

Is it possible to read into this at all?

via CFB – USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington battle for SoCal recruits – ESPN.

Southern California always has been an inviting target for college football recruiters, but it might never have been as tempting as it is right now. The talent base is rich and deeper than it has been in a decade, especially with linemen, according to college coaches.

My first instinct is that with obesity on the rise it kind of makes sense that there is a glut of talented linemen. My second instinct is to slap myself for thinking that can be inferred from such a small bit of anecdotal evidence. But I do wonder if there is any statistically significant correlation between rising obesity and the depth of talent at the high school offensive and defensive line positions (or possible to even measure).

Scientists: Your ripped abs are useless

via Are Crunches Worth the Effort?

For a study published this year, researchers at Indiana State University had a group of healthy, young adults [do a lot of exercises]…
The researchers had expected that the volunteers with the sturdiest cores would outshine the others on the tests of physical performance. But they did not. There was little correlation in this study between robust core muscles and athleticism.
….
Findings about the effect of standard core exercises on athleticism, though, have been mixed. A representative study of collegiate rowers, for instance, found that after eight weeks of an arduous core-exercise regimen — added to their normal workout routines — the rowers had great-looking abs but weren’t better rowers;
….
But in another study, this time of novice adult runners who displayed weak core strength in preliminary testing, those who completed six weeks of core training drills lowered their five-kilometer run times significantly more than a control group of beginning runners who did not focus on their midsections.
….
And while everyone needs some basic minimum of core strength — getting up out of a chair requires a certain amount of core strength; serving a tennis ball requires more – “six or eight crunches would be plenty,” he said, “and only a few times a week.”

The argument kind of reminds me of one from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, about how success at different school levels (HS, college, grad, law, medical, PhD) isn’t necessarily based upon your IQ; rather, you performance is based upon having an IQ greater than a certain minimum amount at each school level (combined with effort level, if you pass the minimum bar).

The results here seem to say that for most sport activities there is a minimum core strength needed- and that that minimum is not very high, though higher than what a non-athlete would have, as evidenced by the novice runner study (and corroborated by my own experience as an on-again off-again runner). And that that minimum can be achieved simply by doing the sport itself, and not extra crunches.

Or forgo the crunches altogether. “Personally, I do not believe that it is necessary to specifically train the core,” said Thomas Nesser, an associate professor of exercise science at Indiana State and senior author of the study about core stability and performance. In most instances, if you “train for your sport, core strength will develop,” he said, and it will be the right amount and type of core strength for that sport.

Makes sense.

Colbert’s Worst Nightmare, Biggest Dream


via Grizzlies Return, With Strings Attached – NYT

In 1975, when grizzly bears were listed here in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem as threatened — a less restrictive form of protection than endangered — there were 200 to 300 grizzlies. Now, there are more than 900 in the ecosystem, and the population increases 2 to 3 percent each year. It is the largest population of grizzlies in the lower 48.

I can already hear Colbert screaming “OH GOD NOOOOOO”

Except:

Because of the growth of the grizzly population, United States Fish and Wildlife Service officials are writing a plan to manage the bear if its protected status as threatened, under the Endangered Species Act, is lifted. Such a change is probably at least a few years away. Still, said Christopher Servheen, the service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator since 1981, “they’re recovered, they’re doing well, they are pushing out in all directions.”

Some here think removing federal protections is overdue, and would welcome it. “You’ll be able to protect your property again” by shooting bears, said Bert Guthrie, a retired sheep rancher. “That’s a good thing.”

A Colbertgasm will be had by all tonight