Police violence and public opinion

After watching Straight Outta Compton, I looked over the recent violent arrests of black people (e.g. Sandra Bland, the video with subtitles was deleted, but you can always watch just video and read the transcript of the dialogue here). In the movie, a few interactions with the police from the end of 80s were depicted. It is worthwhile to compare what have changed over the years. Also, reading comments in the link above made me think that most internet users do not have a benefit of many points of view. Pretty much all agree that the officer who arrested Sandra is not suitable for his job. For me, however, reading his description of the accident at the end of the transcript was worth it. He seems genuinely surprised by what happened. Chances are, this is his first time trying to give ticket to a social activist, or even just a person who knows his rights. I don’t know what kind of people live in Texas, but it seems that all off them switch into “Yes, sir” mode when being stopped. I would go even further and switch into “please don’t fine me I’m a poor student” mode.

Now let’s look at the movie. The main characters always maintain their cool: when face to face with police officers, they don’t raise their voice, don’t show emotions (though they are angry as expressed in their songs), and don’t resist slamming their faces into much more solid objects like cars and sidewalks. They are not really in the “Yes, sir”, mode, they stand their ground. But they have a very clear understanding that using force against the police is a bad idea. They try to make a cultural change instead, make problems of criminal neighborhoods a topic of public discussion.

Modern day activists also do that, but they somehow fail to understand that protesting in single individual cases is not going to change the whole picture. If you want to change the way police works, get a job in the police, organize seminars on gender biases etc. like Las Vegas police does. I think modern day activists are way too obsessed with their sense of justice towards self, and therefore every person of authority has to treat an activist 10 times nicer than he would treat an ordinary person. And activists would say that authorities ought to treat everybody that nice. But the problem is, it will reduce the efficiency of police workers, and increase their risk at work. Imagine taking your ordinary police station. Now make everybody in that station 10 times more nice. What’s gonna happen? First of all, there will be a slick criminal who will take advantage of that. There are actual cruel crimes that can be stopped by randomly pulling over cars and asking a few questions. Police can stop people on drugs before they car-crash into someone. Police can stop human trafficking, illegal gun ownership etc. etc. by randomly pulling over people in cars. Of course, it does not statistically make sense to pull over single women drivers.

So the proposal of the modern day activist is that police should have two faces: one when dealing with “normal people” who “clearly” mean well – the “10 times nicer” face. And another for dealing with “actually suspicious people” – there the “10 times nicer” face will fail, and police should be cruel but effective. And the logical fallacy of this approach is clear even from the wording: once we split the people into “normal” and “suspicious”, there will be 10 times more offended voices of those who think they are unfairly categorized in the suspicious group. Like in the movie, when N.W.A. was outside a recording studio in an all-white neighborhood, policemen who saw them immediately pulled out guns, thinking they are on some gangster business.

Learning social skills

There’s surprising amount of resources, and actual classes, worksheets, internet discussion, as long as you identify as having low social skills. A quick overview confirmed that it is helpful in most extreme cases, and gets you up to the mediocre level. The target audience of my blog are those who are trying to take a leap from mediocre to socially successful, whatever that means. From being able to get through all the conversations in the day without embarassing yourself/offending anyone – to actually attracting conversations, being valuable for your peers, being invited everywhere and considered the very best friend.

The way people learn that is by copying their role model. By being around very social people, observing how they treat their friends, and actively wanting to be like them. At first a person may embarass oneself in this imitation, but it’s all typically happening even before high school, so embarassments, though painful, are not the end of the world.

Now, the problem is that people with good social skills that you may learn from tend to use them on their friends, people they care about. And then they just autopilot around everybody else. And if you don’t already have good social skills, chances are they will autopilot around you. So even if you spend a lot of time with them, you may not see much of what you can imitate. To grow, you need to actually talk your way into the company of friends, where everybody cares about each other and has better social skills than you. Typically those people won’t care about you, unless they need you for something. But luckily that’s not the goal here. Goal is to be around them and observe how they treat their friends, not to be their friend.

Ideally, every person who’s in tech careers with rare chances to learn social skills should have an opportunity to surround oneself with more social people and get up-to-date. Unfortunately, the opposite happens for me – I spend most of my time with people who are even less social than me. Not that they are bad friends, but it shouldn’t be my job to get them to improve their skills. I should focus on my career – there are tons of less successful in their careers but very social people around our school to help us all.

Who’s having fun in the feminist subculture?

After looking at wave after wave of internet justice, viral stories of the abused, I can’t help but wonder – is there anyone having fun in this “friendly and supportive” community of, say, allies of women in STEM? Or is it just a sad place full of people who’ve been treated unfair? Certainly people who got a job, e.g. popularizing science, creating empowering women images etc. are having a lot of fun with their creativity. Some of the internet shaming walls are making fun out of the abusers, which probably makes someone happy as well. But for me somehow, the interaction with the women-allies community did not have any particularly fun episodes. The shaming walls are entertaining, but just as much as they are cruel and blind. I’ve participated in some of the “girl-scientist” projects, where we did fun things to interest them in science. That was a very good experience, but somehow you need to be a special kind of person to enjoy working with kids. For ordinary folks, it’s exhausting! Also, it’s a little bit besides the point, because obviously the girls themselves didn’t know that we were making this event because feminists told us so. We never explained to them how they should become empowered as soon as the classroom stops pushing them into their gender roles. So this event never mentioned anything about underrepresentation of women in STEM, much less about issues of harassment. It was just a fun event, but technically we cannot call it a part of what is “feminist subculture”.

I’d like to point out that reading viral news can be addictive. Everyone of us has an offense-seeker inside, and a very fine sense of justice for people on the other side of the globe that we never knew existed. So every time the news mention something about an offensive statement of a politician, or a harassment scandal – we click, not expecting that much fun, but expecting gratification of our disturbed sense of justice. One can compare reading viral diversity news to cigarettes – few of the smokers would say cigarettes are fun, but surely they bring momentarily satisfaction.

Are educational meetings fun? The ones where the concepts of consent are explained to clueless audience, and such. For a sensitive person, they may inhibit your communication skill completely, as you’re afraid to get into a story. But if you are a little bit more tough, then they might be a good place to meet social justice-minded people. But not a good place to argue with them. Whatever the modern political correctness is, if you think it’s a good idea to point out inconsistencies in it to the authorities who enforce it, it’s not. It won’t be a very good experience for you to get into that argument, mostly because that same authority figures get a lot of outlandish accusations, so even if your suggestion is constructive and useful, they are likely to discard your opinion as just another troll’s.

But if you actually have a troll friend, it may be a good idea to bring him in one of those meetings and enjoy the mess and anger that he causes. I personally never enjoyed trolling, but it’s always nice to feed a friend a tasty meal. Be aware, though, that as much as there are tough-skinned people, there are also actual victims around. If someone is actually getting hurt by words, maybe it’s better to tell your friend to shut up.

Who tells us what’s beautiful

I was trying to describe fashion in my epic longpost about consumer society. But fashion is a dynamic phenomenon, and for starters one needs to understand the static part of it: the beauty industry. Static beauty standards are set through the same teen counterculture, role models (actors, celebrities), crowd effect (everybody/TV is doing it). Spending money to conform to those standards feels good: you become closer to your Hollywood-planted dream, and every new purchase excites you because of the novelty effect. Pampering yourself, narcissism, becomes a habit. There’s a lot of reinforcements, positive if you do it and negative if you don’t (doubts visit you, and you lose confidence). For instance, someone in your surrounding will have seemingly better life than you, and as you feel envy, you seek superficial reasons for that: their appearance.

So there is a certain push towards narcissism in society, partly by “conspiracy” of the external factors, partly as a self-push because you perceive no other roads to successful social life. Society also prepares a lot of triggers of negative feelings for those who don’t follow that road. But is there really a conspiracy? From the point of view of movie producers, beautiful actors bring more money – one can say it’s a positive feedback loop that’s not hidden but instead quite obvious. So we are pushed into unrealistic body expectations not by evil scheming capitalists, but largely by ourselves. Capitalists are just part of the loop. Individual decisions of any part of the loop, including us, slowly change the standard. Let’s all go to movies with actors with unusual looks, and wear clothes that don’t look new! All hail LWA2 for including a likable overweight anime girl – is it the first time in the Japanese industry? Anyways, I don’t aim to describe influencing the system, that’d be too ambitious of a goal. Instead, as promised, I provide a description of a static system, and what’s the optimal/moral way to behave within it.

The minimal behavioral model for a person investing in looks is: only follow the narcissistic path if it is interesting, fun, brings positive emotions and useful and otherwise a worthy waste of your time. And for some people it indeed is. But chances are, the beauty standards imprinted in your head are not going to bring you much fun. They are not tailor-made for you. Instead they are such that optimize the amount of money that goes into someone’s pocket. The way they do that is by making the standard such that your reflection in the mirror is way off. And sadly, that standard is in other people’s heads as well. So, the way this situation is resolved in progressive US is by encouraging you to forget the standard, stop projecting what other people think, and live in a bliss. And eventually someone will get used to how you look and find it beautiful. So it seems that US has a wonderful solution for everyone! Why did I think that this culture does harm to anybody? It offers a way out right along the beauty standard. I have two accusations:

  1. Exactly the same logic can be applied to smoking. There is always a way out. Problem is, it’s addictive. Following the beauty standard is addictive too.
  2. Globalization, lead by US, destroys local standards of beauty. Chances are, in your community you’d be considered beautiful, but not by Hollywood standards.

Wait, addictive how? Are local standards of beauty real? To support my accusations, I need to investigate in more detail how we learn what’s beautiful.

Beauty training.

Society leaves impact on kids by encouraging girls for their cuteness, so for young women looks become an easy way to get attention. Boys are largely away from realizing that, their mind is trained to perceive strength, and choices of colors/design of, say, notebooks and pens are made in terms of what’s practical. Or what delivers the message of strength. Girls are more likely to have colorful pens and preserve nice handwriting till high school, as they are more likely to be encouraged for that. All these are very regressive views on education, the modern view is that if these biases are removed, they won’t appear naturally. Anyway, the reality is that the external encouragement is quite strong and quite biased, that is the world we’re living in and that’s what forms our biased beauty standards.

There are natural (genetic, encoded) mechanisms in place as well:

  • we typically prefer safe surroundings and are likely to find them beautiful, although danger is hypnotizing and beautiful in another way
  • the choice of colors is partly genetic – in particular most of the people choose blue as their favorite color. There is also a natural distinction between warm and cold colors
  • we all instinctively seek a healthy partner, thus signs of health are perceived attractive whereas signs of weakness, sickness – not. It was overruled  once by social norm in the medieval, but it is very much in place nowadays.
  • body part recognition is also an instinct – even if it’s not there in an infant, it is the main neural development that happens, and it is kind of preprogrammed to happen. Also, there was a fun experiment that found the recognition time to be fastest for men recognizing female body parts. There must be a biological mechanism in place for that. Also how we learn to determine gender.
  • a very general principles in our perception: novelty is gratified by pleasure hormones. Also, symmetry is a natural (preprogrammed) easy check whether the partner is healthy or not. Check if left/right is symmetric, if it is, probably your partner is in good health.

So we see that the concept of beauty was originally useful for the evolution: it helped to find a healthy partner, and also added an extra dimension to our memory of people – it is easier to remember how people look if we are emotionally impressed by their beauty. However, as society became more complicated, extra layers of structure have been added to the concept of beauty. Extra beauty standards can be circumstance-dependent, not inherent. They can be borrowed:

  • From within: a way to define who you are is by deciding what you find beautiful. So a teenager’s need for self-establishment pushes them to seek original answers to this question.
  • from role model, from parental figure.
  • by crowd effect, conforming to what others find beautiful.
  • when encountering something unfamiliar, like a race you never seen before, you first form a collective judgement about their beauty. Only after staying with those people for a while you start noticing individual differences
  • noticing new details changes your perception of beauty of the same object. Like since you stare at yourself in the mirror every day, you see your face completely differently than others, notice tiny imperfections. But another way also works – if you feel strongly for a person, you will eventually notice that person’s beauty no matter what was your first impression.
  • scarcity is essential for a feature to be considered very beautiful. It must be hard to get or even forbidden.

Finally, our personal meter of beauty is related to the language available to us to describe what we see. It is a well known joke about number of names of colors that guys and girls know. Let’s generalize this idea and look at the points that a guy and a girl are likely to mention when asked to describe how someone looked:

Guys describing guys: muscles, t-shirt if it had a good joke.

Girls describing guys: eyes, smile, voice, height, clothes, shoes.

Guys describing girls: face, breast, hips, sometimes hair. (guys don’t have a very high resolution, they typically just see the body as consisting of 2 or 3 parts)

Girls describing girls: height, clothes, shoes + nails, eyebrows, eyelashes, skin etc.

Note that guys tend to pick at things that you typically can’t buy – or in case of muscles, you at least don’t have to buy – can work out at home. Whereas girls tend to focus their description on active side: something that you did to look beautiful. And action for girl beauty means paying money. Of course the list above is generalizing beyond reason, and is what is considered sexist. In reality, even with all the society’s influence, you can still find a girl who doesn’t care about shoes. Although a woman giving a commencement at my school this summer did mention buying shoes as part of who she is, with a joking tone. My point with that oversimplified and sexist list, as well as other material in this section, was to give an overview of how complex is what I call “beauty standard in our heads”. This complexity is part of the reason why it is addictive, why it is hard to forget about it. Also, we observed many surrounding-dependent mechanisms, and even the natural mechanisms read off beauty from our parents etc. So it makes sense to talk about local beauty standard, which is probably a better thing than global one, because you are more likely to be beautiful by the standard designed to your ethnic group.

New meaning of “subculture”

This is a concise translation of the ideas from this public resource describing changes in society that took place in Russia in the last 30 years. Their goal is very ambitious, and they take a tree-way approach to any topic: include interviews with 10 relevant people, summary of related social science and the reporter’s opinion. In particular, on the topic of subcultures, they quote a lot of western research, so I thought it’s a nice overview to keep in mind for any country. If I need to sum up in one sentence: the core properties of a subculture are different from its depiction in media, in particular, the media views are outdated.

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Continue reading “New meaning of “subculture””

Diversity wars

(Image is from one of the Archer themed t-shirts)

Way back in the 90’s there was a computer game Gender wars, which featured a satire on the society, an alternative history where the relationship between genders went all wrong, men and women assembled into respective armies and the conflict escalated to a full-blown war (while still being funny as gender stereotypes perpetrate  the line of command):


Surprisingly, something this was a metaphor of becomes a reality, very specific to the modern-day US. I’m talking not even about the famous scandals causing the whirlwind of internet rage, trolling and death treats. I’m talking about things that sometimes happen outside the web, and I have been a witness to.

First happened on my flight to US, as a warm welcome reminding me what kind of country I’m going to. A middle-age white male with a respectable belly, but otherwise well dressed and well groomed was having problems with his seatbelt. A black female flight attendant helped him by taking his seatbelt and connecting it. The man was very upset by it because she didn’t ask for his permission before touching him. There was a brief verbal exchange in which both wanted to call the captain somehow, but otherwise I didn’t quite hear. After some time, the flight attendant returned with the message from the captain: the man was to leave the flight. He calmly packed his bags and left. And then the fight among the rest of the passengers unfolded. A young and naive white and nerdy teenager tried to protect the man’s side, a middle-aged woman who’d put her legs on the wall took up the role of a prosecutor. The following arguments has been used: “I am a movie director – I have a very good eyes – I saw what happened!”, “For a man, groin is a very sensitive area”

The second story happened during one of the comedy shows on Anime Expo. The performances were judged by 3 judges, 2 male and 1 female. Each expressed criticism and suggestions to improve for a comic. A female judge’s speech was interrupted by a shout from the audience. She being a comic herself, went to stage, asked the man who interrupted her to stand up, and “destroyed” him. In particular she made fun of the “Danger Zone” Archer t-shirt he was wearing. Also she pointed out that instead of such courageous feats in public, he should just join the rest of his kind on the internet. He tried to interject later in the show, but was only referred to as “You shut up, you were destroyed just now, we don’t care about you.”

Finally, Google is an American company, so they take issues of harassment very seriously. If something happens, no public fights occur. Instead, a special commission handles the report/complaint, and one day on the meeting it is announced that “N does not work with us anymore”. He is then escorted with security from the building, and cannot enter for 3 days. Then he can collect his belongings. Such reports/complaints can be filed not only by the victim, but also by a third person. It is typically easy to guess who filed the complaint, and my Russian friend would avoid talking to that person in the future, just out of survival instinct. In fact, my Russian friend would avoid making close friends among the coworkers altogether.

Time management on a convention

For many of the “fringe interests”, there are conventions to make people feel they are not alone. Anime Expo have gathered 80 thousand people last year. Comic Con is coming up. Back in Russia we had LARP conventions, and the ones that are biggest around the world are probably computer game conventions. There is also DefCon in Las Vegas.

One thing that organizers do to occupy so many people is to have many events and attractions going on at once. It works as divide and conquer: the crowd is not uniform, some people have more serious pursuits, some have no idea what they came for, some are just having fun on the con. The list of con events is pretty much a slice of life, with all possible interests and ways to spend time represented. What to choose to meet new people? First, I tried to pick activities for the day that are not completely boring for me, in part so that people I meet are those I can relate to. Here are the choices that were available to me on Anime Expo:

  1. Cosplay photohunt. List of cosplay gatherings is not official, and is available here.
  2. Shopping …
  3. Panel discussions on pretty much everything. They even had scientists writing their research paper about anime organized in some sort of symposium.
  4. Karaoke.
  5. Club dancing and bars.
  6. Workshops to learn skills.
  7. Stage dance performances and singers.
  8. Cinemas and music videos.
  9. Celebrity meet’n’greet.
  10. Comedy shows and interactive shows like Dungeon master.
  11. Food court with a maze of food trucks.
  12. Museum of old computer games where you can play any.

You get the idea – once the number of people scales up to tens of thousands, the event naturally starts to imitate a big city, with all the urban infrastructure. One difference is that in a real big city you have to go to work, while here it’s entertainment all day long. Having so much entertainment packed into just a few days makes it easy to find out what is your favorite pastime. However, for me it was more like running around, trying to catch a glance of every single activity, confirm that I’m not missing out on anything. Quite a few points on the list were genuinely interesting for me, but they either ended fast or didn’t keep my attention for long. So if I’m asked – what kind of person I am, what kind of interests should I list on twitter to pick people to follow – is this an acceptable answer? That I don’t care that much about any one thing, I just want to run around and see everything?

I guess not. One should have well defined interests, to select and focus attention in this sea of 80 thousand people. Indeed, even thought I didn’t shriek in excitement when I saw any particular character cosplayed, or didn’t wait in line for 2 hours to see my favorite show/celebrity, I still had some guiding principles to direct my choices. And the lines were never a problem – I was almost always able to get into the events I want just by showing up at the doors 20 minutes after the time it starts (except only the premiere of LWA2 and Cosplay Wrestling (???)).

Of the workshops, I went to the ones about writing fan fiction. Of the panels, I went to any discussing diversity in the geek community,

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 10.55.35 AM

and also accidentally the one with Touhou shoot’em’up playthrough, which was an incredible feat of dexterity. I went to all comedy shows, avoiding the ones with particularly perverted theme (which were everywhere on Saturday evening). I didn’t go to dating event or to maid cafe, they are overcrowded by default. I went to watch the J-pop and the K-pop dance performances (the latter being bustling with fans, so one can hardly see the stage), then I danced at the club dance night. The latter convinced me that my current outfit is not suited for dancing, so I went on to look for party T-shirts and diode gloves in the shopping area. I was putting off exploration of the artist’s alley till the last day, and walking there is so overwhelming that I ended up not having time/energy to see more than 20% of it. Moral: visit artist alley every day for short periods instead of trying to marathon it. Besides T-shirts, I followed my interest for Art Nouveau – inspired paintings – there were quite a lot of artists borrowing from that style. I also looked out for menacing gothic helmets, but found none. Guess they didn’t get very popular. Surprisingly, I saw t-shirts with Girl Genius comic prints, even though official site doesn’t have any t-shirt in their merchandise.

Food trucks managed to keep my hunger away – the lines for them may look intimidating as they are under the sun, but ironically the trucks with healthy food never had lines in front of them. Ok, so of all these activities, which were the best to get to know other anime fans? There were a lot of really drunk folks on the dance, I could’ve interacted with them if I wanted. My anime club organized a meetup with Japanese cosplayers of the same anime, and that was a very eye-opening evening. There I met quite a lot of extremely Japanese people, and even had a chance to practice my language skills a bit. So the stereotypical ways to meet people: through friends and at the bar  – probably work best. The 21+ lounge had a rock concert every evening, so there was something to do even for those who don’t drink. Besides them I talked to a very cheerful person in line for Dungeon Master –  he even let me borrow his katana for a pic:


Artists are always up for a chat. I addressed some of the cosplayers with “What is your character”, and also “Where did you buy those” – which was very helpful to get directions in the shopping area. As I said, I don’t get overwhelmed by fan feelings no matter what I see, but if I did, shouting the name of the character you recognize is also acceptable.

For the time management – the main advice is to avoid being overwhelmed by the visual impressions of other people’s costumes and merchandise in the shopping area. Limit your time spend walking through the hallways to 15 minutes, take breaks, even by stepping in a random movie screening room. Take a break in a shopping area for a chat with someone, or to check your phone. Twitter was not very useful during the convention, but maybe I don’t have enough twitter experience to benefit from it. Many people complained about tired feet – make sure you have good shoes, bag on wheels is also a good choice if you are to carry heavy camera around – but make sure to leave it at the hotel/bag cheek-in before the dance. Have plenty of plastic bags to keep food away from other belongings – in my case, a very tasty chicken sauce spilled over my camera and my costume and ruined a bunch of photos: