Smile Darn Ya Smile

December 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Fashions come and go, some rapidly, some slowly. Some have economic forces behind them. With music and clothing, whole industries push us to regard last year’s songs or shoes as oldies to be replaced with something more current. But nobody is promoting Olivia and Noah as baby names or telling us not to give our daughter a name like Barbara. Nobody encouraged us to use the word “issue” where we once said “problem” (“Houston we have an issue”?) or “needs to” instead of “should.” (See this post from 2012.)  Most of us didn’t even notice those changes in language.

What about fashions in faces? Here are four high school yearbook photos, two from the 1960s, two from the current decade. Guess which two are from each decade.

Not too hard, right? The hair is the giveaway, not the faces. B and C are from the 60s, A and D from the 2010s. 

A team of researchers – Shiry Ginosar and four others at Berkeley and Brown – has been looking at yearbooks to see how looks have changed over the years.* They’ve got big data – well, pretty big: 37,000 yearbook photos across the decades since 1905. (To make historical comparisons, they used only full-face pictures – they edited out the three-quarter views that became popular in later years.) They then created clusters of similar photos in each decade, and from those clusters created a sort of visual average. Of necessity, these composites – blended photos – look a bit fuzzy. Here are the clusters for the 60s and the 2010s. The left-most picture is the composite.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Even in the composite, the hairstyle is notably different. If I’d included the girls with glasses, the historical differences would be obvious. None of the 21st-century girls are wearing glasses. They prefer contacts. Or lousy vision.

But there’s another difference that you might not have looked for. Try another quiz. Here are four sets of pictures – girl-boy pairs from the 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, and 2010s. Put them in chronological order:

The answer is D, A, C, B. The order shown above is 1970s, 2010s, 2000s, 1960s.

The key is the smile.

You probably noticed that the girls smile more than do the boys. That’s true for all decades. But the researchers also found a nearly continuous increase in the amount of smiling by both sexes.  Here are the composites for each decade.

And here are actual photos that are most representative of each period.

The researchers quantified the degree of smiling. They created a measure based on the degree of curvature of the lips.

The graph makes things even clearer than do the photos. Smiles have been trending for over a century.

Ginosar et al. have only one explanation for the upward trend – technology. In the early 20th century, they say, photo portraiture was still under the influence of 19th century technology. Those old cameras required an exposure of several seconds, sometimes as long as half a minute. When you have to be motionless for that long, a neutral expression is easiest to maintain. Besides, photo portraiture began as a cheaper alternative to oil painting, and the convention in portrait painting, where subjects had to maintain a pose for a long time, was that people should look serious.

The trouble with this explanation is that the Kodak camera was introduced in 1888. By 1900, everyone was taking snapshots rather than posing solemnly for photographs taken by a man hiding under a black cloth with a large wooden box on resting a tripod. The snapshot was to 1903 what the selfie was to 2013. But perhaps old poses hang on even though they are no longer technologically necessary, and fashions in yearbook poses diffuse gradually.

But why the decline in smiles from 1950 to 1965? These were, by some accounts, the most contented years of the century, free of conflict and turmoil, even boring.  And why did the trend turn upward again in the early 1960s as things were starting to go downhill? (“It all began in about 1963. That was the year, to overdramatize a bit, that a decade began to fall apart.” James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime).

I have no idea. You lovers of zeitgeist explanations, feel free to speculate. I’ll just add that the song and Disney cartoon that provide the title of this post (video here) were created in 1931 at the depths of the Depression, and the smiley face was invented in 1963.

Have a nice day.

*The article, with many more yearbook photos, is here.)

Billy Strayhorn - b. Nov. 29, 1915

November 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a small, gay, Black kid, raised and living in Homewood, a Black section of Pittsburgh, come to write, at age 19 in 1934
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces. . .*
and over the chord sequence D♭ / B7 / D♭?

Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. “Lush Life” is deservedly his most frequently recorded song. Lady Gaga and Linda Ronstadt have done it. Sinatra never got more than a few bars into it on a few takes at a 1958 recording session. On the tape you can hear someone suggest that they “put it aside for a minute.” “Put it aside for about a year,” says Sinatra. Even years later, when his accompanist suggest that Sinatra sing it saloon style, “just you and me and a piano,” Frank shook his head.

The lyrics and music have a sophistication that rivals even the best of Tin Pan Alley – Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. I sometimes play piano – not well, but enough to fool some people for a short while – and I would never try playing “Lush Life” with anyone else in the room.

Strayhorn’s best known tune is “Take the A Train,” often attributed to Duke Ellington – it was, after all, his theme song – and Duke may have had a hand in writing it.  The two worked together so closely that with many of the songs, it’s impossible to know who wrote what. “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” Duke wrote in Music is My Mistress.

Even among jazzers, Strayhorn’s presence faded along with the big band era. Then in the late 60s he was gradually rediscovered, and people started playing some of his lesser known tunes. Here is Joe Henderson playing “Isfahan” from his 1992 Strayhorn tribute album “Lush Life.” The bassist is Christian McBride.

Composers and arrangers remain largely unknown; it’s the musicians on stage that get the recognition. Band leaders even used to claim composer credit on tunes written by musicians in their band. (Cootie Williams is listed as one of the composers of “Round Midnight,” which, as everyone knows, was written by Thelonius Monk.) Duke was more generous. “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.”

* The lyric may be too sophisticated. Some singers have turned “distingu√© traces” into “distant gay traces.”

Striking Discharges

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.” (Chicago Tribune)

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. (MPR News)

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:

(Click on the image for a larger and possibly clearer view.)

The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

The Elsewhere Effect

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Less than 10% of the voters think that Congress is doing a good job. But their own Representative . . . not so bad. A third of us think that our own rep deserves re-election (Rasmussen). Even that is low. Until recently, a majority of people approved of their own representative while disapproving of Congress in general. It’s been the same with crime. People feel safer in their own neighborhoods than elsewhere, even when those other neighborhoods have less crime.

Race relations too are bad . . . elsewhere. In the last year, the percent of Americans saying that race relations in the country are “bad” doubled (roughly from 30% to 60%). That’s understandable given the media coverage of Ferguson and other conflicts centered on race. But people take a far more sanguine view of things in their own community.  Eighty percent rate local race relations as “good,” and that number has remained unchanged throughout this century. (See this post  from last summer.)

Not surprising then that the problem with marriage in the US turns out to be about other people’s marriages. A recent survey asked people about the direction of their own marriage and marriage in the US generally.

Only a handful of people (5%) see marriage generally as getting stronger. More than eight times that say that their own marriages have strengthened. The results for “weaker” are just the reverse. Only 6% say that their own marriage has weakened, but 43% see marriage in the US as losing ground. 

Why the “elsewhere effect”? One suspect is the media bias towards trouble. Good news is no news.  News editors don’t give us many stories about good race relations, or about the 25-year drop in crime, or about the decrease in divorce.  Instead, we get crime and conflict and a variety of  other problems. Add to this the perpetual political campaign with opposition candidates tirelessly telling us what’s wrong.  Given this balance of information, we can easily picture the larger society as a world in decline, a perilous world so different from the one we walk through every day.

At first glance, people seeing their own relationships as good, others’ relationships as more strained seems like the opposite of the pluralistic ignorance on college campuses. There, students often believe that things are better elsewhere, or at least better for other students. They think that most other students are having more sex, partying more heartily, and generally having a better time than they are themselves. But whether we see others as having fun or more problems, the cause of the discrepancy is the same – the information we have. We know our own lives first hand. We know about those generalized others mostly from the stories we hear. And the people – whether news editors or students on campus – select the stories that are interesting, not those that are typical.