January 29, 2010

Heavy Toonage

Due to a series of increasingly frivolous Google searches, I just spent half an hour reading up on the history of Sunday-morning cartoons in the 1980s. (This all started with a legitimate work-related query and somehow careened out of control.) Anyway, I'm sure everyone's well aware that the big, popular cartoons of that era—"Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"—were created primarily to sell action figures and boost toy sales. But the story behind their development, as best I can make it out, is pretty interesting.

Back during the 1960s, Hasbro's G.I. Joe was one of the best-selling toys around, the first action-figure blockbuster. But that changed once Star Wars came out; suddenly, all the kids were demanding Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader dolls. Part of the shift came down to marketing: The Star Wars toys were being promoted by a ridiculously popular movie, while Hasbro wasn't even allowed to use animation in its G.I. Joe commercials. At the time, the National Association of Broadcasters had outlawed animated toy commercials, for fear that they'd blur the line between fantasy and reality for young children.

At that point, Hasbro came up with an ingenious idea. There were strict rules about how you could advertise toys, but there were fewer rules on advertising comic books. So the company's executives went to Marvel Comics and said, here, we'll give you the license for our G.I. Joe comic-book line and even spend millions of dollars of our own money advertising it. Marvel, naturally, leapt at the deal, and a best-selling series was born. Hasbro, meanwhile, could finally run animated ads about G.I. Joe. And it worked: By the 1980s, G.I. Joe action figures were leaping off the shelves again. (Of course, it helped that the comic-book series was relatively well-conceived; plenty of other toy-comic tie-ins flopped.)

After that came the cartoons. For a long time, the FCC had prevented companies from creating TV shows that centered on toys (Mattel had tried this with Hot Wheels in the 1960s and got smacked down). But by 1983, Reagan's FCC had relaxed this rule. Pretty soon, a new wave of toy-themed shows started hitting on the air: "Transformers," "Thundercats," "He-Man." The trend stretched all the way down to "Teletubbies" in the 1990s. The cartoons instantly transformed the toy industry—the most successful, "Transformers," sold $100 million worth of merchandise in its first year.

In his fascinating book The Real Toy Story, Eric Clark argues that this new cartoon-toy symbiosis also altered how kids approached playtime: "Because the backstory and the programs dictated play, the nature of play itself changed—TV took control of the play environment. The old adage that a child should dictate what the toy does was discarded." Part of me wants to believe that that's slightly overstated, and that kids are more creative than this. (I had a Transformer or two back when I was younger, and I never had them reenact plots from the cartoons—Elizabethan-style court intrigue and playground bullying scenarios were far more common.) But Clark's surely onto something here; it's hard to imagine that there could be such a massive shift in toy advertising without large effects on child psychology, no?

(Flickr photo credit: Brian McCarty)
-- Brad Plumer 7:20 PM || ||

January 28, 2010

Gruesome Tongue Twisters

What's the world's most throat-chokingly difficult language? Here's a worthy contender:
On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we,” inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree,” which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that "the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)," while diga ape-hiyi means "the boy played soccer (I assume)." English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.
I'm convinced! The piece also argues that, contrary to popular belief, English is a relatively easy language to learn: "verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add 's', mostly) and there are no genders to remember."

That may all be true, but figuring out how to spell words in English can be a nightmare; I do believe this is the only major language in which you can actually hold spelling bees. In Spanish, by contrast, a spelling competition would be pointless since it's trivial to write out a word once you hear it. Maybe the only other possible bee-language is French—except that French-speaking countries hold dictation contests instead, as does Poland with its "Dyktando." (These usually involve scribbling down, word for exact word, a long literary passage that's read aloud.)

Japanese, meanwhile, is a comparatively simple language to speak, but then you've got the vast jungle of different characters. I don't know if there are bees for that, but there is the Kanken, the national Kanji Aptitude Test, which tests for writing, pronunciation, and stroke order, and has twelve different levels: 10 through 3, pre-2, 2, pre-1, and 1—with 10 being the easiest and 1 the hardest. As I recall, your average well-educated native speaker should be able to pass pre-2. But level 1 is no joke—you have to know about 6,000 different kanji, and, in some years, only about 200 people in the whole country earn a passing grade. The rest, I guess, just have to mutter "hóabãsiriga."
-- Brad Plumer 11:25 PM || ||
Our Nerdiest President

Huh, I had no idea that James A. Garfield was credited with discovering a novel proof for the Pythagorean Theorem (a clever one, too, involving trapezoids). He did this back in 1876, before he became our second assassinated president and while he was still serving in the House—as he tells it, the proof came up in the course of "some mathematical amusements and discussions with other [members of Congress]."

I'm not sure if the country today is better off or worse off for the fact that House members no longer sit around pondering geometry in their spare time. In any case, it seems Garfield was also working on a pretty expansive math-education agenda before he got shot. Oh, and bonus Garfield trivia: He took a nasty swipe at the Mormon Church in his inaugural address (not that it mattered much—the speech was sort of a low-turnout affair).
-- Brad Plumer 6:34 PM || ||
Exporting Depression

Ethan Watters has a fascinating New Scientist report on how U.S. drug companies are basically "exporting" Western notions of mental illness to other countries, in order to create new markets for their products:
The challenge GSK faced in the Japanese market was formidable. The nation did have a clinical diagnosis of depression—utsubyo—but it was nothing like the US version: it described an illness as devastating and as stigmatising as schizophrenia. Worse, at least for the sales prospects of antidepressants in Japan, it was rare. Most other states of melancholy were not considered illnesses in Japan. Indeed, the experience of prolonged, deep sadness was often considered to be a jibyo, a personal hardship that builds character. To make paroxetine a hit, it would not be enough to corner the small market for people diagnosed with utsubyo. As Kirmayer realised, GSK intended to influence the Japanese understanding of sadness and depression at the deepest level. ...

Which is exactly what GSK appears to have accomplished. Promoting depression as a kokoro no kaze—"a cold of the soul"—GSK managed to popularise the diagnosis. In the first year on the market, sales of paroxetine in Japan brought in $100 million. By 2005, they were approaching $350 million and rising quickly.
Now, this sort of marketing of illness is hardly novel. Back in 2005, I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about the "corporate-sponsored creation of disease" (and, please note, that's not my paranoid lefty term for the practice, but a phrase taken from a Reuters Business Insight report written for Pharma execs). Drugmakers aggressively push iffy conditions like "premenstrual dysphoric disorder" in order to extend patents and boost sales. Not surprisingly, GSK again makes a cameo:
When GSK, an American drug company, wanted to repackage its best-selling antidepressant, Paxil, to treat "social anxiety disorder"—a questionable strain of social phobia that requires medication rather than therapy—it hired PR firm Cohn & Wolfe to help raise awareness about the condition. Slogans were developed: "Imagine being allergic to people." Posters featuring distraught men and women described the symptoms, which only seem like everyday nervousness to the untrained eye: "You blush, you sweat, shake—even find it hard to breath. That's what social anxiety disorder feels like." Journalists were faxed press releases so that they could write up stories about the new disorder in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. (Does the deadline-pressed journalist need a bit of color for her story? No problem: Patient-advocacy groups, usually funded by drug companies, can provide patients to interview.) GSK even got University of California psychiatrist Murray Stein to vouch for the drug. Stein, it turns out, was a paid consultant to seventeen drug companies, including GSK, and had run company-funded trials of Paxil to treat social anxiety disorder.
How devious. Anyway, the international angle is new to me and grimly riveting. Here's a New York Times Magazine piece by Watters that further explores the phenomenon, focusing less on the corporate angle and more on the broader fact that "we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. ... That is, we've been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures."
-- Brad Plumer 5:54 PM || ||

January 27, 2010

Dos And Don'ts For Running A Host Club

The Kabukicho district in Tokyo is famous for, among other sleazy wonders, its host and hostess clubs. The idea here is simple enough: In a hostess club, you have paid female employees who chat with male customers, light their cigarettes, pour drinks, sing karaoke, and generally make the men feel, I don't know, titillated. It's not a sex club—more like a flirtation club.

And then the host clubs are the reverse deal: Male hosts wait on female customers, listen to their sorrows, flatter them, light their cigarettes, pour drinks.... Since Japanese women don't typically get "waited on" by men, these clubs fill a real need. Anyway, hostess clubs have no doubt been featured in light-hearted New York Times pieces before. But I was reading Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice, a terrific book about the city's seamy underbelly, and there's a part where a cop explains that many of these clubs are actually horribly manipulative:
"It used to be that the only women who went to host bars were hostesses, but times have changed. What we keep seeing is college girls, sometimes even high school girls with money, who start going to these host clubs. They love the personal attention, and maybe they get infatuated with the hosts, who milk them for everything they have. The girls accumulate debts, and at some point the management introduces them to a job in the sex industry so that they can pay off their debts. Sometimes the guys running the host bars are the same guys who run the sex clubs."
Not all host clubs run this racket—the respectable ones try to avoid plunging their customers into crippling debt—but many of the clubs are just thinly veiled organized-crime outfits. Meanwhile, here's one young host explaining the ins and outs of his job to Adelstein:
Sometimes the thing to do is to find an actor you resemble and then basically do an impression of the guy. You make the customer feel like she is with a celebrity. ... But most of the time I just say that I'm a graduate student in law at Tokyo University and I'm just hosting to pay the tuition. It makes the customer feel like she's contributing to society, not just to my wallet. ...

You have to be able to talk to customers about almost anything, even where they send their kids to school. So I subscribe to four women's magazines to make sure I know what kinds of concerns they have. They also like to talk about television programs, but since I don't have time to watch TV I stay current by reading TV guides. ...

The bad thing is that my parents hate that I do this, even if I don't plan on doing it forever. You don't have a personal life. Every day is like summer vacation, except that you don't really have freedom. You spend most of your free time waiting on customers in one way or another; sometimes you go shopping with a customer, sometimes you go to a resort with her.

Useful tips for anyone considering a career switch.

(Flickr photo credit: yumyumcherry)
-- Brad Plumer 7:01 PM || ||
How Many Moves Ahead?

Famous chess players often get asked the same thing by reporters: "How many moves can you see ahead?" The query crept up, inevitable as the sunrise, in Time's interview with 19-year-old Magnus Carlsen. (He responded, "Sometimes 15 to 20 moves ahead—but the trick is evaluating the position at the end of those calculations.") Thing is, it's sort of an odd and not very well-defined question.

In an endgame, with just a few pieces left on the board, sure, a good player will plot out where things are heading down to the bitter end. But in the middle of a game? There are about 40 possible moves in the average chess position, so analyzing all the possibilities even just two moves out would involve looking at 2.5 million positions. No human brain can pull that off. Instead, recognizing patterns and assessing positions is the far more crucial skill, which is basically what Carlsen was saying, if you read his quote carefully. In The Inner Game of Chess, Andrew Soltis argues that most grandmasters don't usually gaze more than two moves ahead—they don't need to. And then there's Garry Kasparov's take on this question, in his fascinating New York Review of Books essay on computer chess:
As for how many moves ahead a grandmaster sees, Russkin-Gutman makes much of the answer attributed to the great Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, among others: "Just one, the best one." This answer is as good or bad as any other, a pithy way of disposing with an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so. It's the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears during the Tour de France.

The only real answer, "It depends on the position and how much time I have," is unsatisfying. In what may have been my best tournament game at the 1999 Hoogovens tournament in the Netherlands, I visualized the winning position a full fifteen moves ahead—an unusual feat. I sacrificed a great deal of material for an attack, burning my bridges; if my calculations were faulty I would be dead lost. Although my intuition was correct and my opponent, Topalov again, failed to find the best defense under pressure, subsequent analysis showed that despite my Herculean effort I had missed a shorter route to victory. Capablanca's sarcasm aside, correctly evaluating a small handful of moves is far more important in human chess, and human decision-making in general, than the systematically deeper and deeper search for better moves—the number of moves "seen ahead"—that computers rely on.
Speaking of computer chess, I wanted to bring up one of my favorite points: that, even though your average laptop chess program can now whip any grandmaster, computers still have trouble mastering the game of Go—even the most advanced programs get crushed by skilled children. Except that, it turns out, this talking point's now a few years obsolete. According to a recent Wired report, AI Go players are starting to beat ranking human players using the Monte Carlo method. Just another step down the path to robot domination, I guess.

(Flickr photo credit: Boered)
-- Brad Plumer 10:10 AM || ||