April 23, 2010


Identical and fraternal twins are particularly interesting for questions of nature and nurture. And, yet, one problem with writing about twins is that there really aren't that many famous identical twins to use as examples.

I'm particularly interested in famous individuals who have an identical twin who isn't famous. For example, movie star Jon Heder has an identical twin, Dan Heder, who isn't as famous, but I'm not exactly sure why Jon Heder is famous in the first place. (And I'm not sure he is either.) But that situation is relatively uncommon. Either both identical twins are famous or neither one is. And the percentage of famous people who are identical twins appears to be lower than the percentage of identical twins in the population.

Wikipedia offers a list of "Famous people with a twin," but most of the twins appear to be either fraternal and/or died young. For example, Elvis Presley had a twin brother, but he died at birth. (That's not uncommon on this list -- carrying and delivering twins is tough.)

I suspect that to get famous in a lot of fields, such as acting (here's Wikipedia's list of twin actors -- most of the names either aren't too famous or are fraternal twins) you have to elbow your way past a lot of people to grab the spotlight as you are growing up. 

For example, a lot of well-known actresses were the stars of their high school musicals. That's a common rite of passage if you want to be a movie star someday. Say you and your identical twin sister want the role of Maria in your high school production of "Sound of Music." One of you would get Maria and the other would  get stuck being the Head Nun. So, maybe you talk it over with your twin and decide neither will try out for it because it would be too painful for the loser. Or maybe the director feels uncomfortable choosing between you, so he gives the role to somebody else who isn't a twin.

I suspect that considerations such as this tend to discourage identical twins from pursuing a lot of careers with steep pyramids of fame.

April 22, 2010

Stereotypes about Redheads

I've seen a lot of assertions about how red-haired people tend to differ from other white folks of similar backgrounds (e.g., redhead Irishmen versus brunette Irishmen) over the years:

- Redheads are more fiery-tempered
- Redheads are quirkier, more unpredictable
- Redheads are more muscular (from Covert Bailey, PBS fitness guru)
- Redheads smell better (That's from Tracy Ullman's best character, aged Hollywood make-up artist Ruby Romaine)

I don't see a lot of common ground, so I'm skeptical, but I'm open to suggestions.

In general, there seems to have been more interest in redheads in American popular culture in the middle of the 20th Century.

The Cult of the Blonde really got going in the 1960s, when Sweden was at its peak of fashionability in America, and tanning became trendy. The Southern California outdoor/beach/surfer/bikini lifestyle of the 1960s and 1970s was unfeasible for redheads (sun blocks weren't as effective then), while it made people with light brown hair turn blond in the sun -- i.e., their skin got darker and their hair fairer at the same time, which was a fashionable look for awhile, e.g., Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid or Sports Illustrated swimsuit models like Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley. Natural redheads got left at home, literally, by the beach lifestyle trend of the era.

After awhile, it became apparent that tanning causes wrinkles, so tanning went out of fashion (although that hard-earned knowledge seems to have been lost on the new Jersey Shore generation), but redheaded women didn't make a particular comeback into trendiness as in the mid-century.

One theory I have is that in the middle of the 20th Century, the existing hair dyes worked better for brunette-to-redhead transformations than for brunette-to-blonde. (Platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow's dyeing regimen in the 1930s eventually destroyed her hair and she had to wear a wig.) So, perhaps attention-seeking brunette women in the mid-20th Century were more likely to wind up redheads than blondes, which in turn generated a lot of buzz about what that special something was that redheads had that made them so fascinating. When, in truth, what it really was was that they wanted to be fascinating, so they became redhead as a way to distinguish themselves from the brunette masses.

Since then, it's become chemically easier for ambitious women to go blonde, so they do.

April 21, 2010

The Neanderthal in You

The idea has been kicking around for a number of years that modern humans may have picked up some valuable genes by mating with Neanderthals (kind of like Clan of the Cave Bear, that really odd series of romance novels set in caveman days that were huge bestsellers a generation ago).

A new study supports that theory. John Hawks has the background.

The idea is that if Neanderthals were off evolving by themselves in the frigid North for a few hundred thousand years, they likely would have developed some well-honed genes for dealing with the difficulties of life outside the tropics. The fastest way for modern humans migrating out of the tropics to acquire traits optimized for surviving winters, or whatever, would have been to interbreed with Neanderthals.

April 20, 2010

Clone of Contention

Should Bryan Caplan clone himself?

Julian Simon acolyte Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason U., wonders whether to include this paragraph in his upcoming book:
I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I'm sure we'd share.  I'm confident that he'd be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I'm not pushing others to clone themselves.  I'm not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask? 

Unfortunately, Professor Caplan doesn't inform us what his wife thinks about his desire to create a child untainted by her genes. Does Professor Caplan intend to have Mrs. Caplan bear his clone for him? Does Professor Caplan intend to have Mrs. Caplan pick up after his clone for 21 years? Will Mrs. Caplan appreciate it when she and her husband's immature clone get into an argument and Professor Caplan sides with his clone against his wife? Will she be concerned that he might favor his clone in his will over their mutual children?

Of course, that's assuming that Bryan's assumption that he and his clone would be Best Friends Forever is correct. More likely, the opposite would be true.

Generally speaking, people who would like to clone themselves tend to be arrogant and lacking in common sense. Their children will tend to also be arrogant and lacking in common sense. The interpersonal dynamics between cloner and clonee would likely be disastrous.
Are families in which the sons are exactly like the fathers happier? I don't see a lot of evidence for that. In fact, I see a lot of evidence from memoirs and fiction that strong-willed fathers tend to have strong-willed sons, and the two clash relentlessly over who will be dominant. Too much similarity does not always make for happiness within a family.

Of course, this whole cloning thing might be useful if a husband was trying to pawn some illegitimate kid he had with a stripper off on his wife to raise: "Hey, honey, sorry that I forgot to mention it, but I had myself cloned! Be a doll and clean up after little Me Jr. for the next 21 years." This might work on an exceptionally clueless wife.

That reminds me. Back in the 1990s, I pitched a screenplay to that old HBO comedy show about a sports agent, Arliss, in which one of Arliss's clients, a narcissistic gay Olympics superstar modeled on sprinter Carl Lewis, wants Arliss to arrange for his cloning:
Arliss is setting up a grudge match race between a Carl Lewis-style track superstar and his arch-rival, an extremely juiced-up looking Ben Johnson-type. Client Carl shows up, accompanied by his best friend / sister Carol. Carl says he isn't interested in reproducing the old-fashioned way, and asks Arliss to help him clone himself. Carol will carry the clone/fetus and raise the baby. Carol takes Arliss's secretary Rita aside to suggest that they try to get the cloning over and done with real fast. She breaks down and says it's a ruse she's putting over on Carl because she's pregnant -- with Ben Johnson's baby. Arliss asks Carl that in return for making the arrangement at a pet cloning clinic to get the clone signed up for a lifetime deal. But, Arliss is heartbroken when Rita breaks the truth to him.

In general, I have fewer problems with cloning in the abstract than I have deep doubts about the specific type of person (e.g., Bryan) who would want to get himself cloned.

The Americanization of Britain

From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
American culture has become so globally dominant that even the lamest U.S. customs, such as our soporific presidential debates, infect countries blessed with superior traditions. For example, as part of the run-up to the May 6th General Election, the Brits are holding their first ever prime ministerial debates, although their party leaders come up through the gauntlet of Parliament’s vastly more substantive and scintillating daily Question Time.

That the prime minister has been evolving into the president junior is a recurrent theme of Robert Harris’ 2007 novel The Ghost, which Roman Polanski has made into The Ghost Writer. This competent political thriller for grown-ups, one of the better movies of 2010, has been playing in limited release in the U.S. and opened over the weekend in Britain.

The PM’s job was long more human-scale job than the president’s, less insulated from normal life by security and by deference (which in Britain was paid instead to the Queen as head of state). For example, when I attended a conference with ex-PM Margaret Thatcher in 1999, she showed up accompanied only by a secretary and a bodyguard, wearing an old dress that had been mended with needle and thread. Tony Blair and his money-hungry wife Cheri were the first to indulge fully in American superstaritis.

Read the rest here and comment upon it below.

NFL Draft: Toby Gerhart update

Since we've been following Stanford's running back Toby Gerhart here since early October 2009 through his just missing out on the Heisman Trophy, it's time to check in on his prospects in this week's NFL draft
Judging by his various combine statistics, he looks like a legitimate NFL prospect, although not an overwhelming one: Among college running backs measured, he was tied for third in bench press repetitions, fifth in vertical leap, sixth in shuttle, seventh in cones. His time in the 40 yard dash of 4.50 seconds was quite good for a 231 pound back, but there were about 10 guys faster. The fastest in the CBS Sports database was C.J. Spiller of Clemson at 4.27 and second were Ben Tate of Auburn and Jahvid Best of Cal at 4.34.
Gerhart's Wonderlic score of 30 (about a 118 IQ) was the best of the running backs. He was valedictorian of a working class / exurban high school, so he's a solid all-arounder.
He's being talked up as a second round or third round pick, with lots of NFL executives saying that they'd play him as the featured back rather than as the fullback (blocker, where white runners are usually stockpiled).
If I were him, I'd still be tempted by baseball. The Dodgers have a 230 pound centerfielder in Matt Kemp, and Gerhart is about as big and fast. As a hitter and fielder, Kemp was a Project for a long time, but now he's dating Rhianna because he's 230 pounds and fast enough to play centerfield. Gerhart hasn't shown in college baseball that he could hit major league pitching, but if he ever got the hang of it, it's a sweet life compared to getting mauled by NFL defenses.

April 19, 2010

Can a fat guy be Presidential timber?

Back in the good old days of Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, fatness was seen as reassuring evidence in a leader of success, maturity, calmness, and a high blood sugar level. But in recent generations, Presidents have tended to be lean and hungry types, with the exception of Bill Clinton, who ran from 214 to 236 on a 6'2.5" frame, but that didn't count because he's a Democrat.

I bring this up because close watchers of politics (i.e., not me, but people who know what they are talking about) are starting to speak with surprised admiration of the recently elected Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, the dark horse local who upset that Goldman Sachs honcho last fall.

It's not like the GOP has so many outstanding leaders that it couldn't use any fresh blood. But, the New Jersey governor is a dead ringer for Paul Blart, Mall Cop, just without the cool Segway to ride around on. So, can a fat guy be considered Presidential timber?

Obama and the CIA

The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Barack Obama had a little bit of help along the way from the CIA. Yet, the more I think about it, the less important that seems.
If you conceive of the CIA not as an omnipotent puppet-master, but as a player in an international version of the municipal Favor Bank familiar from The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities in which various players scratch each others' backs, then the idea that Obama might have had a little help along the way (e.g., perhaps a recommendation that helped him transfer from Occidental to Columbia's International Relations program despite spending most of his time at Oxy getting high), the more likely and less significant it seems. 

The CIA chiefly recruited two kinds of people. First, the good blood, good bone, old-line WASP Skull and Bones types on the grounds that they were less likely to betray America because they pretty much owned it. For example, there is more than a little circumstantial evidence that George H.W. Bush, who, when he was appointed CIA Director in the mid-1970s was described as being an "outsider," had previously helped the CIA with the Bay of Pigs and other anti-Castro operations in the 1960s, using his offshore oil drilling rigs in Mexican waters not terribly far from Cuba. There's nothing too shocking about this idea. In fact, GHW Bush may even have sacrificed a good deal of wealth to stay in an offshore business helpful to the CIA. He split with his partners, who kept the domestic onshore oil business, which they turned into the huge firm Pennzoil.

The other type of people the CIA liked to do favors for were cosmopolitan leftists, such as Obama's parents. 

Obama is not a particularly cosmopolitan person, at least not compared to his parents. But the three foreign countries where he has had the strongest ties -- Indonesia, Kenya, and Pakistan -- were particularly of interest to the CIA.

Barack Obama Sr. was a protege of Tom Mboya, the Kenyan Luo politician who was famously Washington's man in a three way struggle for power within Kenya between the pro-Soviet Luo Oginga Odinga and the pro-British Kikuyu Jomo Kenyatta. Obama Sr. claimed to have been the chief witness to the 1969 assassination of Mboya, a landmark event in Kenyan history equivalent to the JFK assassination in the U.S. Obama Jr. left this out of his autobiography, but that Obama Sr. claimed this are now well-documented.

Obama's mother worked in the late 1960s at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, which was Ground Zero for the CIA after the 1965 Communist putsch and subsequent military massacre of leftists. Indeed, Dreams from My Father refers to her conversations on the job with CIA men. David Remnick's biography of Obama, The Bridge, explains that his mother went on to a career in microlending social reform in Indonesia and Pakistan funded by the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, and a Saudi bank. 

At Occidental, Obama's best friends were rich Pakistanis leftists. In 1981, he visited Pakistan and stayed at a friend's estate, whose politician father became the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2008. Pakistan in 1981, of course, was crucial to the CIA's attempts to rally an armed resistance to the Soviets over the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. These are the kind of social connections that would be of interest to the CIA.

After he got out of Columbia, Obama got a job at an international business newsletter firm, Business International, where, he says, he felt like "a spy behind enemy lines." That reflects his leftist ideology, but I suspect he's amusing himself as well by referring to the fact that Business International had served to provide cover to at least four CIA agents over the years.

How did Obama wind up working at a CIA front? Coincidence? Perhaps, but maybe he had some advice. Maybe somebody made a phone call for him.

None of this is to say that Obama was a CIA agent. He seems more like the kind of promising young leftist American Third Worlder whom an old friend of his mother's or father's in American intelligence might have pulled a string or two to help out over the years.

As I've said, the more I've thought about it, the less fundamentally important it seems. But it sure is interesting.

Who knows what?

Inductivist highlights a Pew survey of how much people know about political news. Pew asked 1000 adults a dozen current affairs questions, and then published the demographic breakdowns. (You can take the online test here. The foreign debt questions turns out to have two more or less right answers.) The demographics aren't too surprising: Republicans average 5.9 right answers out of 12 versus 4.9 for Democrats. (Independents, however, do better than is typical on these surveys: 5.6.) People under 30 only got 3.8 right on average. Men defeated women 6.0 to 4.6. Whites did much better than blacks. Affluent people know a lot more than poor people. The well-educated are smarter.
They didn't ask if you played golf, but previous evidence suggests that the more somebody fits the stereotype of a boring middle aged Republican white male golfer, the more likely they are to know what the hell they are talking about.