San Francisco street character, Bushman, dies

For years, Bushman could be found “interacting with” tourists in San Francisco:

For 30 years Gregory Jacobs spent his days at Fisherman’s Wharf hiding behind branches, often up against a trash can, silently waiting for unsuspecting tourists to come by.

When they did, and when they least expected it, he would push those branches towards them, often giving them a little growl. Almost always, without fail, they would jump scream and run.

It is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences. Few people can forget a run-in with the bushman.

But Jacobs hadn’t been in his usual spot lately. He’s been in and out the hospital with heart problems. Last Sunday, his family told KTVU, his heart finally gave out and Jacobs passed away.

The article goes on to note that there are actually two Bushmen so there will still be one at these tourist sites.

Bushman might be considered one of Jane Jacob’s “public characters.” Sociologist Mitchell Duneier discusses this idea in the introduction to his classic ethnography Sidewalk.

Not long after we met, I asked Hakim how he saw his role.

“I’m a public character,” he told me.

“A what?” I asked.

“Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities?” he asked. “You’ll find it in there.”

I considered myself quite familiar with the book, a classic study of modern urban life published in 1961, and grounded in the author’s observations of her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. But I didn’t recall the discussion of public characters. Nor did I realize that Hakim’s insight would figure in a central way in the manner in which I would come to see the sidewalk life of this neighborhood. When I got home, I looked it up:

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Jacobs had modeled her idea of the public character after the local shopkeepers with whom she and her Greenwich Village neighbors would leave their spare keys. These figures could be counted on to let her know if her children were getting out of hand on the street, or to call the police if a strange-looking person was hanging around for too long: “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order,” Jacobs explained. “They hate broken windows and holdups.” She also modeled the public character after persons like herself, who distributed petitions on local political issues to neighborhood stores, spreading local news in the process.

While Bushman didn’t necessarily provide needed services for local residents, being a fixture for so long and interacting with the tourists in a unique way helped make him a feature of Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember seeing him in action multiple times. The first time was surprising and yet it seemed to be the sort of thing that one could only find in a big city: a local man popping out of one of the more natural features along this stretch of the Embarcadero (yes, tearing the Embarcadero Freeway down was helpful but a lot of this road is still fairly ugly) and poking fun at the many tourists who bring lots of money into the city. This is quite different from other odd characters in American cities like the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or the various gold or silver-covered street performers on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere who perform and then ask for money. The key difference is that Bushman had a direct confrontation with tourists who were often quite frightened – until they realized that people were watching them and this was all “normal.”

A McMansion and a Megamansion have a spirited debate

Listen as a 9,000 square foot McMansion and a 30,000 Megamansion debate their respective virtues. Who should really be called ostentatious? At least they can agree on their dislike for a nearby apartment building.

This is a funny series: you can also find a conversation between two trash-talking classic pieces of furniture, an argument between a blender and espresso machine, and two NYC bikes duke it out. Here is more about the short series:

Comedy writer Tom Saunders (Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, Just Shoot Me), on the other hand, has long fantasized that the stuff around us actually talks, and he has created a series for DnA that proves it.

In Everything Talks, buildings and objects (often brand-name designer products) bicker over who’s best. They puff out their chests, brag and trash talk, trying to best their rival. The segment spotlights the thrill of rivalry and in doing so has fun with the status we humans attach to our objects.

Here is how Tom describes Everything Talks: “The idea that we could hear an actual conversation between, for example, a Vitamix blender and a Rancho Silvia espresso maker was science fiction only a few years ago. At last, a new computer app (connected to an ultra sensitive listening device) is able to translate, amplify and record otherwise inaudible discussions between inanimate objects without them knowing we are listening in!

Throw in some of the magic from The Twilight Zone and these braggart status could soon be taking over the world…

One part of this that is funny is that while humans use consumer goods as status symbols and measure themselves against others with these objects, they don’t always do this directly. This can be done through intermediaries or in one’s own head for a long time while trying to not let others know this is happening. This reminds me of the findings of the ethnography The Moral Order of a Suburb where a sociologist finds that suburbanites tend to get along by avoiding direct confrontation. In debates over McMansions, this might take the form of going to local government and objecting or writing a letter to the editor (though I’m sure there are occasionally face-to-face arguments about McMansions).

 

Lampooning modern life: “Pottery Barn Catalogue Descriptions Written by an Aspiring Crime Novelist” and 20th Century History in Linkbait Headlines

Taking some time to laugh at our modern times is a necessary part of survival. So, two recent examples:

1. xkcd rewrites some major moments in the 20th century in the style of today’s Internet headlines. An example from 1912: “6 Titanic Survivors Who Should Have Died.” One of my first thoughts on reading these headlines: how long until we get history textbooks that follow this style?

2. McSweeney’s rewrites descriptions from a Pottery Barn catalog in the style of an aspiring crime novelist. An example:

The door to the Farmhouse Armoire stands slightly ajar, revealing room for a 60-inch television and something more sinister. Look closely at the Morgan Cachepot across the room, and you will see reflected in its gentle curves the silhouette of an escaped maniac hiding inside the wardrobe. Quick thinking and a rustic iron latch will hold the madman until the police arrive. The solid pine doors can withstand the pounding fists of a captive lunatic, but not ammonia-based cleansers.

This would make the Pottery Barn catalog a lot more interesting.

This is one redeeming quality of the Internet: the ability to harness and make accessible lots of examples of wit. If the Internet can’t rally to save Wikipedia or we can’t stop ourselves from obsessively interacting with smartphones and social media, at least we can chuckle a bit along the way. At the same time, it is odd that I came upon this humor through a chain of websites and others who selected it as worthy of their reader’s attention (or clicks). Why bother making light of my own circumstances when I can rely on others to provide a quick laugh?

Purchase McMansion merchandise from UrbanDictionary.com

You can purchase mugs, magnets, tats, and even beer steins with UrbanDictionary.com’s definition of a McMansion. Here is their definition for McMansion and an example of the word being used:

Definition: A loser’s term of jealousy for a nice house he or she can never afford.

Example: “Did you hear how well Susie’s doing? You know we used to all make fun of her in school, well I hear she’s got a good job and just bought a beautiful new home.”

“Yeah, she’s just the type who’d buy a McMansion. I’m happy with my double-wide in the trailer park, it’s more ‘real.'”

It is what you might expect from UrbanDictionary: snarky and turns the term around from its typical critic of the homeowner who would dare purchase such a garish and unnecessary home. Additionally, the claim that a double-wide trailer is more authentic is not what any critic of McMansions would actually say.

So, how many of these items with the term McMansion have been purchased? Any? The t-shirts are rather bland and who would want to wear such commentary? These items seem destined to be clever gifts that then aren’t used much…

Onion: “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game of ‘Big City'”

The Onion says this about Boston:

Boston residents once again hustled and bustled their way into the nation’s hearts this week as they continued playing their adorable little game of “Big City,” a live-action role-playing adventure in which Bostonians buzz about their daily routines in a delightful hubbub of excitement as if they lived in a major American metropolis.

Inhabitants of real cities across the nation smiled in affectionate amusement as Bostonians put on their big-city clothes, swiped their Charlie cards for a ride on one of the MBTA’s trolley-like subway cars—charmingly called the “T”—and rushed downtown for “important” business meetings at the John Hancock Building, the South Boston Innovation District, and other pretend centers of global industry and commerce…

According to enchanted onlookers who live in actual metropolitan areas, Boston residents are particularly endearing when they get all dressed up for a night at the theater; eat a big, fancy dinner at the Prudential Center’s top-floor restaurant; and read The Boston Globe, whose reporters get to play a game of Big-City Journalist each and every day…

Sources went on to call the city’s darling nickname, “The Hub,” a great, hilarious touch, as though Boston were an actual locus of anything vital whatsoever.

I don’t know if Boston residents have an inferiority complex. But, the article also mentions a Chicago resident suggesting they also play “Big City.” This reference to Chicago might have a grain of truth in it; Chicago leaders and residents occasionally worry about whether the city is keeping up and is still a global city. Presumably, the only people who don’t have to play “Big City” are residents of New York City and Los Angeles – and this is perhaps how residents of the two largest US cities see it.

Majority of young adults “see online slurs as just joking”

A recent survey of teenagers and young adults suggests that they are more tolerant of offensive or pejorative terms in the online realm:

Jaded by the Internet free-for-all, teens and 20-somethings shrug off offensive words and name-calling that would probably appall their parents, teachers or bosses. And an Associated Press-MTV poll shows they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.

Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, and only about half say they are likely to ask someone using such language online to stop…

But young people who use racist or sexist language are probably offending more people than they realize, even in their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives, especially when they identify with the group being targeted…

But they mostly write off the slurs as jokes or attempts to act cool. Fifty-seven percent say “trying to be funny” is a big reason people use discriminatory language online. About half that many say a big reason is that people “really hold hateful feelings about the group.”…

It’s OK to use discriminatory language within their own circle of friends, 54 percent of young people say, because “I know we don’t mean it.” But if the question is put in a wider context, they lean the other way, saying 51-46 that such language is always wrong.

This would seem to corroborate ideas that anonymity online or comments sections free people up to say things that they wouldn’t say in real life. Perhaps this happens because there is no face-to-face interaction or it is harder to identify people or there are few repercussions. In the end, the sort of signs, verbal or non-verbal cues, that might stop people from saying these things near other people simply don’t exist online.

I would be interested to see more research about this “joking” and how young adults understand it. Humor can be one of the few areas in life where people can address controversial topics with lesser consequences. Of course, there are limits on what is acceptable but this can often vary by context, particularly in peer-driven settings like high school or college where being “cool” means everything. These young adults likely know this intuitively as they wouldn’t use the same terms around parents or adults. Are these young adults then more polite around authority figures and save it all up for online or are they more uncivil in general as some would argue?

For an important issue like racism, does this mean that many in the next generation think being or acting racist is okay as long as they are among friends but is not okay to exhibit in public settings? Is it okay to be racist as long as it is accompanied by a happy emoticon or a j/k?

Knowing that this is a common issue, what is the next step in cutting down on this offensive humor, like we are already seeing in many media sites’ comments sections? And who gets to do the policing – parents, schools, websites?

A “grand, unifying theory of humor”?

A marketing and psychology professor argues that he can explain all humor:

There may be many types of humor, maybe as many kinds as there are variations in laughter, guffaws, hoots, and chortles. But McGraw doesn’t think so. He has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers…

The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be.

I’ll attempt a quick and dirty translation into sociological terms: each society or culture has particular norms about right and wrong behavior. Violating these norms often leads to negative sanctions. But according to this academic,  humor works because the recipient of humor sees that violating the norms isn’t an attempt to overthrow the norms. The key appears to be the ability to show that the intended humor is “benign,” that the person sharing the humor has good intentions or still operates within the culture’s larger norms. Humor ceases to be humor when hearers think that the teller has “hit too close to home” or is mean-spirited.

After reading about this attempt at theory, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t read more from sociologists about humor. I know there is some work out there on this but in my reading and training, I remember hearing little about this basic feature of everyday life.

April Fool’s prank in Evanston about snow removal sticker

Municipal employees and officials are somewhat beholden to residents and their tax dollars. Therefore, it would be interesting to know the reaction of public officials to an April Fool’s prank regarding snow removal published yesterday in a community newspaper in Evanston, Illinois:

As WBBM Newsradio 780?s Mike Krauser reports, Evanston is dealing with a budget crisis, and a huge bill for the blizzard back on Feb. 2 and 3, which dumped 21.2 inches of snow on the Chicago area.

So, the Roundable reports, their solution is to charge for snow removal.

The Roundtable reports under the new plan developed by the city’s Snow Czar, Pearl Le Blanc, anyone who wants snow removed in front of their homes will be required to buy a “snow removal sticker.”

The plan was approved at a heated City Council meeting on April 1, the Roundtable said.

Residents who participate will rent orange traffic cones from the City of Evanston, and will affix daily snow removal stickers to the cones. The stickers will cost $2.25 per day, the Roundtable reported.

I would imagine that officials at City Hall might not have been too pleased at receiving phone calls from angry residents.

Is it too outlandish in these days of budget shortfalls to suggest that a community could increase revenue by requiring such a sticker?

McMansions are Republican homes?

In a humor/satire column in the Huffington Post, McMansions are tied to Republicans:

A Pew survey finds President Obama is polling quite well against a “generic” Republican opponent, better than George W. Bush was against a “generic” Democrat in 2003. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they would like to see Obama reelected while 37 percent opted for a generic Republican candidate. HuffPost Hill couldn’t reach “generic” Republican, Pleated Q. Pants IV, at his McMansion in suburban Columbus for comment. We hear he was shopping at a big box store and thinking about national security.

This is an interesting mix of characteristics: the “generic” Republican candidate shops at a big box store (why not say Wal-Mart? Is Target too trendy?) in central Ohio and lives in a suburban McMansion. There may be some truth to some of this: Joel Kotkin argued after the 2010 election that Republicans won the suburban vote even as both parties for fighting for this demographic.

I have seen other cases where McMansions are tied to Republicans. What exactly about the McMansion is Republican: the size? The bad architecture? The sprawl? The suburban lifestyle? The three (or more) car garage? The big mortgage? The wealth that made the house purchase possible?

What would a Democratic characterization in the same vein look like? In terms of the housing unit, how about an urban loft or a refurbished rowhouse or brownstone, all in a gentrified, atmospheric, and trendy neighborhood?

Laughter and fun declines precipitously during the life course

A study from the University of Glamorgan found that age 52 is when “both men and women begin to suffer a sharp decline in their sense of humour and get increasingly grumpy.”

Also, humor and the laughing drops quite a bit from being an infant to being a teenager and then drops again after having kids:

The study found that while an infant can laugh aloud as many as 300 times every day, life rapidly becomes far less fun.

As Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry so deftly depicted, things soon change. While teenagers are the age group most likely to laugh at other people’s misfortunes, they laugh on average just six times a day.

Things get even bleaker in what should be the relatively carefree twenties, when we laugh four times a day.

This rises to five times a day throughout the thirties, when having children is cited as a major factor in restoring a sense of humour.

By the time we reach 50, Brits are laughing just three times a day, while the average 60-year-old manages a hearty guffaw just 2.5 times in the same period.

Just five or less laughs a day throughout all of adulthood? Assuming that this can be somewhat generalizable to Americans, it suggests that we need to laugh more.