The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.

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The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.

‘Before it was cool’

Hipsters are one of the few remaining groups it is generally considered OK to take the piss out of as a collective in modern culture, along with chavs and the kind of people who comment below YouTube videos. The main complaint against them as a group is their overly superior and rather arrogant attitude- the sense that they are inherently ‘better’ than those around them simply by virtue of dressing differently (or ‘individually’ as they would have it) and listening to music that nobody’s ever heard of before.

However, perhaps the single thing that hipster elitism is loathed for more than any other is the simple four-letter phrase ‘before it was cool’. Invariably prefaced with ‘I was into that…’, ‘I knew about them…’ or ‘They were all over my iTunes…’ (although any truly self-respecting hipster would surely not stoop so low as to use such ‘mainstream’ software), and often surrounded by ‘y’know’s, this small phrase conjures up a quite alarming barrage of hatred from even the calmest music fan. It symbolises every piece of petty elitism and self-superiority that hipster culture appears to stand for, every condescending smirk and patronising drawl directed at a sense of taste that does not match their own, and every piece of weird, idiosyncratic acoustic that they insist is distilled awesome

On the other hand, despite the hate they typically receive for their opinions, hipster reasoning is largely sound. The symbolism of their dress code and music taste marking them out from the crowd is an expression of individuality and separatism from the ‘mass-produced’ culture of the modern world, championing the idea that they are able to think beyond what is simply fed to them by the media and popular culture. It is also an undeniable truth that there is an awful lot of rubbish that gets churned out of said media machine, from all the various flavours of manufactured pop to the way huge tracts of modern music sound the same, all voices having been put through a machine umpteen times. Indeed, whilst it is not my place to pass judgement on Justin Beiber and company (especially given that I haven’t listened to any of his stuff), many a more ‘casual’ music fan is just as quick to pass judgement on fans of that particular brand of ‘manufactured’ pop music as a hipster may be towards him or her.

In fact, this is nothing more than a very human trait- we like what we like, and would like as many other people as possible to like it too. What we don’t like we have a natural tendency to bracket as universally ‘bad’ rather than just ‘not our thing’, and thus anyone who likes what we don’t tends to be subconsciously labelled either ‘wrong’ or ‘misguided’ rather than simply ‘different’. As such, we feel the need to redress this issue by offering our views on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which wouldn’t be a problem if other people didn’t happen to like what we see as bad, and perhaps not get on so well with (or not have heard of) stuff we think of as good. Basically, the problem boils down to the fact that all people are different, but our subconscious treats them as all being like us- an unfortunate state of affairs responsible for nearly all of the general confrontation & friction present in all walks of life today.

What about then that hated phrase of the hipster, ‘before it was cool’? Well, this too has some degree of logic behind it, as was best demonstrated in the early 1990s during the rise of Nirvana. When they first started out during the 1980’s they, along with other alternative rock bands of the time such as REM, represented a kind of rebellious undercurrent to the supposed good fortune of Reagan-era America, a country that was all well and good if you happened to be the kind of clean cut kid who went to school, did his exams, passed through college and got an office job. However, for those left out on a limb by the system, such as the young Kurt Cobain, life was far harsher and less forgiving- he faced a life of menial drudgery, even working as a janitor in his old high school. His music was a way to express himself, to stand out from a world where he didn’t fit in, and thus it really meant something. When ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ first made Nirvana big, it was a major victory for that counter-culture, and pretty much put grunge on the map both as a music genre and a cultural movement for the first time.

And with success came money, and here things began to unravel. Unfortunately where there is money, there are always people willing to make more of it, and the big corporations began to move in. Record labels started to sign every grunge band and Nirvana-clone that they could find in a desperate attempt to find ‘the next Nirvana’, and the odd, garish fashion sense of the grunge movement began to make itself felt in more mainstream culture, even finding its way onto the catwalk. The world began to get swamped with ‘grungy stuff’ without embracing what the movement really meant, and with that its whole meaning began to disappear altogether. This turning of his beloved underground scene into an emotionless mainstream culture broke Kurt Cobain’s heart, leaving him disillusioned with what he had unwittingly helped to create. He turned back to the drug abuse that had sprung from his poor health (both physical and mental) and traumatic childhood, and despite multiple attempts to try and pull him out of such a vicious cycle, he committed suicide in 1994.

This is an incredibly dramatic (and very depressing) example, but it illustrates a point- that when a band gets too big for its boots and, in effect, ‘becomes cool’, it can sometimes cause them to lose what made them special in the first place. And once that something has been lost, it may never be the same in the eyes who saw them with it.

Although having said that, there is a difference between being an indie rock fan and being a hipster- being a pretentious, arrogant moron about it. *$%#ing hipsters.

Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.

The Rich and the Failures

Modern culture loves its celebrities. For many a year, our obsessions have been largely focused upon those who spend their lives in the public eye- sportsmen and women, film and music stars, and anyone lucky and vacuous enough to persuade a TV network that they deserve a presenting contract. In recent years however, the sphere of fame has spread outwards, incorporating some more niche fields- survival experts like Bear Grylls are one group to come under the spotlight, as are a multitude of chefs who have begun to work their way into the media. However, the group I wish to talk about are businessmen. With the success of shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, as well as the charisma of such business giants as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a few people who were once only known of by dry financiers are now public figures who we all recognise.

One of the side-effects of this has, of course, been the publishing of autobiographies. It is almost a rite of passage for the modern celebrity- once you have been approached by a publisher and (usually) ghostwriter to get your life down on paper, you know you’ve made it. In the case of businessmen, the target market for these books are people in awe of their way of life – the self-made riches, the fame and the standing – who wish to follow in their footsteps and as such, these autobiographies are basically long guides of business advice based around their own personal case study. The books now filling this genre do not only come from the big TV megastars however- many other people smart enough to spot a good bandwagon and rich enough to justify leaping onto it appear to be following the trend of publishing these ‘business manuals’, in an effort to make another quick buck to add to their own long personal lists.

The advice they offer can be fairly predictable- don’t back down, doggedly push on when people give you crap, take risks and break the rules, spot opportunities and try to be the first one to exploit them, etc. All of which is, I am sure what they believe really took them to the top.

I, however, would add one more thing to this list- learn to recognise when you’re onto a loser. For whilst all this advice might work superbly for the handful of millionaires able to put their stories down, it could be said to have worked less well for the myriad of people who lie broken and failed by the wayside from following exactly the same advice. You see, it is many of those exact same traits – a stubborn, almost arrogant, refusal to back down, a risk-taking, opportunistic personality, unshakeable, almost delusional, self-confidence – that characterise many of our society’s losers. The lonely drunk in the bar banging on about how ‘I could have made it y’know’ is one example, or the bloke whose worked in the same office for 20 years and has very much his own ideas about his repeated passing over for promotion. These people have never been able to let go, never been able to step outside the all-encompassing bubble of their own fantasy and realise the harsh reality of their situation, and indeed of life itself. They are just as sure of themselves as Duncan Bannatyne, just as pugnacious as Alan Sugar, just as eager to spy an opportunity as Steve Jobs. But it’s the little things that separate them, and keep their salary in the thousands rather than the millions. Not just the business nous, but the ability to recognise a sure-fire winner from a dead horse, the ability to present oneself as driven rather than arrogant, to know who to trust and which side to pick, as well as the little slivers (and in some cases giant chunks) of luck that are behind every major success. And just as it is the drive and single-mindedness that can set a great man on his road to riches, so it can also be what holds back the hundreds of failures who try to follow in his footsteps and end up chasing dreams, when they are unable to escape them.

I well recognise that I am in a fairly rubbish position from which to offer advice in this situation, as I have always recognised that business, and in some ways success itself, is not my strong suit. Whilst I am not sure it would be all too beyond me to create a good product, I am quite aware that my abilities to market and sell such an item would not do it justice. In this respect I am born to be mediocre- whilst I have some skills, I don’t have the ambition or confidence to try and go for broke in an effort to hit the top. However, whilst this conservative approach does limit my chances of hitting the big time, it also allows me to stay grounded and satisfied with my position and minimises the chance of any catastrophic failure in life.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons one can take from this idea. For anyone seeking to go for the stars, then all I can offer is good luck, and a warning to keep your head on your shoulders and a firm grip on reality. For everyone else… well, I suppose that the best way to put it is to say that there are two ways to seek success in your life. One is to work out exactly where you want to be, exactly how you want to be successful, and strive to achieve it. You may have to give up a lot, and it may take you a very, very long time, but if you genuinely have what it takes and are not deluding yourself, then that path is not closed off to you.

The other, some would say harder, yet arguably more rewarding way, is to learn how to be happy with who and what you are right now.