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Unread May 28th, 2005, 08:09 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Revised: Power Laws at HOOTERs

The phenomenon: one event dominates a large assembly of smaller ones and the distribution of event size versus the frequency of each event can be represented by a straight line on log-log paper (Albert & Barabasi, 2002; Barabasi, 2002). Such relationships are called "power laws." Levitt ("Freakonomics") talks about power laws but doesn't use the term. He, for example, reports that most crack dealers have to live at home with their mother but sell the drug in order to become the one in 100 who both makes significant money and stays alive more than a few months. Power laws have sufficient generality to justify their importance as major factors in the evolution of just about anything! Even our gods we arrange in an emergent network and monotheism almost becomes a certainty.

I describe here events that suggest power laws in the thoughts of an obsessive old guy, the behavior of a hoard of gamblers, and the rituals of a small gang of pretty naked women. The payoffs that maintain these parallel events might be explained by statistical physics or the concept of probability of reinforcement: the outcomes of those payoffs might be called "persistence" but one tempered by the ability not only to recruit partners but also to dispose of useless ones. Thus, emergent networks have two major properties that make them ideal exploratory systems (Gerhart & Kirschner, 1997) for the sustained challenges of evolution. Thoughts, gamblers, and beauty contests sometimes hint of emergent networks...

Leo, another photographer, asked me along to the regional Hooters Bikini Contest. For the first time in 63 years, I rescheduled a psychology client in order to look at a bunch of women. Leo drove but tailgated and ranted for 40 miles about a scolding from his wife and about two jerks who earlier in the day bounced into his front bumper after colliding with each other. We eventually rolled into the Trump Marina at Atlantic City and next strolled past 500 oldsters who used their dopamine not to laugh, scratch, or talk but hoarded it to pull the handle of a slot machine. Out of quarters, one of them shuffled away and another filled the vacancy in an etherized flow-through, dissipative system.

We moved on and found the Hooters contestants.

The Contest:
Thirty-three women competed for prizes of either $50, $150, $300, or a trip to Miami for the national contest. Bottom line: $500 from Budweiser bought 33 of them in bikinis for two hours but only paid four of them. The average contestant made less per hour than a Wendy's server and the modal and median contestants made even less. Despite meager, uncertain rewards, the contestants' shaved, exercised, paid stylists, glued on fingernails, tanned, paid dentists to cap teeth, smiled, traveled long distances, took off clothing, and wiggled and jiggled in front of strangers who would have jumped them.

These are Winner-take-all events wherein the "winner" may, in fact, be no different from the clump of "losers" (Frank & Cook, 1995). The possibility of money and fame produced a network of one or two major players and a bunch of smaller ones who won't last long. Also, like crack dealers, many contestants probably lived at home with their mothers and worked not only at Hooters but also at other retail jobs.

Attractive females, all but one under 30, made up about 15% of the audience. The males in the audience aged from 19 to 70 in a random distribution of liveliness, pecs, abs, and biceps. They yelled and clapped and drank beer in clusters and, in return for $10 donated to breast cancer research (what else!). The guys, challenging odds greater than those faced by the girls on the stage, cast for eye contact and a smile at 60 feet or, later, for a phone number or a night in the hay.

There were three of us who had cameras larger than our fists. An earlier arrival commandeered the end of the runway with a Nikon and a 4-inch lens: we didn't challenge him but moved to stage left. Leo hunted with his new Canon and a 12 inch, stabilized lens that compensated for his shaky hands. He quickly forgot his rants, wife, and bent bumper and became 20 years younger, picking off targets at will at 50 feet while he used the same reflexes that once got him lots of space in major newspapers. His costs exceeded those of the contestants and included gas and tolls, $1200 for a new camera and a mix of lenses (one of them retailed at $1400).

Leo, like the contestants, wanted to grow by making contact with a hub: as it happened, the regional marketing manager was on stage and he drew her in later to check his digital images. (She asked him, "What paper are you from?" "None currently but I used to work for the Inquirer and NY Times and I've covered Miss America pageants." He hooked her and she will be in Philadelphia and meet with him on Thursday.) The marketing chick nodded my way but didn't ask about my camera or news experience! She immediately screened me out as irrelevant. Good instincts!

Photographers make careers and sometimes history when they find the right model. This factor counts more than having the newest camera or longest lens. An ambitious woman orders prints, makes a portfolio, and refers her attractive friends, each of whom will also want pictures. The ambitious model will sometimes become famous and early photos of her that helped her career become more valuable once she attains success.

I also suspect that one more motive played not only in Leo but also Henry Higgins when he coached Liza Doolittle: most photographers want to make a Galatea, sometimes in more than one sense but if not, then legacy is sufficient by itself. Leo had a good night when he got some clear images of Emily, a tall, bottle blonde whose radiant smile and expressive eyes reeked with kindness although her legs were just starting to show a little cellulite. (Photoshop erases a lot of things!) The kid will probably want her own web site. Leo, again, made out.

1. There was an older (10 years younger than me!) lady sitting halfway back on the left. Madam DeFarge knitted while she logged executions during the French Revolution but this woman, without lipstick, hair dye, ribbons, combs, or eye shadow, neither drank nor moved but watched the stage and probably had a daughter on it. She may also have had a derringer in her garter! She was otherwise out of place and, therefore, fascinating: I took her picture.
2. A large old biker with awful breath and his large worn wife shouted their daughter's name: "Katlyn!" His reaction if I walked on stage and pinched her?!! This god-fearing individualist would beat me up for Darwinian reasons: I am both too poor and too old to make Katlyn's future children and, further, I marked his property right in front of him. Pinching the kid ridicules and infuriates him.
3. The hostess asked each contestant: "Why do you love Hooters?" Thirty-one "loved the other girls" (all of these babes called themselves and their friends "girls" despite evidence that none of them were!), only two loved "hot guys and making money." (The 31 probably told more of the truth than Buss does about these matters: women swarm and synchronize as if male soldiers who defend their buddies in combat. "Babe," incidentally, is a camouflage because egg-carriers are the most dangerous predators in all of nature! "Alien" was most true-to-life because the writer told of a fight between two females!)

The operant types, and I am still fond of that tradition, would postulate that a long history of partial reinforcement maintained each contestant's behavior. Further, the schedule was leaned systematically so most of them lost more than she earned. (Pigeons showed the same effect in studies conducted in the late '60s and early '70s. Some birds pecked 24 hours for a single grain of corn!) Strogatz (2003) could also talk about "sync": each contestant tried to be only a little bit different from the others. Even the Black contestant wore her hair in a "White" style. (Thomas Sowell, 2005, has a magnificent essay that attempts to explain why! EP research on facial symmetry also tells us that averaged faces are often more attractive than any one of them.)
Emergent networks characterized the Q-Tip gamblers with thin legs and bushy white hair who gave money to Trump rather than to morticians, Leo's annoyances with his wife and with other drivers, and with his zeal to photograph Emily and meet the Hooters regional marketing manager. They also describe how/why the 33 undressed girls remained a coherent swarm, in Ed Wilson's term, a superorganism when, in theory, they should have bloodied each other as if in a Roman coliseum.
The payoff: some of us call it "persistence": long chains of behavior produce rewards at uncertain delays and for uncertain amounts of work. Persistence and networks align beautifully! In addition, Barabasi (2002) describes emergent networks as vulnerable not to random attacks on individual nodes but as highly sensitive to attacks on a few hubs: three targeted shots scatter most networks whereas 1000 random ones accomplish little. Emergent networks can discard nodes that are no longer useful and, thus, become a flexible exploratory system, one ideally suited to evolve (Gerhart & Kirshner, 1997).

Increase resistance to dispersal or get rid of enough variation within the network by getting rid of noncritical nodes, however, and we apply the term "mob" or "obsession." Spray an anti-OCD medicine on the stage and each participant becomes more independent and the swarm disperses. Land the right model, sway the right judge, pull the right lever and you become a hub in your own network.

Leo was much calmer on the way home and complained not once about rain, darkness and his difficulty managing headlight glare, his car being low on gas, or streaked wiper marks on the windshield. He didn't rehearse what he would say to his wife but focused on his next pitch to the Marketing Manager and the model.

As for me, I had seen fascinating adaptive organizations form without halter tops...

* "must reads"!

Albert, Reka & Barabasi, A-L (2002) Statistical mechanics of complex networks. Reviews of Modern Physics 74: 47-97.
*Barabasi, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.
Frank, R. & Cook, P. (1995) The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. NY: Free Press.
Gerhart, John & Kirschner, Marc (1997) Cells, Embryos, and Evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
*Levitt, S. (2005) Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. NY: Morrow.
Sowell, T. (2005) Redneck Blacks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter.
*Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.

Copyright 2005, James Brody, all rights reserved.
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