Tomie de Paola, 1934 - 2020. The Art Lesson

March 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I heard Tomie da Paola l speak one summer at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod. 

“Who here knows how to draw?” he asked. A few people raised their hands — there’s no dearth of artists on the Cape in the summer — but most of us didn’t. “If you ask that question to a bunch of five-year olds, they all raise their hands,” he said.

His point was not, of course, that as we grow older we lose our ability to draw. What we lose is the ability to find joy in drawing.

That evening in the library, it was obvious from the man himself, even you didn’t know that he had drawn/written hundreds of books, that he never lost that joy.

Distance Norms – Feeling the Breach

March 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Public life has suddenly become an exercise in “breaching”*  — the breaking of norms.

What makes norms so powerful is that we usually don’t realize that they are there, constraining our behavior. A norm doesn’t become visible until someone breaks it.

In the lecture on norms, I always included Edward T. Hall’s observations about interpersonal distance. If we do not follow the norms, distance may be more important than the actual words we speak.
The flow and shift of distance between people as they interact with each other is part and parcel of the conversation process. The normal conversational distance between strangers illustrates how important are the dynamics of space interaction. If a person gets too close, the reaction is instantaneous and automatic – the other person backs up. And if he gets too close again, back we go again. I have observed an American backing up the entire length of a corridor while a foreigner whom he considers pushy tries to catch up with him.

It’s commonplace now, but in 1959, when Hall published The Silent Language, it was one of those facts that had been hiding in plain sight. But even now that we know, we usually remain unaware how these norms are an unseen and unheard theater director telling us actors to hit our marks. I’m not following rules, I think; I’m just acting naturally.

Lately, I’ve gotten a more visceral understanding of conversational distance.  It’s one thing to read about it and understand in an intellectual, cognitive way. Or even to have students in class stand up, face one another, and move closer and farther apart to see what feels comfortable and uncomfortable.  It’s quite another thing, and the understanding of the norm gets much more meaningful, when you run into people you know and have a brief conversation standing five or six feet away from them. You can hear each other, but it just feels, well, distant.

* Some instructors assign students to do a breaching exercise. I am skeptical of these assignments for reasons outlined here and here.

Sampling — the General Idea

March 17, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Need a current example for the unit on sampling, day one? Read on.

Today, NPR tweeted the results of a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll on perceptions of the coronavirus.
“This survey of 835 adults was conducted Friday and Saturday using live telephone callers via landline and cellphone. It has a margin of error of +/- 4.8 percentage points.”
It found that since last month, the percent of Americans who thought that the virus was a “real threat” had fallen from 66% to 56%, barely more than half. The decline was especially steep among Republicans – from 72% to 40%

Most of the Twitter comments critical of the NPR tweet were political, echoing Trump’s “media hoax” claims of last week. But one of them was methodological.  

(I wouldn't trust this poll.
Looking at the methods used it isn't like they
 asked the same 835 adults for the poll that 
they asked last month. Not terribly reliable.)

Yes, asking the question of the same sample would be ideal. But is it really necessary?

Apparently, the concept of “representative sample” is not intuitively obvious. My favorite illustration is the army general in the Pentagon who was presented with the results of a survey and informed that these were based on the responses of 1500 soldiers. He was incredulous. After all, there were 300,000 in uniform. How could this sociologist know what they were thinking and doing by asking not even one percent?

“How many should we survey?” asked the sociologist.

“You gotta ask ’em all.”

The conversation then proceeded something like this:

“General, do you ever go to the doctor for a physical?”

“Yep, every year.”

“And to find out your cholesterol levels and other things, does he take blood?”


“Well, how much of your blood does he take?”

“You know, just that little tube, maybe an ounce or two?”

“So, do you tell him that if he really wants to know the percent of cholesterol in your blood, he’s going to have to take more than that little tube; he’s going to have to take it all?”

I remembered this anecdote from a small book on sampling that some publisher sent decades ago. I can’t recall the author’s name, and I may have gotten some of the details wrong. Nor do I remember if he said what the general’s response was. My guess is that the general sort of got the idea of sampling but still suspected that there was something fishy about it.

The Scrolls, One More Time

March 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a distraction from COVID-19, the Museum of the Bible had an important announcement.

The museum said in part, “Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments." [USA Today.]

I know that I shouldn’t be citing Woody Allen these days. Plus, I used this same excerpt from his essay “The Scrolls” not so long ago. But with life so brazenly imitating art, I felt compelled.

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing . . . .

The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.