Patriots and Scoundrels


January 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sunday, and no football. But we’ll always have Belichick and Brady.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are out-and-out liars. But they are outliers.

The advantage of an underinflated ball, like the eleven of the twelve footballs the Patriots used last Sunday, is that it’s easier to grip. Ball carriers will be less likely fumble if they’re gripping a ball they can sink their fingers into.

We can’t go back and measure the pressure of balls the Patriots were using before the Colts game, but Warren Sharp (here) went back and dug up the data on fumbles for all NFL games since 2010.  Since a team that controls the ball and runs more plays has more chances to fumble, Sharp graphed the ratio of plays to fumbles (values in red squares in the chart below) along with the absolute number of fumbles (values in blue circles). The higher the ratio, the less fumble-prone the team was.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

One of these things is not like the others.  That’s what an outlier is. It’s off the charts. It’s nowhere near the trend line. Something about it is very different. The variables that might explain the differences among the other data points – better players, better weather or a domed stadium, a pass-centered offense – don’t apply. Something else is going on.

As the graph shows, when the teams are rank ordered on the plays/fumbles ratio, the difference between one team and the next higher is usually 0-2, there are only two gaps of 5 until the 9-point gap between #3 Atlanta and #2 Houston. From the second-best Texans and to the Patriots there’s a 47-point jump. 

Sharp also graphed the data as a histogram.


It’s pretty much a bell curve centered around the mean of 105 plays-per-fumble. Except for that outlier. And the chart shows just how far out it lies.

The Patriots play in a cold-weather climate in a stadium exposed to the elements.  Yet their plays/fumble ratio is 50% higher than that of the Packers, 80% higher than the Bears. They have good players, but those players fumble less often for the Patriots than they did when they played for other NFL teams. 

Usually, the statistical anomaly comes first – someone notices that US healthcare costs are double those of other nations – and then people try to come up with explanations.  In this case, it wasn’t until we had a possible explanatory variable that researchers went back and found the outlier. As Peter Sagal of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” said, “The League became suspicious when a Patriots player scored a touchdown and instead of spiking the ball he just folded it and put it in his pocket.”

Ward Swingle (1927-2015)

January 23, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Not sociology but, to borrow Chris Uggen’s term, “self-indulgery.”)

Ward Swingle died last week. A few weeks earlier, I had been listening to this video of Andras Schiff playing the Bach C-minor partita, and I heard him play a wrong note in the Sinfonia. Maybe not wrong, but not what Bach wrote – a C instead of a B♭.*  Ward Swingle was the reason I knew.


In 1963, Phillips released “Bach’s Greatest Hits” – Bach compositions done the Swingle Singers, a vocal octet, plus drums and one of Europe’s top jazz bassists, Pierre Michelot). I listened to that record so often enough that I knew every note in the Sinfonia. I even got the music since the left hand was mostly eighth notes at a slow tempo, I could play it in my own clumsy fashion.**

Here are the Swingle Singers lip-synching to that record. Funny, but what sounded so cool then, now sounds thin, even cheesy, especially with the drums, and I think it would be better a capella.



Because the Swingle Singers were based in Paris (many of them had been in the Double Six de Paris), I was surprised to learn from the obits that Swingle himself was not French (he grew up in Mobile, Alabama) and that Swingle really was his name rather than a nom-de-disque he invented because of its jazzy overtones.

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* It comes at about the 2:00 mark.

** I am entirely self-taught (i.e., untaught) at the piano, and my left hand is pretty much useless for anything but chords.

What You Mean, “We”?*

January 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word? 

The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.

(Click on thechart for a larger view.)

The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything.  “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more. 

Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans.  (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)


Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring. 

As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government.  Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes. 

Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah** calls “utilitarian individualism.”  As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government.  In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well. 


That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.

I checked one other word because of its revance to the argument that the US is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.


The Almighty, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of a Johnny-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.

Thank you and God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.***

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* For those who are very young or have led sheltered lives, this title is the punch line spoken by Tonto in an old joke, which you can Google.

** See his Habits of Heart, written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton.  Or get a brief version in this lecture.

*** Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God).  FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely the difference between a single God-bless closing and a double.

  This  audience factor might account for some of the increase in the use of we. A president might use we far more often when he his addressing the nation than when he is reporting to Congress.

Dissed Again

January 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology is the Rodney Dangerfied of social science. The latest insult comes from economist Noah Smith. On his Noahpinion blog, he posted two pictures of faux zoo animals: a dog that a Chinese zoo tried to pass off as a lion; and a “panda” in an Italian circus that was really a chow painted black and white.




But why did Smith say that his post was “a blaze of amateur sociology”?*

Smith does not mention sociology in the post, nor does he use any sociological terms, as if to suggest that the amateur sociology dig is so obvious that it needs no explanation.  But I’m confused.  Is he saying that these clumsy attempts to pass domestic dogs off as exotic animals are amateur sociology? Or is he saying that his pointing out frauds that are this obvious is amateur sociology?

Either way, we don’t get no respect.

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* Smith changed the title, but the original still shows up in blog aggregtors like my G2Reader and in the URLfor the post: http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2015/01/lion-dog-panda-dog-blaze-of-amateur.html.