Gee Whiz

November 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some time ago, the comments on a post here brought up the topic of the “gee whiz graph.” Recently, thanks to a lead from Andrew Gelman , I’ve found another good example in a recent paper.

The authors, Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons, have been looking at the influence of initials. Their ideas seem silly at first glance (batters whose names begin with K are more likely to strike out), like those other name studies that claim people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists while those named Lawrence or Laura are more likely to become lawyers

But Nelson and Simmons have the data. Here’s their graph showing that students whose last names begin with C and D get lower grades than do students whose names begin with A and B.

The graph shows an impressive difference, certainly one that warrants Nelson and Simmon’s explanation:
Despite the pervasive desire to achieve high grades, students with the initial C or D, presumably because of a fondness for these letters, were slightly less successful at achieving their conscious academic goals than were students with other initials.

Notice that “slightly.” To find out how slight, you have to take a second look at the numbers on the axis of that gee-whiz graph. The Nelson-Simmons paper doesn’t give the actual means, but from the graph it looks as though the A students’ mean is not quite 3.37. The D students average between 3.34 and 3.35, closer to the latter. But even if the means were, respectively, 3.37 and 3.34, that’s a difference of a whopping 0.03 GPA points.

When you put the numbers on a GPA axis that goes from 0 to 4.0, the differences look like this.
According to Nelson and Simmons, the AB / CD difference was significant (F = 4.55, p < .001). But as I remind students, in the language of statistics, a significant difference is not the same as a meaningful difference.

Worlds in Collision

November 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been a lot written about how the Internet has shifted the boundary of private and public. People are willing to put more of their lives out there in cyberspace– most notably on networking sites like MySpace and Facebook – assuming, for some reason, that only their friends will have the ability or interest to stop and look.

But cyberlore teems with cautionary tales of the wrong people getting the wrong information. A prospective employer sees what a job candidate has put on his MySpace page and finds it much different from the picture the candidate presented in his resumé and interview. It’s the problem Goffman called “audience segregation.” We don’t present quite the same self to each group that we interact with – employers and drinking buddies, for example – and we do our best to make sure that the audiences for these different performances don’t overlap. Jeremy Freese closed down his blog because of this problem. (I can’t remember the specifics.)

It had all been academic for me till one night last week. My son was looking at Facebook, and looking over his shoulder I noticed that one of his “friends ” was a kid I’d known since they were in kindergarten together. I wanted to see a larger version of the postage-stamp size picture. No dice, Dad. He logged out.

So remembering that I had a Facebook account (though I never use it), I logged in on my laptop, and started looking through friends on my son’s page. My wife, too, was curious about these kids. My son, of course, was mortified. I couldn’t get to his actual page with his “wall” and other information. But I could scroll through the pages of his Facebook friends.
We both felt uncomfortable. He had always known that anyone in the world could view that list of friends, but he hadn’t really considered this possibility of his parents seeing it.

“This is not good,” he said. “Worlds are colliding.”

Execution and Deterrence

November 20, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Sunday New York Times had a front page article about recent studies showing that the death penalty deters murder. The studies, nearly all done by economists, give estimates of between 3 and 18 lives saved for each person executed.

The main critique of these studies argues that the small number of executions makes it impossible to draw solid conclusions. Last year, for example, Arizona had no executions; this year, Arizona executed one person. A change of 3 or even 18 murders in the next year, would probably fall within the range of random change.

In many areas of life, it makes sense to play the percentages. You send a left-handed batter against a right-handed pitcher. Even if the strategy doesn’t work this time, there’s no great consequence, and it will work in the long run thanks to the “law of large numbers” (what most people know as the “law of averages”). But , as the name says, that law is enforced only when the numbers are large. Do we want the numbers of executions to be that large?

Personally, when it comes to killing prisoners, I’d prefer a demonstration of deterrence that works with small numbers. I want to see a clearer link between cause and effect. Ideally, we would have evidence of at least three actual Arizonans (preferably 18) who were deterred by that execution. But of course we don’t have such evidence. All we have are estimates from complicated multiple regressions based on decades of data.

I don’t have the data sets or the statistical skills to do these regressions, so I did my own quick and dirty, highly nonscientific analysis of a couple of states – Texas and Oklahoma. In 1996, for example, the number of executions in Texas dropped from 19 to 3. The number of murders should have skyrocketed. But the next year, the number of murders decreased by 150 (from 1477 to 1327).

Then W. and Alberto got back to work, and in 1997, executions went from 3 to 37. Let’s see, at 10 saved lives per execution, murder in the next year should have been down by at least three hundred. But in fact, the next year, there were 20 more murders.

The numbers from Oklahoma, which started emulating its neighbor to the south, are similarly inconclusive. In 2000, it increased executions by 5 (from 6 to 11). Were there fifty or even fifteen fewer murders the next year? No, the number went from 182 to 185.

Yes, my method (or is it my methodolgy?) stinks. Its estimate of lag time is crude. It leaves out all those other factors that might affect murder rates, and it ignores the aggregate data. But when it comes to the state taking lives, I’m inclined to demand something that works every time, not just “in general.”

The economists’ formulations also leave out something important – a model of just how deterrence works. They simply make the standard economic assumption that raising the cost of something lowers demand. If you raise the cost of committing murder, fewer people will be willing to pay that price.

But before I accept the idea that deciding whether to kill someone is like deciding whether to buy a new car, I’d like to see some street-level evidence.

Finally, none of this speaks to other issues raised in the Times article and in the letters responding to it – the costs (especially relative to other anti-crime policies), the morality, and the risk of executing the innocent.

Buffett's Bet

November 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Often, a simple example is the best way to get a point across.

For example, the US tax system is incredibly complicated. To illustrate the idea that it also favors the wealthy, Warren Buffett (the second richest man in the country) has said that he pays a lower rate of income tax than does his secretary. Buffett’s income was about $47 million last year, and he paid about 18% in federal income taxes. His employees, whose incomes ranged from $60,000 to $750,000, paid an average of 33%.

It’s anecdotal evidence of course, so Buffett has extended it to the Forbes 400 – Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. He’s offered to bet any of them one million dollars that they paid a lower income tax rate than did their office secretaries and receptionists.

A few of them have responded, and Forbes online prints what they have to say.
  • Philip Ruffin ($2.1 billion) said that Buffett is “senile.”
  • Kenneth Fisher ($1.8 billion) said, “He should stick to his area of expertise. It’s a little late to be trying to learn and teach social policy.”
  • Randal J. Kirk ($1.6 billion) said, “His thesis here seems grossly simplistic.”
As my father said many years ago as we listened to some politician’s “denial” of some charge made by an opponent, “He called him a son-of-a-bitch, but he didn’t call him a liar.”

These guys called Buffett names (senile, simplistic), but none of them took Buffett’s offer of the million-dollar bet.

John Catsimatidis ($2.1 billion) said, “The numbers can fool you . . . . I have a complex business . . . I own real estate, stocks and bonds, and so I have depreciation and write-offs.” Which is precisely Buffett’s point. The tax system favors rich people for the way they make their money, and it punishes people who work for a weekly paycheck.

What Is That You're Drinking?

November 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston


Jeremy Freese says that after some time away from his rural Iowa roots, he started saying “soda” instead of “pop.” (Yes, he's blogging again. Jeremy’s retirement from blogging was analogous to Michael Jordan’s first retirement from basketball: unwanted by all but the retiree – and mercifully short. He’s now co-blogging at Scatterplot ).

But the soda/pop split is not so much rural-urban as it is regional

From these maps it looks as though the stores in Evanston and Chicago are about as likely to sell pop as soda. In Pittsburgh, where I grew up, it was “soda pop.” We didn’t want to take sides on such a controversial issue. And in Boston, when you go to the deli (oops, I mean the spa), you get a bottle of “tonic” (pronounced “taw-nic”).

The maps are from Bert Vaux’s dialect survey, and I find it fascinating. For instance, I had that thought that the use of “anymore” without a negative to mean “nowadays” was pure Pittsburgh (“ I do exclusively figurative paintings anymore”). True, only a small minority (5%) find it acceptable, but they are fairly well dispersed.

Do you eat crawfish, crayfish, or crawdads? Do you have a yard sale, a garage sale, or a tag sale? Which word do you stress in “cream cheese” and which syllable in “pecan” (and is that “a” in “pecan” short or broad)?

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Well, maybe. I can’t remember much about Brillat-Savarin’s personality assessment instrument. But “Tell me what you call what you eat, and I will tell you where you are.”

Norman Mailer

November 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norman Mailer died on Saturday. Sociologist/criminologist Chris Uggen posted briefly about Mailer’s criminal-justice-related writings – Chris is less impressed by Mailer’s fiction – so here’s my Mailer story. Not much, not sociology, not even lit crit, just one degree of separation.


In the summer of 1963, still in my teens, I was traveling across the country to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. We’d stop every few hours in larger or smaller towns. You’d get off to use the bathroom or get a snack, and when you got back on, the demographics of the bus would have shifted. Different accents, different bodies.

We scaled the Rockies at night, crossed Utah as the sun was rising, and made it into Reno at mid-morning. The layover was an hour or so, and when I got back on the bus, my new seatmate was a gaunt, sallow, man in his thirties, much different from the plump and pasty folks I’d gotten used to over the previous thousand miles.

He’d stayed awake for thirty-six hours straight playing chuk-a-luck in a casino, winning a lot, losing it all back, and eventually developing a severe eye infection. He’d just gotten out of the hospital, and he was going to California to try to write for the movies and TV.

It was at about this point in our conversation that he pulled out a plastic bag with some odd food in it. It was thick crusty black bread covered with strange seeds and perhaps mold. “It’s Zen macrobiotic bread,” he said, and offered me a piece. I hadn’t heard of macrobiotics then, though I did know that Zen was cool. Still, I politely declined the offer.

He’d come from New York, where he’d taught English in grade school. But he also was an aspiring writer and hung out with the literary crowd in Greenwich Village. He’d been at parties with Norman Mailer.

He must have sensed my heightened interest at the mention of the name. Mailer was famous. He’d written a Big Novel, he’d published advertisements for himself, he’d invented the White Negro, he’d stabbed his wife.

“You know what another writer once told me at one of these parties?” he said. “‘Norman Mailer is a little Jewish kid from Brooklyn who still thinks it’s a big deal to get laid.’”

I remembered this pithy ad hominem when, a couple of years later, I read An American Dream. From that viewpoint, it seemed less a novel of political and social significance than a string of adolescent fantasies of sex and power. Like Chris Uggen, I never could never see the greatness of Mailer’s novels (at least the ones I read). But I remember being impressed immensely by Armies of the Night, even reading passages of it out loud to my roommates.

A Country of Have-Nots?

November 12, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a Republican fundraiser in 2000 where the minium buy-in was $800, George W. Bush referred to those in attendance as “the haves and the have-mores.”

Talk about “the haves and the have-nots” – the phrase Bush was alluding to – seemed old-fashioned at the time. To my ear, the terms sound like something out of the Depression. But the concept of haves and have-nots is making a comeback. The perception of inequality may be catching up to the reality.


In 1998, more than 70% of the US population rejected the idea that the country was divided between the haves and the have-nots. Today, as many people agree with that proposition as disagree (numbers are from the Gallup poll).

My first impulse is to trace it all to Bush– to see the shift as the chickens of false consciousness finally coming home to roost. After all, Bush did refer to the have-mores as “my base,” and his policies have rewarded them handsomely. But as the chart shows, the largest part of the change in perception was happening in the 1990s.

Along with their perception of an economically divided country, more Americans see themselves as being on the wrong side of the divide. (Numbers are from a recent Pew survey.)
In 1998, even among those in the lower third of the income distribution, 42% saw themselves as being among the “haves.” That percentage has since declined, of course, but so has the percentage of self-perceived “haves” in the middle and upper thirds of the distribution. That middle-group is especially interesting, with the percent thinking of themselves as among the “haves” declining from 61% to 43%.

Politically, this shift in perceptions would seem to work for the Democrats, who are more likely to be seen as the party for the have-nots. It’s certainly what John Edwards has been saying in his “two Americas” speeches. To counter the idea of a divided country, the Republicans seem to be relying on the unifying force of an external enemy. If we see ourselves as under attack from outside evildoers, terrorists, Islamofascists, et. al., we will have to rally together and ignore or deny internal divisions.

A Fine and Public Place

November 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
We try to do right by the dead, to give them the best possible resting place. But what’s best? Apparently, Americans and French have very different ideas, as Polly’s pictures last week of a Paris cemetery reminded me.

I’m not much drawn to cemeteries, but Père Lachaise gets two stars in the Michelin Guide. It’s the final resting place of Chopin and Comte, Abelard and Heloise, Oscar Wilde, Modigiliani, Proust . . . . I was in Paris (this was many years ago) with some free time, so I went.

It didn’t look at all like a cemetery, at least not the cemeteries I had seen in the US. The one across from the University here seems typical.
















The cemetery road curves gently through the lawns. Grass separates the headstones, with some space even between family members. The headstones are low, some even flat on the ground.

But at Père Lachaise, the lanes were narrower, with no grass to be seen. Instead of headstones, there were building-like structures tall enough that you might walk inside, crowded together with little or no space in between.

















Sometimes, the structures were built right behind one another on a steep incline.


You could climb the steps and look down at the brick footpath below.














Nowhere to be found were the rolling lawns that I thought would be more appropriate for the eminent figures of a culture - Molière, Piaf, and the rest. Instead, what I was seeing was more like a scaled-down urban scene, the mausoleums resembling the stone apartment buildings of the city.

Then I realized : Our visions of the ideal life are reflected in the landscapes we provide for the dead. When Americans die, they go to the countryside. When the French die, they go to Paris.

Let's Do the Time Warp Again

November 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A piece on Facebook and advertising this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition quoted students at Berkeley as to what’s on their Facebook pages. The first voice was that of a girl (she sounded like she couldn't have been much older than first or second year) saying, “My favorite bands, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys . . . .”

Much to be said here regarding generations (could you have found a Berkeley student of the sixties who listed Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters among her faves?). But I’ll leave it at that.

And of course, you can still go to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) and throw rice every Saturday midnight in Berkeley and many other cities around the world.

Faux Consciousness

November 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
“False consciousness.” It’s the escape valve in Marxian theory that explains why the workers, the exploited, the oppressed, so often act, vote, and think against their own interests. They fail to see the reality of the system that exploits them. The Marxists try to enlighten the workers as to that realty, but too often, the Marxists’s target audience seems to be tuned into the Fox network. (Or is that the Faux network?)

Many years ago, I was riding the bus to work with my colleague Peter Freund. As we passed a Chicken Delight, he pointed out the window to its large iconic sign. “The perfect representation of false consciousness,” he said.

I haven’t seen that type of sign for a while, but I was reminded of it when I saw this French version of fausse conscience, posted by Polly in her expat blog.


“Members of a subordinate class (workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody.” (Daniel Little)

The chicken happily serving itself up on a platter to be devoured by its exploiters.