Nostalgia - The Way We Were (not The Way I Was)

December 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. That’s the gist of a Times op-ed this morning by Daniel Gilbert. In fact, in Gilbert’s view, nostalgia is a doomed emotion.
Maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. . . . . Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.
Gilbert presents no data, but he’s a Harvard professor of psychology (his course is one of the most popular) and a best-selling author and a serious researcher. So he ought to know, right?

The nostalgia on his mind is the nostalgia of place, and he assumes that we can be nostalgic only for places that are unique – luncheonettes with homemade pies, record stores whose offerings depend on the quirky preferences of the owner. You can’t be nostalgic for a homogenized landscape, where all downtowns have the same Starbuck’s and Gap, Gilbert says, because these will not change.
Americans may no longer need to gather at midnight on the last day of the year to yearn for their yesterdays, because wherever they are they will see the landscapes of their youths.
I think Gilbert is wrong. To begin with, even if the store names stay the same, the stores themselves will change, and in 2030 we may be remembering fondly the way all those Gap stores looked back in 2010.

Second, nostalgia seems attached much less to place than to objects and experiences. (I made this same argument two and a half years ago in connection with “American Graffiti.” In future decades, today’s iPods and X-boxes, Zu Zu Hamsters and World of Warcraft will occupy the emotional space now filled by IBM Selectrics and Allman Brothers LPs.

Third, and most important, memory may be psychological (Proust and his famous cookie), but nostalgia is social. Nostalgia is not for what is unique and personal but for what is shared – the TV shows we all watched, clothing styles we all wore. If every mall in America has a Gap and an Olive Garden, this should make them stronger candidates for nostalgia. You may have grown up in Tennessee; but the year is now 2030, and you’re living in California; the guy you meet in a bar comes from Wisconsin. But you can both recall the old Starbuck’s (“Remember how they sold CDs and called the workers baristas, and you could get a ‘vente’?”).

That’s the gist of Billy Collins’s poem “Nostalgia,” a spoof on the whole idea (“Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.”) Listen to Collins read the poem to a live audience here . (Scroll down to #15.)

(Today seems to be nostaliga day. As I was reading Gilbert’s column this morning, I was also watching “Annie Hall” – thank you, IFC – with its theme of nostalgia and loss, and Diane Keaton singing “Seems Like Old Times.” Then my son switched to the Sci-Fi channel, which is running Twilight Zones all day, black-and-white film with old actors when they were young, and Rod Serling eternally smoking a cigarette.)

HAPPY NEW YEAR

Big Conclusions, Little Data

December 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Can the Recession Save Marriage?” That was the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by W. Bradford Wilcox two weeks ago. Mr. Wilcox’s answer is a cheerful yes. And here’s the evidence:
The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3% drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7% increase).
Three data points – 2005, 2007, 2008. That’s more than enough. Case closed.

Yes, it’s possible that other things might have been going on in the country to affect divorce rates – the sorts of things that other researchers might have tried valiantly to factor into their regressions. But I guess that for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (Mr. Wilcox is its director) and the Institute for American Values (Mr. Wilcox is a fellow) a 3% drop after a 7% increase is slam-dunk evidence for “a silver lining in all this financial pain.”

The larger fish Wilcox is trying to land here is the idea that poor people can have great marriages even without money, and therefore reducing inequality and economic hardship will not strengthen families. But that argument seems to be a fish story.

Philip Cohen, at the Family Inequality blog, has an excellent critique. First he graphs Wilcox’s data, giving it the gee-whiz effect that fits with Wilcox's optimism.



Then he graphs a longer-range view of divorce and economic hard times (shaded purple).

The longer perspective makes the current dip in divorce rates seem a bit less impressive.

Wilcox wants to argue that people can have great marriage even as they lose their jobs, homes, and savings. No doubt, some people can. As Wilcox says, after acknowledging that some couples don’t do so well under that kind of stress, “anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have
responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages.”

But a small drop in the divorce rate is not evidence of
a departure from the past four decades, when many Americans came to see marriage largely as a chance to pursue a "soulmate" relationship, where couples focus on emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than as a chance to share childbearing and childrearing and economic cooperation with an extended family.
If Wilcox is right, we can all be relieved that the recession has finally led couples to reject marriage as personal fulfillment and replace it with sharing and cooperation. But then what are we to make of the numbers reported in today’s Times: New York courts have seen an 18% increase in cases of family members assaulting one another. (And those are just the ones that make it all the way to court.)

(Huge hat tip to Philip Cohen at Family Inequality.)

Christmas and the Destruction of Value

December 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

What was in those boxes we unwrapped and opened today? Gifts, most people would say.

But according to a Grinch-famous 1993 economics article by Joel Waldfogel, those boxes were also crammed with “deadweight loss” – the difference between what the giver paid for the book or bauble and what it was actually worth to the recipient.

Waldfogel surveyed Yale undergrads and concluded that “between a tenth and a third of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving.” Destroyed. That $40 sweater you gave to your cousin’s husband – you destroyed $10 of its value.

Here’s the key question Waldfogel put to his Yalies about gifts they’d received: “If you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to obtain them?”*

By this method, a really good gift would mean a high deadweight loss. For example, I would never pay more than $40 for a sweater for myself. No sweater to me is worth more than that. But suppose a good friend bought me a really, really nice $200 sweater. I love that sweater. I love it precisely because it’s an extravagance I never would have allowed myself. But the most I’d be willing to pay for it is $40. So according to Waldfogel, my friend destroyed $160 (80%) of the sweater’s value.

When I first heard about the Waldfogel study, I thought it was a bit of self-parody – like those jokes about engineers , where the engineer sees everything in terms of the concepts of his profession and thus misses the point. (Waldfogel, for example, refers to the “inefficiency” of gift-giving, as though the point of gift-giving were efficiency.) But Waldfogel wasn’t kidding. He just published a follow-up book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

In fact, gift-giving has become increasingly rationalized and efficient. Children write letters to Santa specifying what they want; brides and grooms have bridal registries that do the same. Cash and gift cards are becoming more popular as gifts. There is no doubt that gift-giving is an economic exchange, and it would be silly to pretend thateconomic value has nothing to do with it (it’s the thought that counts). But it’s equally silly to think that it gifts are only economic and that they have no social meaning.

MERRY CHRISTMAS


*The Form-1040-instructions quality of the prose is typical. For example, the Waldfogel survey also asks respondents to estimate the value of the gifts as “the amount of cash such that you are indifferent between the gift and the cash, not counting the sentimental value of the gift. If you exchanged the original gift, assess the value of the object you got in exchange for the original gift. If you exchanged the original gift for cash, put the cash amount you received here.”

Sexting and Percentaging - The Wrong Way

December 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew survey on sexting – it came out over a week ago. I don’t know how I missed it. Must be the holiday blahs. And where was the media hysteria? Most news outlets ignored it, probably because the results weren’t all that alarming.

For the entire sample of 800 12-17 year olds, the estimated proportion who sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves” was 4%. Given the margin of error, that means that the actual percentage, as Dan Ryan at Sociology of Information notes, is somewhere between 0% and 8%.

Of course, we’re not going to see a headline like “Sexting Teens May be 0%.” Not when you can goose up the numbers to 30%. Here’s the headline that ran in The Washington Post:
Sexting hasn't reached most young teens, poll finds;
30% of 17-year-olds report getting nude photos on their cells
That subhead manages to get the highest percentage by
  • using only the oldest subgroup in the sample
  • measuring receiving rather than sending

Dan has some other methodological criticisms, including this one. First the Pew summary paragraph:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting.
I spent the last two weeks of the semester trying to get students to percentage tables correctly. “Percentage on the independent variable,” I repeated and repeated. And now Amanda Lenhart at the Pew Foundation undermines all my good work. As Dan says,
It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions – the sense is just the opposite – and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.
Dan even does the math and finds:
  • Children of restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 1.4% (3 of 218)
  • Children of non-restrictive parents who ever sent a sext: 5% (29 of 572)
Read Dan’s entire critique. Or for the truly absurd and probably counter-effectual, see the anti-sexting videos featuring (I am not making this up) James Lipton.

Max Weber Takes on the Left and Lieberman

December 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The politics of health care reform presents a dilemma for those who want change. It’s the dilemma of compromising with evil. Do we sacrifice real improvement for the sake of ideological purity?

MoveOn.org wants me to sign a petition that says, “America needs real health care reform—not a massive giveaway to the insurance companies. Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressives should block this bill until it's fixed.”

With illness, we have to understand that bad things happen to good people. But with health care (and other issues) the difficulty is that good things may happen to bad people. With the bailout, it was galling that in order to save the country (i.e., most of us) from economic disaster, we wind up rewarding the bankers and traders who got us into this mess.

With health care, it’s the insurance companies. MoveOn.org says better to risk letting the whole bill fail, with its added protections for millions of people, than to let the bad guys continue make a profit.

The dilemma sent me back to Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” (and not just because the squabbles on the left made me think that maybe the German title was “Politik als Beirut”).

Weber distinguishes between the politics of purity (“ethic of ultimate ends” and the politics of the possible (“ethic of responsibility”)
There is an abysmal contrast between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends – that is, in religious terms, ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord’ – and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action.
I like “abysmal.”
The believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quenched: for example, the flame of protesting against the injustice of the social order. To rekindle the flame ever anew is the purpose of his quite irrational deeds, judged in view of their possible success. They are acts that can and shall have only exemplary value.
I like “quite irrational.”

So Weber knew about the MoveOn.orgs in his day and in history. Weber also had this to say about Joe Lieberman.

Vanity is a very widespread quality and perhaps nobody is entirely free from it. . . . The sin against the lofty spirit of [the politician’s] vocation, however, begins where this striving for power ceases to be objective and becomes purely personal self-intoxication, instead of exclusively entering the service of ‘the cause.’ For ultimately there are only two kinds of deadly sins in the field of politics: lack of objectivity and – often but not always identical with it – irresponsibility. Vanity, the need personally to stand in the foreground as clearly as possible, strongly tempts the politician to commit one or both of these sins.

Weber, however, lacked YouTube and sock puppets.



Hat tip Ezra Klein.

The Best Way to Travel

December 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

When you take your seat on JetBlue, here’s what you see on the screen – the one on the back of the seat in front of you, the seat your knees are pressing into unless you paid the extra $3-4 an inch for more leg room.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Yes, while the plane sits on the runway, before it lifts off and that screen now offers you 43 television channels and 94 XM channels, you see this picture, and you think, Ah, that’s the way to travel.

It’s a train – the ocean on one side, trees on the other, and it’s whizzing along the coast so rapidly that that it appears slightly blurred in the photo. (That’s JetBlue’s camera blur, not mine. Compare the sharpness of the Fasten Seat Belt message.) Meanwhile, you sit on the runway, looking out at the tarmac and wishing that your seat wasn’t so close to the toilet and that the woman squeezed in next to you wasn’t wearing all that perfume. You hear the pilot’s voice crackling on the PA to tell you that we’re now fourth for takeoff.

And you look at this picture of the train. What is JetBlue trying to tell you?

The Recession - The View from a Cab

December 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poll Reveals Depth and Trauma of Joblessness in the U.S.

That was the front page story in the Times yesterday.

I hadn’t seen the paper when I got into the cab at 6 a.m., but my ride to JFK was itself a look at the recession. The cabbie wasn’t what I expected – a woman, for starters, with an accent that wasn’t Asia or Africa but pure New York. And she asked me whether I wanted to go via the Triboro or the Midtown Tunnel.

She had just started her shift, picking up the cab from a fleet in the Bronx. She had three kids – a daughter recently graduated from Fordham, a son at NYU, and another son at Yale. She had worked on the trading floor for JP Morgan, not as a trader but in some auxiliary role that was nevertheless important and probably well rewarded. Family trips to London most winters.

Then she got fired, and since last spring, she’s been driving a cab. And she knows many people, former colleagues, who aren’t even doing that. (I didn’t ask her about money and how she managed two high-end tuitions. She never mentioned a husband, so I assumed she was a single mom. But I didn’t ask about that either.)

She also sold Christmas trees on the street, though that was mostly to support the Boy Scouts. Their trees were expensive – $60 and up – but sales were very slow, and even now, well before Christmas, she was knocking down prices for customers who seemed reluctant. (This is all anecdotal evidence. The Wall Street Journal reports that tree sales are strong. )

Funny, It Must Be a Guy Thing

December 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a question (not taken from a publisher’s test-bank) from the final exam I gave today:
2. One observer of culture commented, “I'll tell you what I like about Chinese people. They're hanging in there with the chopsticks. You know they've seen the fork; they're staying with the sticks. I don't know how they missed it— going out all day on the farm with a shovel. Come on: shovel — spoon. You're not plowing 50 acres with a couple of pool cues.”

To say that using chopsticks instead of a fork and spoon is like plowing land with pool cues — this idea is an example of
a. particularism
b. ethnocentrism
c. the sociological imagination
d. group polarization
I offered a bonus point to anyone who could identify the culture critic who was the source of the quote. (Answer here.)

I didn’t realize it when I was composing the exam, but I was guilty of sexism. None of the females in the class even took a guess. Most of the guys did, and sixty percent of them got it right. I might as well have asked which NFL teams Brett Favre has played for (or hasn’t played for).

I do know at least one female Montclair sociology graduate who would have nailed the bonus point. But in general, comedy, especially stand-up, seems to be a guy thing, and I’m not sure why.

Maybe I should have used a quote from Gray’s Grey’s Anatomy.

The Power of Positive Phrasing

December 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. T / F ____ Most universities are now in the final exam period.

2. T / F ____ A negatively-phrased question is rarely as confusing as a positively-phrased question.
To answer Question #2 correctly, to say that negatively-phrased questions are more confusing, you have to go through the mental contortion of negating the negative.*

Take a look at the test-bank that accompanies a textbook, and you’ll see at least a few items like this. Those questions are not written by professional test-makers. Sociology textbook test banks are written by sociology instructors, history test banks by history instructors, and so on. Neither they nor they nor the authors of the books themselves are schooled in writing test questions.

But what about this item?

Agree or Disagree: My home life is rarely stressful.

Maybe you recognized it. It’s from the GSS (STRSSHME). A student in my class had used it in her cross-tab exercise. She had thought that women would be much more likely than men to experience stress at home. But, she said showing me her table, 43% of women disagreed; only 28% of men.

I had to look twice at the item and think it through carefully. The item is about stress, I explained, but if you want to say that you agree that your home life is stressful, you have to disagree with the question.

I assume that the GSS questions are written by people who know what they are doing, not instructors who need to supplement their income by writing textbook supplements. I also assume that survey experts at the GSS test drive each item before including it in the interview schedule. But STRSSHME makes me less confident.

Did the GSS compare this item against the same idea phrased positively:

My home life is often stressful.

No. STRSSHME seems to be part of a 2002 module that was given only once. I wonder if the GSS will use this question again.

*Another post on negativity is here.

Values in Air Travel

December 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to church last weekend. Well, not really. I went to see “Up in the Air.” But the sermon was such a familiar one about American values that as the house lights went up, I expected the audience to do the handshake of brotherhood or whatever non-touching H1N1 substitute is currently in effect.

Here’s the message, sinners. Pursue not selfish career goals, especially in place of human relationships.

We’ve all heard it before. Don’t sacrifice human connection for the sake of individual mobility. It’s a staple of American fiction, movies, and TV. And maybe it is in fact like a church sermon, something we Americans like to hear over and over again each Sunday because we spend the rest of the week doing just the opposite. That seems to be the schedule: M-F, Achievement/Success; Sunday, the sermon about relationships (Saturday is more open, though shopping, fixing up the house, and kids’ soccer games are strongly encouraged).

The nice thing about “Up in the Air” is that it doesn’t stack the deck so obviously (pardon the abrupt change of metaphor). Make no mistake – the central character, Ryan Bingham, is all about mobility. He spends most of the year traveling. His main goal in life is to accumulate ten million miles and get the sacred black airlines card possessed by only a handful of other fliers. He disdains relationships. He never married – all sex is causal sex – and he’s distant from his siblings and their families. And, he repeatedly tells us, that’s the way he likes it.



And what is his job that requires so much time away from home (not that he has a home; his apartment is bare, his refrigerator empty)? He fires workers. Their own employers are too fearful or incompetent to do it well or do it at all, so they hire Bingham’s firm. Bingham loves his job, and he does it very well.

OK – a guy who like firing people, wants no real relationships, and aspires mostly to a small, black plastic rectangle because almost nobody else has one. In most movies, you’d dislike this guy from the moment he walked into the frame. You’d easily reject him and his values. But with “Up in the Air” you can’t, mostly because it’s George Clooney. I mean, you just cannot dislike George Clooney. The film makes it even easier to like him by giving him a young apprentice – a 23-year-old MBA – who wants to make firing people even less human by instituting an online version. With her austere suits, severely pulled-back hair, and impersonal style of speaking, she makes Clooney’s character look even nicer.


The movie is worth seeing – most critics gave it high marks (check it out at MRQE) – so I won’t go more into the plot except to say that the ending (possible hint of a spoiler here) doesn’t cheat. The ending also shares something with “Funny People” and very few other American films that I can think of offhand. (However, in other ways, the ending of “Funny People,” as I noted here, does cheat.)

Here’s the trailer. It says pretty much what I just said.

Signs of the Times

December 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The fifty best protest signs of 2009 (collected at Buzzfeed) included this one – for academics only.

(Click on the picture to see it larger.)

A lot of the good ones seemed to come from the gay side of the street.


See all 50 here.

Hat tip: Jenn Lena

Sociologists on the Gridiron

December 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NFL has six African American head coaches (and one of them was a sociology major). Six out of 32. In the NCAA’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, there are just nine black head coaches.

The pros are apparently less racist than colleges. And it is racism, not the lack of talented black coaches. Some of those NFL coaches couldn’t even get an interview at the college level. Tony Dungy (African American and a former NFL head coach) isn’t a sociologist, but he has sense of where to look for the racism in the social structure. Not the athletic directors and college presidents who do the hiring. It’s those middle-aged wannabes and jock sniffers waving their pennants at the homecoming game. In a Times op-ed earlier this year, Dungy wrote of his unsuccessful efforts to get colleges to hire black coaches: “Alumni and boosters were involved, and the presidents often felt pressure to hire coaches the boosters would support.”

In the pros, the coach’s job is to win. In the colleges, winning is good thing for a coach to do, but the head coach is also a PR man, a fundraiser. He has to make nice with boosters and alumni, and those people want a coach that they’d feel comfortable hanging out with. Someone who is, you know, more like us.

Dungy repeated this argument on NBC Sunday nigh. (The video, which I cannot embed, is here.) Dungy urged college presidents to show some spine and stand up to the boosters. He also said that the lack of black coaches was “disgraceful.”

The same word might have been applied that night to the Steelers. They lost – at home, yet – to the Raiders forgodssake, blowing the lead twice in the fourth quarter. (Dungy was a defensive back and later an assistant coach for the Steelers.) Whither the Steelers? Superbowl champs just 11 months ago, they have lost four straight. Tonight they play the Browns, who have won one – count ’em one – game this season. Maybe, just maybe, the Steelers can win.

(Update: Several weeks ago, under a photo of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger I added a caption to the effect that they were discussing sociology. Ridiculous, I know. Ben was not a sociology major.

But two weeks ago, with Ben concussed and backup QB Charlie Batch out with a broken wrist, the Steelers went with Dennis Dixon, who in fact was a sociology major and academic all-American at Oregon.

Dixon, whose NFL experience had consisted of throwing two passes, exceeded expectations and even ran 20 yards for a touchdown, and the Steelers took the favored Ravens into overtime. Unfortunately, in the overtime, Dixon misread the defensive pass coverage and threw an interception that cost the Steelers the game.

Inequality and (Missed) Opportunity

December 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was supposed to be about the distribution of income. It turned out to be about something else, and I keep thinking I let another teachable moment slip away.

The general topic was inequality. The strategy – not original with me, but I have no idea who came up with it – is to use something students can grasp, something familiar in their experience, to convey the idea of inequality. Here’s the drill
  1. Ask students how much they would need per person to have a really nice evening out.

  2. When they come up with a number, multiply it by the number of students. Then divide the class into five groups, and say something like, “I could just give each group the same amount. But I’d like to reward the students who have done well and contributed to the class. I don’t think that they should get the same amount as the absolute slackers. So if we have five groups ranked from most deserving to least deserving, how much should each group get?”

  3. Show the distribution. If possible, use Excel and make a pie chart. It will almost certainly be more equal than the distribution of income in the US.

  4. Then show a pie chart of the distribution of income in the US. If the amount for nice evening was $100 apiece, it would mean that the couples in the top fifth would have $500 for the evening (as, “What could you do with $500 for the evening?”). The least deserving couples would share $34.

  5. Students will be appalled by the disparity.
Here’s what really happened. The students got into just about the liveliest discussion we’ve had all semester. But it wasn’t about the distribution of income. In fact, we got stuck on step #1 – what they would need for the evening out. What kind of restaurant, what movie or show or club. How much to spend on pre-gaming. One girl said that she’d have to get a new outfit – she always got a new outfit; it’s so much easier than deciding what to pull out of your closet. Someone else brought up the cost of parking in New York, which would raise the nut considerably.

Eventually, I had to call a halt. It’s just an analogy, I said loudly and moved on to steps 1-4. But surely there was some lesson here, some sociological point to be made about their concern and about the specific things they thought should or shouldn’t be included. After all, the general topic was stratification and inequality. Maybe the package of goods you deemed necessary for a nice evening – specific things themselves, not just the total cost– carried some message about social class.

Alas, I didn’t think of that at the time, and besides, I’m not sure what that message was.

You've Got a Friend. Ashley Has 1,376 Friends

December 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t really think Facebook did much to change the definition of community. But what has FB done to friend?

In a comment on the previous post, Aftersox suggests that we need a new definition of community, maybe something that encompasses online communities. My point was that the word has already been stretched to include all sorts of agglomerations of people. I doubt that many Facebook users thought that there was anything strange about the message the referred to a community of 350 million. That’s why, when we want to refer to a truly communal group, we go back to Tönnies’s German vocabulary – Gemeinschaft.

But what are we to do about friend? Surely a retronym is called for.

A retronym is a term that comes into use when technology makes the old term confusing. Acoustic guitar, for example. When electric guitars came along, we needed a special term for the instrument which for hundreds of years had just been a guitar. Manual typewriter, prop plane, desktop computer, land line, manual or standard transmission, broadcast television.

What term will we use to distinguish friends in the old sense of the word from Facebook friends?

Language Posts Revisited

December 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Last month, I noted that although Gemeinschaft was usually translated as community, the English word has been stretched to include groups that were much larger that what old Tönnies had in mind.

How large can a group be and still be a community? Oh, I don’t know. How about 350 million?
If you logged in to your facebook page today, you saw this at the top of the page:
Facebook has just reached 350 million users and will soon be making some changes to serve our growing community.
2. Back in April, I suggested that phrasing something in the positive made it easier to understand. Negative constructions invite confusion, and the more negatives you use, the harder it becomes to figure out the meaning. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post last month centered on “this most basic culinary question: Is eating personal?”

Good question. Here’s how the author, James McWilliams answers it:
“So it's hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal.”
I still can’t figure out what he means.

Cool Tone?

December 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two and a Half Men is funnier because it dances at the border of acceptability. “Can they say that on network television?” Most of us, it seems, cheer for the naughty boys to sneak in the dirty word and get it past Standards and Practices.

A similar games goes on at the DMV. The Smoking Gun has a list of over 1500 requests for vanity plates that the New York DMV has rejected. New York prohibits any plate which “is, in the discretion of the commissioner, obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic or other group, or patently offensive.” That includes hostile messages like UPYOURS (also UPURS and other variants). I guess nobody at the DMV got very far in French class. I saw this one on Broadway last week.

TON CUL – literally, “Your ass.” But I think “Up yours” better captures the sense and spirit of the phrase. (Native French speakers, please correct me if I’m wrong here.)

This one probably wouldn’t have gotten off the press in California. “A California vanity plate request, for example, is thoroughly reviewed by several people with both foreign language and slang dictionaries.”

For hundreds of vanity plates, most of them from NY and most neither offensive nor amusing, just personal, go here. (I did recently see, but didn’t photograph, an older man getting out of car (Lexus?) with the license plate SONZADOC. I guess MY SON THE DOCTOR wouldn’t fit.)

Surely, there must be some sociological research on vanity plates. I just don’t know of it.