The Big Ten

December 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve noticed some other blogs listing their most popular posts of the year, and thought I would do the same, though I’m not sure why.  The number of  views a post got seems to have less to do with its inherent quality or interest and more to do with who linked or tweeted it.  Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here they are, the top ten posts of 2013 as chosen by you the listener.

10. Is That a Thing?  News “themes” created by the media as way to organize events.

9.  Emotional Contagion. On being socially isolated when JFK was shot - my first lesson in the sociology of emotions.

8. The Vaper’s Drag  The word “vaper” harks back to “viper” of 70 years earlier.

7.  Unseparating Church and State.  Establishment clause be damned. Conservatives favor an official state religion – Christianity of course.

6.  Fish Oil and Snake Oil.  Scientific experiments, diminishing effects, and the failure to replicate.

5.  Separate Ways. Social scientists’ disenchantment with Malcom Gladwell. (I actually thought this one was kind of amusing.)

4. The Revenge Fantasy - Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Revenge is a dish best served in purely fictional Tarantino fantasies, not in the reality of slavery .

3.  Upwardly Mobile Beer Rolling Rock and social class.

2.  Murky Research, Monkey Research  What appears in the journal article can be very different from what actually happened in the lab.

1.  Yes, But Harvard Students Know a Lot More Now  Grade inflation – with a copy of the grade sheet from a Harvard gov. course JFK took in 1940 (he got a B-, which was above the median).

“Her” – the Magic Pixie Dream OS

December 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts after seeing “Her” (which I highly recommend), a film about the relation between a man and his computer operating system.  Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, gives a better feel for the film than any description I might write.


1.    Futuristic, but not by much.  The next day, the front page of the Sunday Times had this headline (above the fold).

Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience
Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head. . . . artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. [the full story is here]
    Samantha the OS doesn’t manipulate and control – well, just a little, and it’s for Theodore’s benefit – but she does the rest. And much more.

2.    External and internal, doing and understanding..  “Her” is about the blurring of boundaries between the technological and the human.  But one of the many trailers that preceded “Her” was for another film based on this same human/technology melding – “Robocop.”


But the technology here seems to be all about accomplishing some external task, mostly the crime-fighting that we usually associate with cops. Will the good guys’ technology beat the bad guys’ technology?  (I should probably add that I find “Action” movies tedious, full of sound and fury – also full of special effects and CGI – signifying very little. I’d gladly trade a dozen chase-fight-explosion sequences for one honest conversation among robocops sitting around eating robo-donuts.)

In “Her,” the characters face no external challenge. Instead, they are struggling to understand the feelings, desires, and reactions of someone else and how these mesh with their own.  It’s about relationships, not winning.  Action movies exaggerate the physical at the expense of everything else (an emphasis they share with porn). “Her” is about the near absence of the physical.  The one attempt to make the relationship physical is a disaster.*

3.    Ideal and effortless. Samantha (the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect soul mate.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) can expose his entire life to her – she scans his entire hard drive in the first microsecond of her existence – yet we know she will never use the information in any way that hurts him.  She is like a child’s imaginary friend, but better. The child must think up the actions and reactions of the imaginary friend. Samantha requires no such effort on the part of Theodore.  And everything she does helps him.  Siri as girlfriend and therapist.

4.  MPDG.  As Super-Siri, Samantha resembles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  This phrase, coined in a 2005 movie review  by Nathan Rabin, refers to "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."** At the start of the film, Theo certainly qualifies as brooding and withdrawn.  “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” he says to his neighbor (Amy Adams), who says that she’d laugh at that line if she didn’t think it were true. It is. And true to her type, Samantha brings Theo back into the world just as a MPDG should. They even go to Catalina on a double date (with a two-human couple).

5.    Control and surprise.  The wonderful thing about imaginary friends is that we have total control over them.  The same goes for servants or slaves or prostitutes or others we pay who must relate to us exactly as we want them to. (Of course, it’s more fun when we pretend that they are doing so voluntarily.) The more we control our environment, the more we give up the rewards and delights of the unexpected.  The difficulties of relationships with real people make the illusion of control all the more attractive.  But, as in “Lars and the Real Girl,” a relationship with the mere extrusion of one’s own fantasies may work for people whose emotional repertoire is severely limited, but ultimately it proves to be thin and brittle. Control certainly has its benefits.  But why do we find it so much more gratifying to hear a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio than to select the same track out of our own hard drive and play it?   You can’t tickle yourself. 

Pandora and other make-your-own-radio-station sites try to let us have it both ways – control with surprise. “Her” holds out the same seductive possibility but with something more important than music.

“Her” is a wonderful film. I’ll be surprised if Spike Jonze doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It’s funny and touching and thought-provoking. 

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* *In a post a few days ago, I referred to the outline of American culture sociologist by Robin Williams.  The first element he notes as a dominant theme in American culture is “Active Mastery.”  The second is that American culture
tends to be interested in the external world of things and events, of the palpable and immediate, rather than in the inner experience of meaning and affect. Its genius is manipulative rather than contemplative. 
Maybe that’s why “Her” seems so unusual while the multiplexes teem with action movies.

**Natalie Portman in “Garden State” epitomizes this trope. For other examples, see the Wikipedia entry.

Fall Courses – Marked Down and Priced to Sell

December 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston


Every semester when I make out the schedule (we do this several months in advance – I just finished Fall 2014) I have the same worry – making sure that each course attracts enough students so that we don’t have to cancel.  Since the university pays teachers per course not per student, it wants high student-teacher ratios.  Low-enrolled courses are economically inefficient; they get the axe.

For students here, the timing of a course is crucial. Montclair is predominantly a commuter school, and even the students who live in the dorms like to go home on the weekend.  So the weekend begins Thursday in the early afternoon.  Most students also have jobs; afternoon and evening hours are for work, not school.  If only I could schedule all our courses Monday to Thursday between the hours of ten and two, the enrollment problem would be solved. 

But every department would like to offer all its courses in prime time, and there are only so many classrooms.  So the university forces each department to schedule some of its courses in unpopular days and times.  Departments, unfortunately, cannot force students to take those courses. 

The solution is obvious once you frame the problem as an imbalance of supply (classrooms/courses) and student demand. In prime time, demand outruns the supply; for other times, demand falls short.  What’s missing is the variable that links supply and demand: price.  Regardless of a course’s desirability, the price is the same.  What we need is flexible pricing.  Let the price of a course reflect the demand. If students want a great course at 11:30, let them pay for it.

Of course, you can’t say that you’re charging more for some courses. Instead, you raise tuition across the board, say $300 a course.  Then you give a $300 discount for those early morning courses and late afternoon courses or for courses that have a meeting on Friday.  With the hefty discount, those times would suddenly become much more attractive.

We might extend the policy to teachers.  Some teachers are very popular. Their courses always fill.  But less popular teachers run the risk of not drawing the minimum enrollment.  Here too, differential pricing can help equalize student demand.  Oh, a few egos might be bruised (“You mean I’m being marked down?”*), but  enrollments would improve.  And for the really popular teachers, we could charge a premium. Like l’Oreal, they’re worth it. 

The trouble with variable pricing – aside from the basic unfairness of extending yet another advantage to those who have more money –  is that it exposes a reality we would rather not notice.  We like to think that what students are buying with their tuition is education, and it is – especially at elite schools.  But farther from the upper tiers of higher education, students also think of the academic enterprise as the buying and selling of credits, credits that ultimately add up to a diploma.**  In deciding to take a course, they consider the educational quotient, but they also calculate the costs. Right now those costs consist mostly of the opportunity costs (would it mean giving up hours at work, would it reduce the weekend from three days to two?) and perhaps the cost of the amount of work the course requires.  For these students, price would merely be one more non-educational variable in the calculation.

But for those who pretend that the university is engaged solely in some ideal of education, variable pricing threatens to give the game away. As Goffman says, for staff in institutions, a large part of life is dealing with the gap between “what we do” and “what we say we do.” But university administrators are already adept at portraying administrative conveniences in terms of educational ideals. No doubt they could come up with a similar idealistic rationale for market pricing.

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* That line is spoken by wealthy but insufferable Bette Middler  in “Ruthless People.” She is being held for ransom. The kidnappers tell her that her husband (Danny DeVito, who is glad to be rid of her) refused their original demand of $500,000, though he could afford it. He also refused their second demand of $50,000.
“So we’re lowering our price to $10,000.”
“Do I understand this correctly? I'm being marked down?” she asks angrily. Then she starts crying.  “I've been kidnapped by K-Mart!”

** This orientation becomes especially visible in the summer, when students comparison shop for their courses based on cost, convenience, and utility (does the course meet a requirement) rather than content and quality.  See my earlier post here.


The Wars On Christmas

December 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

“Hey, Buddy, don’t you know there’s a war on?”*

I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.

Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture.  What’s curious is how that historical trend seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.

O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”   He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century.
“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”

Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.  [From Fox News Insider]
If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s.  That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right.  It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation.  We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.

But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children.  No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.  

The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.”  I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.**

The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II. 

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google).  The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s and continues through the Reagan and Clinton years. 

But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to  decline.

And what about “Merry Christmas”?  According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground.  But Ngrams tells a different story.


If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s.  Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around. 

Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” 


In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular.  In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one.  In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again. 

By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one.  Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.”  But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.

And of course, MERRY CHRISTMAS to all SocioBlog readers.

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* The phrase is from the home front in World War II.

** It’s possible that trends of a phrase in books do not match up with the trend in spoken language.  There may be a corpus of spoken English that has historical capabilities similar to those of Ngrams and is similarly simple to use, but I don’t know of any.

The Wisdom of Crowds Finally Wins One

December 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In several posts over the years, this blog has questioned the “wisdom of crowds,” at least when it comes to sports betting.  (This 2009 post has links to even earlier wisdom-of-crowds posts.) The Wisdom of Crowds says that when it comes to guessing – the weight of an ox, the location of lost ships, the right answer on “Millionaire,” the outcome of football games – you’re better off crowdsourcing than getting the advice of a single expert. None of us is as smart as all of us.*

In sports betting, if you want to know where the crowd is going, follow the money. And you can usually tell where the money is going by watching the point spread.  The spread is like a price – the greater the demand for a side, the more points you have to give up.  When the line moves – if a 4-point favorite becomes a 5-point favorite – chances are that bettors are demanding that side. 

Yesterday, the crowd cleaned up. In three games, so much money came in on the underdogs, that the bookies, in attempt to get action on the other side, made them the favorites.  On Saturday, the Dolphins were 3-point favorites over the Bills. Money kept coming in on the Bills. The books lowered the points Bills bettors were getting. By game time, if you wanted to bet the Bills, you’d have to give one or one-and-a-half points.

A change in the line of even of a half-point in the few hours before game time is often noteworthy; a change of a full point is significant.** A change of four points is extremely rare and indicates important action on the Bills.  As it turned out, the Bills won handily, 19-0. 

That was one of five games with large swings in the point spread. 

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The crowd was indeed wise this time around, winning four of the five.  The books took a bath. Yesterday was unusual in the number and magnitude of the changes.  Of course, over the course of the season, you could have made money by watching for crowdsourced line shifts and fading the public wisdom.

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* This line, popular in management circles, is usually attributed to a Japanese proverb.  That sourcing fits with notions about East-West differences. For Americans, with our strong value on individualism and our belief in lone entrepreneurial heroes, “none of us is as smart as all of us” is a dazzling revelation; for the Japanese it’s just common sense.

** Bookmakers are reluctant to move the line at all for fear of being “middled.”  Suppose a  bookie takes a lot of action on Team A getting 3½  points over Team B, so he lowers the line to 2½ to attract money on the favorite. Now bettors respond and bet Team B minus the 2½. If the final score is Team B 17, Team B 14, the point difference falls in the middle of the two lines, and the bookie loses both bets.  (This is an extreme case. More often the change is only a half-point, say from 7 to 7½, and the risk is not a middle but an “edge” – one bet is a push, the other a loss.

Active Sleeping

December 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did you sleep well?
Uh, I made a few mistakes.
                     – Steven Wright

We were schmoozing in the hall, my colleagues Sangeeta Parashar, Yong Wang, and I. Sangeeta mentioned a recent CNN Travel blog post about Indianisms, phrases peculiar to India and the Indian diaspora, like “Do the needful.” The author found most of these objectionable – “discuss about” rather than “discuss” or “please revert” instead of “please reply.”

“And ‘sleep is coming’,” said Sangeeta. “We say that to mean ‘I’m going to sleep,” as though sleep is some external force that descends upon the person. “I must go to bed. Sleep is coming.”

Yong said that the Chinese version was similar. Sleep is something that happens to you. “Sleep falls upon me,” or even “Sleep attacks me.”

Two things came immediately to mind: the Steven Wright* joke, but also Robin Williams. No, not the comedian. The sociologist whose take on American culture begins
1. American culture is organized around the attempt at active mastery rather than passive acceptance.  (American Society, 1950)
Our preference for thinking in terms of active mastery extends even to sleep.  It’s something we do, not something we passively accept when it comes, and we can do it well or badly (or with just a few mistakes). From my days as a parent of a toddler, I remember other parents who were training their kids to sleep as they would later train them to use the toilet or kick a soccer ball.  Active mastery.

Of course, sleep as an active verb extends far beyond American culture. The French tell their children “fais dodo” just as they tell them “fais pipi” (preferably not sur le gazon or while they font dodo).  And Western thought  too shares the conception of sleep as an external thing performing actions on individuals. Sleep “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care” (unless Macbeth murders it, which he doth).  Golden slumbers can fill our eyes. We may call for sleep to come and wrap us in its arms. 

I’m not suggesting that these different ways of talking about sleep epitomize huge differences between the Western and non-Western worldviews or the balance between individual agency and context. The Language Loggers (here, for example) have made me cautious about such generalizations.  Still, I cannot completely discount and ignore the differences in imagery.

And so to bed.

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*For those not familiar with Wright, you can find him on YouTube. At a time when most new comedians were doing “observational” comedy, Wright harked back to the old-style of one-liners told in the first person only with a far different perspective and delivery (“I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time'. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance”) – Henny Youngman, only absurd and on heavy downers.

Incentivizing Civility

December 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the US, merchants offer prizes and discounts to customers for spending more money. Companies give bonuses to employees who bring in the most money (“cutthroat capitalism”).  A café in the south of France offered this.


Ah yes, Bonjour.  We had landed at CDG after a sleepless flight, claimed baggage and cleared customs. It was 8 a.m. or so local time. “Monsieur,” I said to a man on the sidewalk, “where can we get the RER?” (in French).
“Bonjour,” he said clearly.
“The RER,” I repeated, “Where can we find the RER for Paris?”
“Bonjour.”
Finally, I caught on.
“Bonjour,” I said, and repeated the question.

We got to the RER, and somewhere between CDG and Châtelet, someone picked my son’s pocket.

(HT: Polly-Vous Français)

My Favorite Line

December 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Peter O’Toole died on Saturday.  His line that I most remember is from “My Favorite Year.” (For a plot summary, see the trailer here .)

The film is set in the live-TV era of the 1950s. Peter O’Toole is Alan Swann, an Errol-Flynn-style actor (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star”). When he’s not buckling swashes on screen, he is seducing women.  Swann is charming when he’s sober, which is not often.  He has come to New York for a week to appear on a live comedy show (all TV was live), and the film tracks that week.



In this scene, the TV writers are reading in the newspaper about Swann’s exploits of the previous night, which ended up with Swann more or less unclad in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.  The writers are looking at the newspaper or at each other and do not notice that Swann has just entered. 

The line is funnier heard than read – the writer’s New York Jewish accent contrasted with Swann’s elegant British speech.

Sy [unaware the Swann has just walked in] : Leo, it gets me sick to think we gotta put up with some washed-up jaboni who’s gonna be running around Central Park with his schlong hangin’ out!

Swann: My dear fellow, it’s my schlong and what I choose to do with it is my business.

Sy: So how’s business?

Swann: Never better.

Happier on the Right?

December 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Times gave Arthur Brooks pride of place yesterday – nearly all of the front page of the Sunday Review section – for his “formula for happiness” (here). The formula is a variation on Freud’s “Lieben und Arbeiten” (love and work). Brooks’s version seems to be Conservatism und Arbeiten. Working mostly from GSS data, Brooks first notes sex differences ( women’s edge in happiness is diminishing). The second variable he cites is political views.
 conservative women are particularly blissful: about 40 percent say they are very happy.

In fact, the cumulative GSS data from 1972 to 2012 support this idea.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

As we go from left to right (politically and on the graph) the percentage of happy women rises.

Why might political views correlate with happiness? Brooks doesn’t say, but later in his formula he cites the importance of work, of being satisfied with your job. (“I’m a living example of the happiness vocation can bring.”) People who are dissatisfied in the world of work will not be happy in general. The same logic applies to politics – those who are dissatisfied in the political world will also not be happy in general.  So maybe the link between conservatism and happiness is really about who is satisfied with the political status quo.  Who is happy will depend on whose status is quo.

For most of those GSS years since 1972, conservatives have felt right at home politically.  But the election and re-election of Obama – despite a huge recession, despite a supposedly much-hated healthcare law – changed that status quo.  Hence all the conservative talk about taking their country back.*  And what has  happened since then to those sunny female conservatives?  If you confine the data to 2008-2012, you see that the shoe of unhappiness is on the other foot – the right, and especially the far-right, foot.**


The far left and far right are equally “very happy,” and in the “not too happy” category, very conservative women outnumber their liberal sisters nearly two to one.

(Brooks devotes most of the rest of his formula to work. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.)


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* For more on the taking our country back, see my Repo Men post from three and a half years ago.

** I made this same point in July 2012 (here) when the Times published Arthur Brooks making the same claim, though without the added variable of sex. But if Brooks and the Times are going to keep publishing this idea, I’m going keep blogging the evidence.


Red-State Health Care - Gut It Out

December 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston



George W. Bush at least talked about “compassionate conservatism.” The phrase was a response to the image of Republicans as cold-hearted. Rather than risk poor people becoming dependent on government, conservatives espoused principles of rugged individualism: you’re on your own no matter what.

Republicans today don’t even talk about compassion. Mostly, it seems, they just want to see Obama and anything connected with him fail. If that means punishing poor people, too bad.

A Supreme Court decision allowed states the option of refusing to go along with the Medicaid expansion that was part of Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  Republican-controlled states are refusing to take federal money that would allow poor people in those states easier access to Medicaid. 

An article and video by Laura Ungar in the Louisville Courier-Journal compares Kentucky, one of the few red states to accept Medicaid expansion, with Indiana just across the border. What is the income ceiling on eligibility for Medicaid. Accoriding to Indiana’s unexpanded Medicaid regulations, if a working mother of two earns more than $4,687 a year, she’s too rich to deserve Medicaid.


 To be fair to the Hoosier state, the news article adds:
Indiana also has an alternative Medicaid “demonstration project” called the Healthy Indiana Plan, which the federal government recently extended through 2014. The program includes a health savings account and cost-sharing by participants, and doesn’t cover all the services covered by traditional Medicaid. It has a long waiting list.
Individuals with no children generally cannot get Medicaid in Indiana. The Healthy Indiana Plan is unavailable to individuals earning more than $11,490 nearly 30% lower than Medicaid. 


An Indiana woman in the video says,
For Louisville to have it and our people not when we are fifteen minutes away from each other, it’s just criminal. I am sorry, but I think it’s criminal that we’re not doing Medicaid expansion.


The 2012 Court decision allowing states to have different policies on Medicaid expansion upholds the principle of federalism – that states are “laboratories of democracy.”  It’s just that in this case, when you leave the Kentucky lab and walk into the Indiana lab, you’ll see a lot more poor people needing medical care. Instead, as the woman said, they rely on “over-the-counter medications.  And gut it out, just gut it out.”

 “Gut it out” pretty much summarizes the rugged-individualism theory of the state, and exponents of that theory will surely admire this woman. But I get the impression that this woman – unable to afford health insurance for the last 21 years – would gladly trade some of that admiration for affordable health care and would not mind at all if Indiana did something to make her individualism a little less rugged.

Jim Hall

December 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Guitarist Jim Hall died yesterday. 

There’s not a lot of sociology in this post, except perhaps the reminder that art is a collective enterprise and that success and reputation depend on the people you work with.*  That may be especially true of sidemen, the jazz equivalent of supporting actors. And it may be even more true for sidemen with a non-flashy, understated, self-effacing approach to music.  Which pretty much describes Jim Hall.

The better-known musicians who chose Hall to work with them form an impressive list.  When Sonny Rollins came down off the Willimsburg Bridge in 1962,** ending his three-year absence from the music scene, he formed a quartet with Hall on guitar. Bill Evans and Ron Carter recorded duo albums with him.  He did several albums with Paul Desmond, who was famous because of Brubeck and “Take Five” (written by Desmond, not Brubeck), but who also eschewed flashiness. Asked what he had absorbed from Desmond, Hall said
 I had more respect for melody. It worked out perfectly for me because I don’t have the amazing chops that a lot guys have, anyway. I realized that playing nice melodies was okay, so that made it a lot easier for me.

Whenever I’m teaching. I have these students with incredible chops. I try things to get them to slow down. Occasionally, I’ll have them just play on one string like a trombone, or play a mode with three or four notes and develop that through a whole solo, make them more aware of what Paul was aware of, how it becomes an art form and gets away from all that macho b.s. [interview with Doug Ramsey]

Here he is with Art Farmer’s quartet playing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” (Farmer sits out on this one).  Steve Swallow, bass; Pete LaRoca, drums.



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* Gabriel Rossman has a fuller treatment of this idea in his ASR paper (with Esparza and Bonacich (“I’d Like to Thank the Academy” (here).

** Rather than woodshed in his apartment, Rollins spent up to sixteen hours a day practicing where the sound would not bother neighbors. He has more, and a picture, on his website.

Yes, But Harvard Students Know a Lot More Now

December 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Headline in the Crimson today.


For comparison, here is the grade sheet from a 1940 Government course.*  The mean and median are a C+, so the B- by that fellow in the K’s is a shade above average.

(Click on an image for a 
clearer view.)

We professors can, and often do, go on at length arguing about the problem of grades, the purpose of grades, the effects of grades, and so on. But the trend is unmistakable. Grades have gone up, and much more so at private universities than at the publics.  Harvard is different in only in degree.


Yes, the most common grade at Harvard is an A, but the most common grade at universities generally is an A (the graph below ignores the + and –).


(The graphs are from gradeinflation.com)

For the record, this is not what my gradesheets look like. But I suspect that if I went back and looked at my gradebooks from when I started, I would find that I too give higher grades now than I did years ago.

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* I mentioned this to a friend who had been chair of her department at another school. “How did you get a gradesheet now from a course JFK was in?”
“The teacher was late turning in his grades,” I said.  She howled.  Maybe you have to have been chair to really appreciate the joke.

Civilization and Its Stoplights

December 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen
stopped, waited, looked left, right.
He had been driving nine hundred miles,
had nearly a hundred more to go,
but if there was any impatience
it was only the steady growl of the engine
which could just as easily be called a purr.

I chided him for stopping;
he told me our civilization is founded
on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.

— from a poem by Bruce Hawkins.

I read these lines on a political blog* this morning, and I thought of Murray Davis.

One December long ago, I got a ride home from Boston to Pittsburgh with Murray in his black VW Beetle. He was a graduate student, I was an undergrad, and in those days the trip took twelve hours.  We got into Pittsburgh some time after 2 a.m.  The streets were deserted

In Shadyside on Fifth Avenue, not far from my parents’ condo, we came to a red light. Murray paused, then drove on through.

“Sociology allowed me to do that,” he said.

I can’t remember his explanation, but I think it had something to do with “rules in use” and the negotiability of norms. That’s interesting, I thought.  Maybe it was even convincing, though I still turned in my seat to see if there were any cops behind us. There weren’t.

Murray was right. At that hour of empty streets, waiting for the green serves no rational purpose. When there is no traffic, traffic safety is not an issue. But Bruce Hawkins’s dad is also right.  He takes a more Durkheimian view: rationality is not the basis of society. What makes society possible is people’s attachment to the group and its ideas – its values, its beliefs, and its stoplights.I wonder what Murray would have said now about this poem.


(Murray died six years ago. The ASA obit is here.  He wrote some insightful books – Intimate Relations, What’s So Funny?, Smut., and a well-known essay on sociology and phenomenology. )

* Hat tip to Keith Humphrey at The Reality-Based Community. He reprints the poem in its entirety here.