Sociologists in the Street

October 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

My wife was reading Comfort Me With Apples, a memoir by foodie Ruth Reichl. “When she got to Paris, she stayed in an apartment on the rue Auguste Comte. Do you know where that is?”

Not only did I not know where, but much to my embarrassment as a sociologist, I didn’t even know that such a street existed. I checked the map and discovered that it runs along the south edge of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

I have walked through the Jardin a few times, butI never noticed a street sign with the name of the man who coined the term sociology. Of that I’m positive.

Here’s a photo taken in 1870, barely a decade after Comte died.

For a more recent and elegant view, go to Flickr (here -- I’m honoring the photo copyright and not reprinting it). Or go to Paris . . . after this retirement-age thing is settled).

The French name streets after sociologists (several other cities in France have rues Auguste Comte), philsophers, writers, composers, et. al. American tastes run to other areas. I grew up on MacArthur Drive, which came just after Eisenhower Drive and Wainwright Drive in our peaceful town.

I doubt that a US city will ever have a sociologist street. Just about every city in the US has a Park Street (or Park Place or, in the city where I live, Park Avenue), and I suppose we can take some secret pride in this, even though the link to sociology is coincidental.

Pleasant Surprises

October 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Technology gives us greater control over our lives. You can decide who you want to be with, ignoring the people in the same room with you and instead texting or IMing your friends. You can get the movies, shows, or music you want, untethered from the arbitrary schedules and playlists of media outlets. In Tyler Cowen’s title phrase, you can Create Your Own Economy.

The price we pay for control is surprise. You can’t tickle yourself. You can’t surprise yourself.*

Last Saturday in Central Park, I was watching the singer who sets up with his guitar at the western edge of the boating pond. His name is Dave Ippolito, and his repertoire is what you’d expect from a guy with only an acoustic guitar – James Taylor-Dylan-Elton Johnish stuff, plus his own songs – and people sit on the bench and the grassy slope to listen.

Nearby, on a spit of land that juts out into the pond, there’s a open area with a gazebo, and in the warm weather, wedding couples often take photos there. If the wedding party is small enough, they can have the ceremony there.

Last Saturday, a couple had just done their wedding at the gazebo, and to leave the park they came walking up the paved path, crossing in front of Dave. He stopped singing. “Wait a minute,” he said, “did you guys just get married?” They nodded. “Here. I’m going to play something just for you, and you can have your first dance right here. OK?” They looked at each other, then at the wedding party trailing behind them on the path, and they agreed. He segued into “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and the couple danced.

Then Dave invited the others in the wedding party to dance, and soon the path on that side was filled with well-dressed couples.

At the end of the song, Dave said, “C’mon, anyone who wants to, you guys on the grass, everyone dance. He started another tune. And there we were, the wedding guests in their nice clothes, the rest of us in our jeans and sneakers.

Weddings are usually carefully planned – the guest list, the clothes, the flowers, the music, the food – and scheduled fairly tightly so that everything goes well. But I wonder what that couple and their guests will remember about their wedding day. Will it be all those elements they planned? Or will it be the ten minutes of surprise, when, on their way out of the park, they were dancing to music they’d never expected and with other couples they’d never met?**

*You can’t give yourself a surprise party. Usually, when people say that they surprised themselves, it means they tried something new and unpredictable – that is, they gave up control and predictability. And giving up that control allowed them to discover something new and positive about themselves.

** I also wonder whether this is an “only in New York” kind of surprise. Is there something about the city, where diverse sets of people intermingle in the same space, that makes for more of these spontaneous moments?


October 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
“No man but a blogger ever wrote, except for money.”
What Dr. Johnson actually said was “blockhead,” but what’s the difference?

Is money the only motivation to produce? Greg Mankiw seems to think so. Mankiw was a top economics adviser in the Cheney-Bush administration. He probably thought that tax cuts for the rich were a good idea ten years ago, and he still thinks they’re a good idea

In a column in the Business section of last Sunday’s New York Times, Mankiw uses himself as an example to illustrate the disastrous effects of allowing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire, raising that rate the three points from 36% to 39%, and resurrecting the tax on large sums of inherited money.
Suppose that some editor offered me $1,000 to write an article.
Then Mankiw does a little magic – like the magician who starts holding one ball in his fingers out soon winds up with many.
30 years from now, when I pass on, my children would inherit about $10,000.
But then come the taxes.
Without any taxes, accepting that editor’s assignment would have yielded my children an extra $10,000. With [the proposed Obama] taxes, it yields only $1,000
But ah, if we keep the Bush tax cuts for the rich . . .
Taking that writing assignment would yield my kids about $2,000. I would have twice the incentive to keep working.
Other bloggers (Brad DeLong and Kevin Drum, for example) have criticized Mankiw’s math and economics. What I’m curious about is the assumption that rich people do what they do only or mainly because of the money.
Maybe you are looking forward to a particular actor’s next movie or a particular novelist’s next book. Perhaps you wish that your favorite singer would have a concert near where you live. Or, someday, you may need treatment from a highly trained surgeon, or your child may need braces from the local orthodontist. Like me, these individuals respond to incentives. (Indeed, some studies report that high-income taxpayers are particularly responsive to taxes.) As they face higher tax rates, their services will be in shorter supply.
Should Mankiw really be using himself as an example? If Mankiw’s work output is merely or mostly a response to economic incentives, why is he writing this column at all. The Times paid him considerably less than $1000. I would guess about a third less, but whatever it was, it’s pocket change compared to what he makes from his books, and it’s probably much less than he could have made had he spent the same amount of time consulting.

Yet he still wrote the article. And I bet he would have written it even if the Times hadn’t paid him a cent. I base my bet on past performances: on his blog, Mankiw averages about five posts per week, all of them unpaid. In the 1990s, the top rate was 40%, and in early 1980s 50%. Did Mankiw work less hard back then.  When the Bush tax cuts kicked in, did he rush to pick up more consulting gigs?

Is money the reason that rich people – movie stars, rock stars, fancy surgeons, rich economists – continue to work? And will that 3% increase in their marginal tax rates make them slack off? If the tax cuts expire, will the hedge fund guys leave the office at 4:30 in the afternoon because it’s just not worth it to make a few more swaps and derivatives trades? They already have more money than they know what to do with, yet they work long hours to make more.

Last night, Brett Favre, age 41, threw the 500th touchdown pass of his career. If the Bush tax cuts on the rich had expired a year ago, would Favre have retired (I mean really retired) and not played this season?

Exchange Rates

October 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston
Viviana Zelizer has a new book coming out in a week: Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (or what’s left of the economy). I got an e-mail about it from Amazon. They’ve got me pegged.

Will I spend $23.62 for the book? If I thought rationally about money, I would consider what else that $23.62 could buy. But nobody thinks about money with perfect rationality. Dollars are fungible, but not completely so. They have a different value in different sectors of life and do not always flow easily from one sector to another. Exchange rates between sectors are idiosyncratic and rarely specified.

I was reminded of this yet again by Jacob Avery’s recent paper on poker players. Is it rational to bet an amount greater than your weekly paycheck on the turn of a card or the outcome of a baseball game? It’s irrational only if money is perfectly fungible from the world of gambling to the world of everyday living. But it isn’t.

The gamblers I knew would frequently say that “gambling money” was “sacred.” In other words, there was such a thing as gambling money, and it was different from other moneys. It fell under a different set of rules and valuations.

Here’s a slightly different example though also from the world gambling. It’s from a “This American Life” show originally broadcast in November, 2003.*

This 2:20 excerpt is from a story about a limo driver in Las Vegas. He is a good blackjack player. Yet he will leave the table, where he’s making a bundle, so as not to miss the peak hours for catching fares, even though these will net him less money than blackjack:

Here’s a transcript from the last part of the clip:

I was playing about like $2000 a hand. And I told the doorman, “If you get a good ride, like to the golf course, come and get me,” y’know, like $75. Anyway, he came up to the table and told me, “Hey, I got a ride” Seventy-five dollars. The people in the pit, they all think I’m nuts, y’know. I just stopped.. I left, I took my money, and I ran down to take the guy for $75, and there I am playing two grand a hand.

I try to separate the two. One has nothing to do with the other.

NPR reporter: I don’t understand that.

I know. Nobody does.

NPR reporter:” Do you understand it?

I don’t. I just. . . .gambling to me is gambling, work is work.

Nobody understands it? Viviana Zelizer does. So do most people, at some level. They know that their treatment of dollars is not universalistic They just don’t write books about it.

*This is my first try at embedding an audio clip. If it doesn’t work, you can go to the full This American Life podcast (here): The story begins at about the 23 minute mark. The part I excerpted here begins at about 33:20.

Size Matters

October 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bigger isn’t better. In fact, it’s worse, at least when it comes to large classes.
large class sizes and higher student loads are correlated with less critical and analytical thinking, less clarity in class presentations, and lower ratings on the instructor’s ability to stimulate student interest
That’s the main finding of a nicely designed study by James Monks and Robert Schmidt. (pdf of the study is here ; the Inside Higher Ed summary is here) . They looked at student evaluations in nearly 2000 sections of undergraduate business courses at “a private, highly selective university on the east coast” over a 12-year period. Their findings have a clear policy message:
Reducing class sizes and the total number of students that a faculty member is responsible for teaching in a semester will lead to significant improvements in student outcomes.
Will that happen?

At the regular meeting of department chairs, the dean passed out a very handsome chart with dozens of columns (it measured about three feet in width) showing various ratios for each department. Mostly, these were ratios of students to faculty – with different breakdowns for, on the student side, majors and course enrollments, and on the faculty side, tenured, untenured, adjunct, and so on.

The message was clear: what resources the university has will flow to departments with a high ratio. If you want more goodies, get more students in your courses.

Back in July, I said that thinking of summer school as “education” was a less useful model than thinking of it as “buying credits.” Students are looking for a bargain – the greatest number of credits for the least expense of time, effort, and money. Things may be different at private, highly selective schools, but here at a public and less selective university, that consumerist model of student demand seems to work for the regular semesters, not just summer school.

Are things different over here on the faculty side, i.e., the supply side ? The highlighted column in the dean’s chart is a measure of “productivity.” And what we are producing is not education, it’s student hours.

Oh yes, we like good teaching. Teaching is part of that triptych, along with Scholarship and Service, that we fill out in all our personnel paperwork. But is it more important the productivity? Here is one way to tell:

In the movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a schoolgirl loses in some school writing competition.* She’s upset, and her mother or some other grown-up tells her that winning isn’t really the important thing. The girl looks up and asks bluntly, “Then why’s that what they give the prizes for?”

Or as Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” said, “Follow the money.”

*I’m working from memory here, and I saw the movie probably twenty years ago. I have neither the movie nor the book at hand, and I can’t find anything useful on the Internet. So I may be wrong about the specifics.

The New York Walk

October 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our semi-annual (or is it annual?) Sociology New York Walk on Saturday. We started at the flea market on W. 39th St., where one of the vendors had a box of typesetters sorts and slugs. I should have taken a picture since in class the previous week I had mentioned the Gutenberg revolution, and many of the students had no idea what movable type was. The Gutenberg era was a nice five and a half centuries while it lasted, but it’s over. Gutenberg is now a large source of e-books, fee of charge and free of metal. Those movable-type letters are quaint relics that you find in a flea market not far from the old Lucky Strikes placard.

We walked over to Grand Central Station. The Whispering Gallery is always a crowd-pleaser. After lunch at the food court (so much better than the typical mall food court), we took the subway to Astor Place and wandered the Lower East Side – gentrification happening as you watch. A community garden on Avenue B was having a harvest festival, with barbecue and salads (pay what you like) and a trio playing Indian-style music, and it was like walking back into the sixties.

It was a beautiful day, and there was much more to see and eat and drink. Join us next time.

Here we are. The picture on the left is just outside the Library at 42nd and Fifth. The one on the right is down on the Lower East Side.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Leave the Name, Take the Accent

October 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post a while ago, I said that it seemed to me that far fewer actors are changing their names. Not like the old days, when Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth. I was reminded of this again reading the obits for Tony Curtis, born and raised in the Bronx as Bernie Schwartz.
If a kid named Bernie Schwartz today wanted to be an actor, would he change his name? It’s a ridiculous question, of course. Nobody these days names their son Bernie. Bernard is barely in the top 1000 names for boys. When Curtis, er I mean Schwartz, was born, it was #46.

He may have changed his name, but he never lost his accent, as the obits were quick to point out, quoting famous lines like, “"Yondah lies the castle of my fad-dah,” which Snopes says is for real, from “The Black Shield of Falworth.” The obit and has a version from a different film, “ Son of Ali Baba”: “Dis is duh palace ah my fadda, an’ yonda lies duh Valley ah duh Sun.”

You wouldn’t hear that today. My impression is that although actors now retain their ethnic names, they lose any ethnic or regional accent they might have, at least they do if they want to play big roles. With comedy roles and character parts, a regional accent adds “color” even if it’s the wrong color. (Cab drivers in movies often have a working-class New York accent, even if they are driving their cab in Chicago or Atlanta.) But if you want to be a star, it’s best to be able to sound like a generic, unplaceable American.

Maybe that has always been true; maybe even fifty or seventy years ago, Curtis would have been a glaring exception. Can you think of stars from whatever era who, like Curtis, spoke with an identifiable ethnic or regional accent yet played roles outside of those boundaries?

Rock the Casbah? - The Clash of Civilizations

October 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry at The Monkey Cage linked to this article (his ironic subject line: "this will change a lot of people’s minds"). It’s behind a paywall, but if anyone wants to ante up and then report on the method and sample, we impecunious (or just cheapskate) bloggers would be mucho grateful.

Here’s the abstract. I wonder of Rodney Stark was one of the peer reviewers. Probably not.

Islam and Large-Scale Political Violence: Is There a Connection?

M. Steven Fish
Francesca R. Jensenius
Katherine E. Michel

Are Muslims especially prone to large-scale political violence? From Montesquieu to Samuel Huntington, prominent modern analysts of politics have regarded Muslims as unusually inclined to strife. Many other observers have portrayed Islam as a peace-loving faith and Muslims as largely pacific. Yet scholars still lack much hard evidence on whether a relationship between Islam and political violence really exists. Precious few studies adduce empirical evidence on whether Islamic societies are actually more or less violent. This article assesses whether Muslims are more prone to large-scale political violence than non-Muslims. The authors focus neither on terrorism nor on interstate war. Instead, they investigate large-scale intrastate violence. The article makes three contributions. First, it offers useful data on Islam and political strife. Second,it investigates whether Muslims are especially violence prone. Relying on cross-national analysis, the authors find no evidence of a correlation between the proportion of a country’s population that is made up of Muslims and deaths in episodes of large-scale political violence in the postwar period. Third, the authors investigate whether Islamism (the ideology), as opposed to Muslims (the people), is responsible for an inordinate share of the world’s large-scale political violence. They find that Islamism is implicated in an appreciable but not disproportionate amount of political violence.

Guarding Against Symbols

September 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A mosque at Ground Zero is already a reality. Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” report on the controversy showed dozens of Muslims praying in a room of the building that now stands on the contested tract of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center. “Sixty Minutes” did not report on the anguish these daily prayers were inflicting on the souls of the dead or even on their living relatives and friends.

The mosque, as many have noted, is not exactly “at” Ground Zero. It’s a couple of blocks away, and you can’t see it from Ground Zero. But that’s not the point. The point, for the opponents, seems to be pollution. Anything that is at all connected with The Terrorists must be kept far enough away (just how far is never specified) so as to prevent any kind of symbolic contact.

Something similar is going on with the proposed Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania. Back in 2005, a jury of family members, local leaders, and designers reviewed proposals and selected a winner. Now, there’s a big protest.

The problem, I think, was not in the design – a circle set in the naturally occurring bowl of land, one segment of the circle planted with trees, a tower with wind chimes.
It would have been built and unremarked if the authors had given it a different name, say “The Arc of Embrace.” But it was called “The Crescent of Embrace.”

Maybe you didn’t see it when you looked at the graphic. But, like priests trained in ferreting out all traces of sin, keen-eyed observers have discerned the unmistakable Muslim symbol, the crescent, lurking here. Look at this side-by-side that’s been circulating in the right blogosphere, with frequent suggestions that the similarity (I mean identical sameness) was intentional.

If you didn’t see it, that just shows how successful the terrorists have been in hiding their evil influence.

This emphasis on purity is part of the Us-vs.-Them mentality. They are out to destroy Us. We must constantly be on our guard. And any hint of Them, no matter how slight or symbolic, is a threat and must be rooted out.

Who is Them? In this clash of civilizations, Them is all of them. In America, you can’t come right out and say “Arabs” or even “Muslims.” So you have to be against “the Terrorists.” The vast majority of Muslims worldwide, and nearly 100% of American Muslims, are not terrorists. But that distinction is no more important today than it was when George W. Bush convinced most Americans that invading Iraq was a good way to fight Al Qaeda.

I just wonder why South Carolina decided to become a haven for terrorism.

I’m America, and So Can You

September 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some political columnists seem incapable of acknowledging that their own views are just that – their own (e.g., I don’t trust Obama). Instead, they prefer to attribute the opinion to “the public,” or “the country,” or even more immodestly “America” (“America doesn’t trust Obama.”)*

Here’s David Brooks in yesterday’s Times:
The public seems to be angry about values. The heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger rises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another. . . . What the country is really looking for is a restoration of responsibility.
I guess he never went to anger management or couples therapy, where they tell you to make “I statements” (“When you text at the dinner table, I feel ignored,”). Instead, it’s, “When you text at the dinner table, America feels ignored.”

I had thought that the restoration the country was looking for was more economic than moral, but then what do I know? I assume that Brooks has some evidence about what’s really on the public’s mind, but he’s keeping it to himself. So I rounded up the usual suspects – Gallup, Pew, etc. (“When you say the public feels some way, I check out the polls.”)

The entire category, for that last bar was “Ethics/moral/religious/family decline; dishonesty.” The proportion of people mentioning any one of those as the top problem was 3%.

It also turns out that while the subprime/CDO/CDS/MBS collapse had a huge impact on how Americans felt about the economy, it didn’t much affect their opinions of the country’s morality, opinions which were pretty low to begin with. Americans take a dim view of other Americans’ morality.
(Click on the chart for a larger view.)
Gallup did not ask specifically about the “responsibility” that the country is so concerned about. But the question was open-ended, and of the 76% who thought that values were getting worse, 7% mentioned something along the lines of “people not taking responsibility for their own behavior.” Seven percent of 76% is 5%

To sum up, only 3% of American think that morality is the top problem. When asked directly about morals, only 5% point to responsibility.But David Brooks says that what the country really wants is responsibility.

Who you gonna believe – David Brooks, or your lyin’ polls?

*This observation is not original with me. But I cannot remember who to tip my hat to. I think it was either one of the Monkey Cagers (but which one?) or Henry at Crooked Timber. The title of this post is a direct rip-off of Steven Colbert.

Living In the City

September 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“In the one block from the subway stop to your building, I saw a greater diversity of people than I see in my town in a year.” My brother lives in central New Jersey, in a town with not much racial diversity. “It’s like living in a Methodist wedding,” he once said. He doesn’t come to New York very often.

That was during the day. When New Yorkers go home, their neighborhoods become more homogeneous. Here’s a map that Eric Fisher posted, based on the cartography of Bill Rankin.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. To help you get oriented, I’ve made Central Park yellow. The truly diverse neighborhoods are out in Queens – Astoria, Jackson Heights.

If you think we’re living in post-racial America, or if you’re curious about racial patterns in where people live, you must take a look at Eric’s Flickr site. He has created similar maps for 102 cities, so you’ll probably be able to find yours. His maps also have a flash function that identifies the neighborhoods as you mouse over them, so you might even see your neighborhood by name.

HT: Peter Moskos

Just Enough For the City

September 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A New York Magazine cover in the 1970s showed a fortyish man – pudgy, grey suit, white shirt, striped necktie – sitting on the sidewalk holding out a tin cup with a few pencils in it. A sign around his neck said, “I MAKE $80,000 A YEAR, AND I’M BROKE.”

At the time, $80,000 was about 8 times the national median, the equivalent roughly of $400,000 today. The point was that the “ordinary” expenses of ordinary New Yorkers ate up a lot of money. To be barely middle class, you had to be rich.

That cover came to mind because of the recent dust-up in the blogosphere set off by a post by Todd Henderson, a Chicago law professor. Henderson was complaining about the Obama tax proposal – to keep cuts for all but the rich, i.e, those earning more than $250,000. Henderson didn’t say how much his income was, but he did say
  • that paying for mortgages, student loans, children’s education (private schools), and other expenses leaves him no room for luxuries.
  • that he already pays $100,000 in taxes
  • he certainly does not feel rich
Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby.... [W]e have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income. We occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget. . . . [This is from an e-mail Henderson, or someone claiming to be him, wrote to Brad DeLong that DeLong reprinted.]
Henderson took a lot of flak. But there’s much to be said for his point, which is the same one that New York Magazine was making 35 years ago. Although these conclusions are not what Henderson intended, they still seem valid:
  • there is such a thing as society
  • society exerts pressure on people to spend their money on certain things
  • some of these are things which, if you could not afford them, you would feel that you were not a member of your society or social group
  • when income rises, so do these social “necessities.” Henderson sees private schools, two cars, and home ownership as necessities, not luxuries 
New York Magazine had the good sense to make the point with a touch of irony that Henderson utterly lacked. His sin was not that he feels strapped despite an income of $400,000 or more. It was that he seemed to have no feeling for the lives of those who earn half that, or those who have a merely average income ($50-60K), or those who scrape by on much less than the average.

As I recall, the New York Magazine story sketched out budgets for three different income levels. None of them, even the highest ($80K) left room for much in the way of savings or luxuries. This was around the time of the great Stevie Wonder’s great album “Innervisions,” and I had thought of writing a lyric based on its great song “Living For the City” (and I’m serious about all those “greats”). Here’s a slightly updated excerpt:
Six rooms on Central Park, the house out by the ocean.
He works at Goldman Sachs, he needs that next promotion.
His son’s at Yale, his daughters go to Brearly.
He only makes four hundred thousand yearly,
And it’s just enough, just enough for the city.
And so on.

Update: Since I started composing this post, Henderson has removed his original post “because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family.” (Full retraction and apology here, but you can still find links to his original, now deleted post. Or try waybackmachine.)

I don’t know Henderson at all, and I hesitate to draw inferences about his character. But his new post adds to my original take – that he might be a decent and well-meaning person but that perhaps he is a bit short on self-awareness. He just doesn’t seem to realize how what he says will be seen by others – others like people with average incomes, others like his wife.

Another Year

September 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m supposed to be reflecting on my sins of the past year, but the SocioBlog came on line in mid-September four years ago. So at bloggiversay time, I’m also allowing myself a bit of narcissistic reflection, going back over the year’s 180+ posts. There are some, no doubt, that I should be atoning for. But here, in no particular order, are ten I liked.* I’ve added some topic tags in parenthesis, but there’s no real logic or theme to the list – sort of like the blog itself.

1 Christian Is Not a Religion (and Jews Have a Cross to Bear) (hidden assumptions and invisible privilege)
2 It’s Your Funeral (US culture)
3 The Playing Fields of Landon (values)
4 Frisks and Risks (Crime)
5 Mitch Miller – Producing Hits (organization of culture)
6 Rich and Richer, Dumb and Dumber (economics)
7 Sandbox Sociology (nature/nurture)
8 It’s Your Decision (US culture)
9 The Real America (social psychology)
10 Summertime Blues (academics)

*I was tempted to include my post on truffles only because it used my own photo from a truffle marché, not something I grabbed off Google Images. The post on The Real America is on the list mostly because I liked the phrase about Sarah Palin’s real America as “Norman Rockwell, but with guns and NASCAR.”

More XBox, Less Crime

September 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Crime was down in 2009. When the preliminary data came out four months ago, newspapers ran headlines like
  • Crime Rates Fell in '09 Despite Economy (NYT)
  • Why is crime down, in spite of the recession? (CSM)
The idea that unemployment leads to crime hasn’t had much support from the data. Criminologists have known this for a half century or so. But everyone else won’t let it go.* Apparently, the idea just too appealing. The logic is clear and simple: people who are out of work will commit crimes to get the money they need.

But that’s not the way it works. If there is a link between unemployment and crime, it is indirect. More important, it works not at the individual level, but at the neighborhood level. Neighborhoods with persistent high unemployment will have higher rates of crime, but not because jobless people are turning to illegal sources of income (though no doubt some are), but because people in those neighborhoods cannot exercise the necessary informal social control; they cannot ride herd on the teenagers.

Anyway, here’s the graph from the UCR.

The decline is real – not just a CompStat-inspired suppression of data by the police. Murder and motor vehicle theft are the two most accurately counted crimes, so we can take those changes pretty much at face value; robbery too. So what’s going on?

I don’t know. But Lawrence Katz has an interesting explanation – video games. Those wild kids, instead of going out and stealing actual cars,** are playing Grand Theft Auto. Their behavior is more virtual, also more virtuous.

(David Leonhardt, back in May, discussed this and linked to some research on a similar effect of movies in his Times Economix blog.)

*Not quite everyone. Conservatives like the idea that crime is unrelated to economics. They see crime as a product of bad people with bad morals. Crime rises when insitutions that instill morality (church, family) decline; and crime falls when those institutions gain strength. I suspect that conservatives also reject the economics-crime link because it implies there are no social costs, the government need not do anything about unemployment and poverty.

** Also, cars have become harder to steal thanks to various technological advances – criminologists call this “target hardening.” Car theft is becoming a crime better left to professionals.

HT: Mark Kleiman

Mosques, Danger, and Purtiy

September 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marty Peretz concluded his recent anti-Muslim rant with this.
I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
This is blatantly wrong. Freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion are not privileges that the government grants to “worthy” people and faiths. These are the rights of everyone, rights that the government is Constitutionally bound to protect.

Nine days later, after a New York Times column had called him out on it, Peretz realized his error and issued an apology. But how could someone who has spent his life writing about government, mostly US government, even teaching about it at Harvard, compose and publish that sentence in the first place?

Peretz was writing to decry a Times editorial that called for tolerance, specifically for the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, the one that is to be built a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero.

When it comes to the mosque, and to anything related to Islam these days, it seems that we are no longer in the realm of rational political discourse – discussions of policies and their effects. We are in symbolic territory, the realm of Purity and Danger. For Peretz and those of a similar mind, danger is paramount. He speaks of
anxiety about the dangers of Islamism, and anger at the refusal of certain politicians and commentators to adequately grasp those dangers,
Danger calls for a hardening of boundaries and a mentality of Us vs. Them. We need to be sure that everyone on our side is with us and that we have cast out all impurities, i.e, those whose loyalties are the least bit suspect. So Peretz refers to
Muslim or Arab interests or their commitments to foreign governments and, more likely, to foreign insurgencies and, yes, quite alien philosophies.
the increasing number of both naturalized and native-born citizens who enlist in the Islamic terror networks of our time, here and abroad.
As the Times says, this thinking equates all of Islam and all Muslims with terrorism. Or in Peretz’s words,
the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.
My only consolation is that we’ve been here before. Other religions and other ethnic groups have been similarly vilified and feared. You can probably go back through US history and find language that sounds like what we now hear from the Tea Party and Peretz and the rest, with feared alien agents not Muslims but Catholics, Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, and many others. But despite the antipathy of “real Americans,” these groups became mainstream, no longer the objects of fear and suspicion. You can even find some of them at Tea Party demonstrations or writing anti-Muslim screeds for right-wing publications.

The Peretz phrase I find most ominous, I think, is this one:
Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.
Ominous because when we say that some group thinks life is cheap or doesn’t value human life the way we do, it’s often prelude to our killing them in very large numbers.


September 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Quantitative methods for cultural analysis.

Jay Caspian Kang at The Awl:
. . . my crack team of consultants, statisticians and graphic designers have assembled DIVA-OFF 2010, a highly scientific (we used computers!) evaluation of the greatest divas of the past twenty-five years. A list of divas was evaluated on eleven levels of diva-ness, and, because each diva characteristic is not created equal, we scaled the values in the hopes of creating an aggregate diva number that will serve as a reference point for future generations.
Here, for example, are the results in the Hand Gestures category:

Admittedly, rater subjectivity may be a factor:
Of all the diva characteristics, Hand Gestures is the most open to personal preference. I certainly don’t like Celine’s slow-motion-deodorant-commercial hand gestures, but who am I to tell your mom that they aren’t cool? And while I always liked how Mariah would point out the notes in her runs, I can also see why your mother might find this to be a bit show-offy. One thing your mother and I can agree on, though: Carrie Underwood will never ascend to diva status because of her awful, awful work in this category.
Read the whole post (unless, of course, you’re a big Jordin fan), and watch the accompanying videos (with the sound off for the Hand Gestures).

Victims and Blame

September 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Blaming the victim.” William Ryan wrote the book and coined the phrase forty years ago to characterize explanations of poverty that ignored large social and economic forces and instead looked only at the behavior of poor people. If only they would anticipate the consequences of their choices in education, work, and family, theorized the victim-blamers, they would make other choices and rise from poverty. (My post on a very recent example is here.)

Now Courrier International, a Paris weekly with the tagline “L'anticipation au quotidien” takes blaming the victim to a new level. Here’s the English language version.

In the latest instance, Saatchi & Saatchi France used an image of the New York skyline with a shorter twin towers, two airplanes flying innocuously over the buildings. The tagline? “Learn to anticipate”.

HT: Polly, who, hélas, is no longer in Paris and not blogging so much.

Jesus, American Style

September 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

American Christianity has transformed the church and even Jesus into something that would have appalled the real Jesus and his followers. That’s the sermon David Brooks was preaching in the Times yesterday. Megachurches for congregations mirror the mega-houses and mega-SUVs for individuals.

Brooks’s inspiration is the recent book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream by David Platt, himself once the pastor of megachurch (N = 4300) in Alabama.
Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshiping ourselves.”
Sound familiar? Mr. Brooks, Rev. Platt (2010), meet M. Durkheim (1912):
[Religion] is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members . . .God is only a figurative expression of the society .

Employee Health Care Costs

September 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It always seemed to me that the loud and vitriolic opposition to health care reform wasn’t really about health care. (My earlier post on this is here.) I found it hard to believe that so many people were so rapturously pleased with the current system and its direction and so angrily opposed to any changes. I had only two explanations based on rationality:
  • Most people had no way to compare the current US system with the less expensive and often better health care in other countries
  • People who got health care via their jobs could not see the true costs of those plans.
On the second point, Aaron Carroll at The Incidental Economist reprints some charts from the Kaiser Family Foundation annual survey of employee health benefits. Here are two of them.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

A huge increase in prices, and people rallying in the streets NOT to change it? As Carroll says, the true costs of this increase are not easy to see.
employees actually pay the full cost of premiums (including the “employer” share) in the form of slower wage growth. Nevertheless, few workers understand this. The perception is that only the employee share is paid by workers. But that’s gone up too, so perception and truth align. Employees are paying more.

With a BA in Sociology

September 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How much of what you do on your job did you learn in law school?” I asked.

Morning coffee on the porch of a small inn across from the boardwalk at Ocean Grove earlier this week. My fellow guest – our families had just met, there on the veranda – was a lawyer, in charge of licensing for a healthcare group that includes some important hospitals in New England. He smiled and shook his head.

“None of it.”

“On the job?” I asked.

He nodded.

Then he said, “What I learned in school was how to learn, how to think.”

Which is exactly what I tell students when they ask the inevitable question, “What kind of job can I get with a sociology degree?” I have a standard answer: “College is not trade school; it’s not job training.”

Montclair students usually don’t believe me, and I can’t blame them. They know that they need a college degree to get a good job, so they figure each major must teach something that employers find useful. Different majors, different employers. So I say, “Ask your parents where they got the skills and knowledge they need for their jobs. Chances are they learned 95% of it on the job.”

I used to make an exception for post-BA professional training – law school, med school, etc. Now I’ll have to revise even that.

“What you’re learning in college,” I say, “is how to learn, how to think, how to read, and how to write.” Then I add, “You can do that in any major, so you may as well choose the department with the ideas or courses or professors that you really like or where you’ll have the best time.”
Making important school choices based on the enjoyment of learning?? That probably clashes with just about everything in their experience of the previous twelve years. In any case, I usually get the feeling they still don’t believe me.

My colleague Yasmein Besen-Cassino, who sometimes teaches statistics, has a different and probably more effective strategy. “Go to and enter ‘SPSS,’” she tells them.

Honor Not So Bright

August 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Restoring Honor” was the theme of Glenn Beck’s rally. No signs, no politics, no policies, just positive principles.

Honor is one of those values that we’re all supposed to cherish. But in most cases, I find it harder and harder to distinguish honor from narcissism and brittle pride, an overweening concern for what people might be thinking of you.*

When someone feels he has lost honor because of what he himself has done, the result can be a resolve to improve, or it can be depression, even suicide. But when he feels his honor has been lost because of what another has done, things can get nasty. Under those circumstances, people usually go about restoring honor not by doing something for someone else, but by doing something to someone else. Think “honor” killings.

I can’t see where our country has lost any honor since Obama took office. A lot of jobs and many houses, maybe some of our hope, optimism, and confidence. But not honor. Beck and his followers disagree. They feel we’ve lost our honor. I’m also sure that they do not see that loss of honor as stemming from anything that they themselves have done. Little surprise then that most Tea Party rallies seem to run on anger.

Ever since the anti-Obama forces fought so hard against healthcare reform, it seemed to me that what motivated them – more so than policies on healthcare, economics or anything else – was ressentiment. So despite the Beck rally awards for “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” despite Beck’s claiming to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (yes, that’s what he actually said), the theme of honor, especially coupled with the glorification of the military, suggests that what they want is something much less benign. They want revenge. As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, “This is going to be very, very ugly.”

* For more skepticism about honor as a virtue, see my post on the Landon school.

Choosing My Confessions (A Sunday Post)

August 29, 2010 Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to clergy who no longer believe?
It suddenly hit me: “growth” is a euphemism for “I don’t believe the same crap I did when I started my divinity school training.”
This quote at Missives from Marx provides one answer: they use psychobabble to turn apostasy into “growth.” But then what do they do? Who do they tell? Do they leave? How do they handle the contradictions?

The quote took me back to “Marjoe,” the 1972 documentary about Marjoe Gortner, child revivalist prodigy at age four. When we see him in the film, still preaching in his twenties, he has lost his belief. The film (go here for excerpts) follows him on his last tour.

I have used “Marjoe” in class to illustrate Goffman’s idea that what is crucial for a situation is the performance. Whether that performance is sincere or cynical is secondary or even irrelevant. Marjoe, alone in his motel room (alone except for the film crew), tells us that he doesn’t believe in God. But when he preaches – laying on hands, speaking in tongues, working the crowd, and generally doing a great job – we realize that his unbelief doesn’t matter.

It makes you wonder about the other preachers. They all have their gimmicks; after all, they do need to rouse the audience (and raise money). They may still believe strongly in God and Jesus and the Bible. Or they may not. There’s no way to know.
Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing.
That’s not Marjoe 1972. It’s “Adam,” currently a minister in a Church of Christ congregation in South Carolina. The quote appears in “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. Their sample is small (N=5), but that’s probably five more than anyone else has come up with as far as I know. Dennett and LaScola present the five as individual case studies, tracing both the institutional and internal aspects of their careers.

Nonbelieving preachers in 2010 have much in common with homosexuals (especially in earlier eras). For example, the authors note that “atheist ‘gaydar’ is not yet a well-developed sensitivity among the clergy”
Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries: “And I let on like I do have an uncle who’s a non-believer, and he always said, ‘You know, it’s…’”
An uncle -- yeah, right.

“Coming out” is difficult because of the web of institutions (work, family) that define them. So the preachers must devise strategies for handling their secret – practical strategies for dealing with others and psychological strategies for resolving the personal contradictions.

The article sounds much like Chicago sociology-of-deviance studies that go back nearly 100 years. Yet it was published in a journal called Evolutionary Psychology, though its links to that field remain hidden, at least to me. I guess evol-psych works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

Old and New Views of the Internet

August 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Shortly after Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody, his take on how the new technology is changing social organization, he was asked to meet with a TV producer who thought he might be a good guest for a show. Shirky reports on the meeting in his new book Cognitive Surplus.

The producer asked about social media, and Shirky told her about Wikipedia. Astronomers had recently decided that Pluto was not a planet after all. Wikipedians responded with a flurry of activity, many people putting a lot of effort into the intense and frequent rewriting of the page on Pluto. Shirky expected the producer to ask about how knowledge is constructed, who knows what, who has authority, and other problems of wikis. “Instead, she sighed and said, ‘Where do people find the time?’”

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question,” Shirky snapped.

Shirky doesn’t say whether she ever put him on her show. But the producer’s taken-for-granted assumptions are a good examle of the old-style view of the Internet and social media. She found it unremarkable, maybe even a good thing, that people spent an average of four hours a day sitting on the couch watching TV. (In a classroom of thirty-five students, that’s over 1000 person-hours a week in front of the tube.)

But when it came to active and intense involvement in a wiki conversation, she wondered where they find the time. She didn’t get it.

2. The newer world-view is represented by Ethan,* age 6, who does get it.

His grandfather was doing some work on the computer, and Ethan walked over to him, asking questions, as kids often do. “Grandpa, where do we go after we die?” he asked. His grandfather pretended to be busy with his work and said briefly, “I don’t know.”

Ethan pointed to computer screen. “Google it,” he said.

* Not his real name

Tocqueville Pop

August 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Right now, I'm reading Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s pretty heavy what he says about America. It could be an album.” – Iggy Pop quoted in Rolling Stone, July 29, 2010.

De Tocqueville as a rock album? I haven’t followed Iggy Pop’s career closely, so I won’t even guess as to what such an album might be like. But why not? Democracy in America is the basis for a recent novel, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

Carey takes liberties with Tocqueville’s biography, which is why he renames him – Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont. His traveling companion is not Beaumont but Parrot, hired by Olivier’s mother to be his servant and secretary but also to spy on the young Frenchman and report to her. Parrot is an Englishman, older than Olivier and far less aristocratic. So Tocqueville/Olivier’s reactions to his circumstances are personal, not just abstract.
My intuitions and sympathies were limited by the circumstances of my birth. A person like my servant was a foreign land.
Olivier is almost a caricature of a nobleman – overly delicate (he gets frequent nosebleeds) and effete. His relations with people (notably Parrot and an American girl he falls in love with) provide plot. They also, along with a detailed painting of the scenery – New York streets, shops, and houses, rural farms – provide the background for the more general observations. Carey seems to have lifted these directly from Democracy in America. For example:
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals,* the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. . . . The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture. (p. 161)
No doubt, Iggy Pop will do something similar, maybe tracking down what Tocqueville had to say about raw power.

*Like the real de Tocqueville, the fictional Olivier has come to America ostensibly to report on prisons, though Carey makes it clear that his mother was spiriting him out of France as a political precaution. Olivier’s grandfather, like Tocqueville’s, had been guillotined, and in 1830 there are rumblings of revolution.

Contaminated Chicken Feed

August 22, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A supplier in egg recall has history of violations

That’s the headline from this morning’s AP story. I suspect that the AP and newspapers keep that phrase “history of violations” as a single keystroke macro. Reporters can quickly plug it into any story about rotten eggs, mine disasters, oil spills, building collapses, worker deaths, etc.

It makes me skeptical about either regulation or tort liability as a way to prevent these things. Torts cases take years and years and may be hard to prove – those armies of lawyers on corporate payrolls are there for a reason. As the AP notes, “The FDA investigation could take months, and sources of contamination are often difficult to find..” There’s a similar problem in the most recent Massey mine disaster, where the precise cause has not yet been determined. And that’s with the government, not a few lawyers, doing the heavy lifting.

Also, as we learned in the Gulf, corporations have lobbied to have caps put on their liability. Had BP not voluntarily waived that cap, the most they could have had to pony up was a puny $75 million.

DeCoster, the bad egg people, had been fined in 1997 for unsafe and unsanitary conditions. But the fine, the maximum allowed by law, was $2 million – chicken feed.

Constructing Value - Virginity, Balls, and Art

August 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a post about “fake virgins” in China – women who have had “hymen restoration” surgery. This surgery, Hanson says, can harm men. As Dave Barry says, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. That’s what he says.
It seems to me many men really do have a strong preference for virginity, and are willing to pay a high price for it in a marriage bargain. This male preference for virgins seems as legitimate as the female preference for high status husbands. So it can do husbands a great harm to deceive them about virginity. [emphasis added]
The woman who fakes virginity is no different from a man who presents himself as wealthy when in fact he’s broke.
Imagine a woman [who] married a man in part because of his great job and income, and as soon as she has his first kid he reveals that it was a fake; his parents had paid for a temporary high-status job and big house/car/etc. so she could give them a high quality grandkid. Now that the kid has arrived, husband goes back to being a janitor with a bike and one-room apartment.
Hanson’s post got a ton of comments, many arguing that comparing virginity to wealth was ludicrous or worse.

But none of the comments made the point that immediately occurred to me: value is socially constructed. What something is worth depends entirely on what people think it’s worth. The baseball that ARod just hit for his 600th homer is indistinguishable from a baseball that anyone can buy at Sears for $12.99. But the value of the home run ball is far greater – just how much greater, we don’t yet know, but #500 went for $100,000.

(One of these balls is not like the other. One of these balls is worth $100K.)

The difference in value between real virginity and fake virginity (or no virginity) is like the difference in value between the ARod ball and the Sears ball. Or between a real Cézanne and a perfect copy. One isn’t inherently better than the other; it’s just worth more because people think it’s better.

(Click on the image for a larger view and see if you can tell which is the real Cézanne . . .*)

All realities and values are constructed, but some are more constructed than others. The reality of something depends on the degree of consensus and on the other practices and institutions that get built around it. The value of economic wealth seems like rock solid reality because we all agree on the value of money and because it is so central to so many other things we do.

The value of virginity, at least in our society (and maybe in China too), is much more obviously a matter of social construction. Not everyone agrees on its value, and it doesn’t affect much else in our lives. But in some societies, the value of female virginity has the same kind of reality that money has. The consensus is so unanimous that it’s impossible for people to see it as constructed. It seems entirely external to them. In those societies, virginity is also a central aspect of marriage, family, and gender roles.

For those societies, Hanson’s idea about harm may well be accurate. When there’s that much consensus, when everyone thinks that virginity is a treasure, then it really is a treasure, just like the ARod ball or the real Cézanne. The man who gets a fake can suffer harm, just like the person who buys the fake ball or the forged Cézanne.

Of course, in all cases, the deal harms the buyer only if he knows he got a fake, and the harm he suffers is greater if other people too know that it was a fake – more evidence for the idea that value is a social construction.

* . . . and which is by Joe Spooner.

Following the Money

August 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why do you have a cell phone? If you didn’t have one, what would be the cost to your work and social life? In other words, to what extent is a cell phone a necessity?

Mike Mandel
, an economist, looks at what Americans have spent more money on since the onset of the recession. Here’s the table.

(Click on the table for a larger view.)

Here’s Mandel’s take on it:

Right there up at the top is America’s love affair with mobile devices, where spending has soared almost 17% since the recession started. Also supporting my thesis of a communications boom–spending on wired, wireless, and cable services have risen by 5%.
Mandel seems to think that all spending is discretionary. We spend our money on what we love. If you want to know what’s in our hearts, follow the money.

It doesn't feel that way to me. If my landlord raises my rent and I don’t move out, does Mandel think it’s because of my “love affair” with my apartment? (Note: the increased spending on housing was more than 60 times that of telephones. )

Yes, cell phones show the largest percentage increase. But in actual dollars, that increase is pocket change compared to the increase in spending on healthcare including drugs. The phone increase was $1.5 billion. The increase in healthcare was more than 100 times that. Does this huge increase reflect “America’s love affair” with doctors and prescription meds?

Are the cellphone and wi-fi a whimsical purchase, like new pair of shoes when you already have more shoes than you can fit in the closet? Or are they like a car, almost indispensable for finding and keeping a job?

Here’s the other table – items Americans spent less on.

In some cases, the changes are caused by individual choices. But for many of the items in these tables, if you asked people why they changed their spending, they would probably see themselves as not having had much choice. My rent went up, the price of gasoline went down.

Flic Dans Le Hood

August 15, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Denis Colombi, who blogs at Une Heure de Peine (the phrase is an allusion to Bourdieu), was browsing the toys for kids and noticed that Playmobil has a new variation. In France at least, the Playmobil cops and robber set has been transformed into cop and rioter (émeutier).

I checked the Playmobil site for the US and could round up only the usual suspects – no masked, tattooed threats to the social order.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Remembering the toys of his youth (Lego not Playmobil, but sans rioters nevertheless), Denis concludes with a bleg (the flawed translation is mine),
Evidently, this is not a response to “demand” on the part of children; it’s a creation by the adults who think up and manufacture the games for the parents. It would be interesting to reconstruct the evolution of bad-guy toy figures. If you have any souces or photos, please send them – I’d really like to publish some of them.

Update, August 19. I shouldn’t have stopped following the orgtheory blog. Three weeks ago, Fabio posted that he had noticed the cop-and-anarchist Playmobil pair at a toy store store in Ann Arbor. See his post here.

Science Ink

August 12, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I can’t be in Atlanta for the ASA. But if I were there, I think I might be on the lookout for tattoos. Discover magazine has a collection of science tattoos.

(Click on the image for a larger view)

Is it cheating on your chemistry exam if you bring your forearm to class? The across-the-back formula is Schroedinger’s equation for the wavefunction of a particle (as if I really had to tell you).

You’d probably also recognize the finch beaks as Darwin’s, even without the signature.

The chemical on the right is Diazepam.

You can seem them all (there are at least 100) here.

What tattoos might sociologists get?

Burnt Toasts

August 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

A writer at Politics Daily, Andrea Cohen, posted a sort of wedding toast – to an ex-boyfriend who was marrying someone else. Here are some excerpts

When we met, back in the spring of 2005, I was nearly 40 and had been dating off and on for two years following an unexpected divorce. I had lost faith in relationships. I had given up on love. He arrived, unexpectedly, and showed me what was possible. He raised me up from the emotional dead. He drew out of me the poison of divorce and betrayal.

I want to thank him for – it’s now such a cliché that I'm almost embarrassed to write it – making me want to be a better woman. He really did. It happens. He made me less judgmental and more open to new ideas. He gave me a confidence I had never felt before. He gave me incentive to reach out professionally into areas I had not yet gone.

That’s just another gift he gave me; the gift of knowing what is possible in a relationship; of refusing to settle for mediocrity where it counts, and of taking the chance when something inside tells you it could be love. I sound like a sap. I know. But it’s no less true. No matter what my romantic future holds, I know there will be no retreat from the standards he has set.

I want to thank him for all those times he stuck up for me – with his friends, with his family, with his work colleagues. It could not have been easy, explaining to all those cooler heads, why he was so devoted to an “old gal” who lived so far away. Yet he did it, even after he had decided that he would not throw down his lot with me. That’s the sort of character I’d like to instill in my son.

It’s the sort that we think is all around us but actually is rare. It is courage and self-confidence and the ability to see right from wrong.
Pretty bad, huh? Ozzie Skurnick, in his take-down of poor Andrea, admonishes her that
publishing, on his wedding day, a rundown that frames the man’s virtues almost entirely by how well he treated you falls somewhere between inconsiderate and catastrophically narcissistic.

Once you realize all this impressive agony you’ve left behind (scorched earth, my friend! Barren promontories!) doesn’t actually have anything to do with you, it makes it hard for a guy to hand over his hanky – especially when he’s trying to put the ring on his bride’s finger.
You’ve probably gotten the idea by now (especially if you clicked and looked at the originals). I switched genders, changed the pronouns. The original was written by Andrew (not Andrea) Cohen for an ex-girlfriend on her wedding day. The criticism is from Lizzie (not Ozzie) Skurnick.

I guess the point is that we are not yet in anything like a post-gender society. Sex matters. Context matters. When I read the original, I could easily see Andrew Cohen as the narcissistic schmuck that Lizzie Skurnick sees. But when I read it as “Andrea’s” statement, she seemed like someone I might want to get to know. I could even imagine Julia Roberts playing her in the movies.

The wedding toast consisted of just a few hundred words on the screen, but I was wrapping them in a gauze of expectations, gauze that had different colors for men and women, based on some vague sense of what I know (or what I think I know) about men and women generally in society.

It’s not just the sex of the writer that’s important. Reader demographics – sex (of course), marital status, age, and probably social class and race – make a difference here. For example, in the readers’ comments at Politics Daily, the women who said that they were “older” liked Cohen’s article. Younger ones, not so much. I just wonder how they would have reacted to my gender-bent rewrite.

Hat tip: Jenn Lena.

What’s in a Team Name?

August 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flip Flop Fly Ball has wonderful graphics about sports, mostly baseball. For some reason, I especially liked this Venn diagram of team names.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In football, only a couple of the oldest organizations have regional-industrial names – Packers, Steelers. In baseball, industry-based names are more typical of recent franchises. It’s also interesting to see what a team with a regional name does when it moves to a new location. The borough of Brooklyn was a tangle of trolley lines that street people (bums, the homeless, whatever) had to dodge. Not so the Los Angeles of the 1950s. Nor does LA have Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. The most egregious example of name retention is the New Orleans basketball franchise, named, appropriately, the Jazz. When they moved to Utah, they might have changed their name to The Choir (Tabernacle), but they didn’t, and so they play on as sportsdom’s greatest oxymoron.

Note: “Self-referential” names are those taken from a reference to the team. For example, when the Pittsburgh Alleghenys signed a player away from the Philadelphia Athletics, a baseball official referred to the deal as “piratical.” Similarly, a St. Louis sportswriter heard a woman refer to the color of the trim on the team’s uniform as “a lovely shade of cardinal.” He used the name in his column, and it stuck.

Sing-along v. Karaoke

August 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Technology gives, and it takes away. It changes the way we relate to one another, and it changes our motivations. Here’s a simple example, a sort of footnote to yesterday’s post:

Mitch Miller is sometimes called “the grandfather of karaoke.” According to Wikipedia, the Sing Along With Mitch records and TV show were the foundation for “what would become karaoke.”

But the difference between sing-along and karaoke is not just one of degree. It’s a difference in kind. Sing-along is not karaoke, and the technological difference between them makes for social, structural, and even psychological differences. In a sing-along, our goal, our motivation, is to do something together– in this case, sing the same song – and our pleasure comes from doing it together. Sing-along is less about performance, more about group activity, and we wind up sounding like, well, us.

Karaoke changes the roles. We are no longer all group members. One of us is the performer, the rest are an audience. Singing is not a group activity, it is a performance. The singer’s goal is to sing well, ideally to sound like the person on the original recording – Britney or Whitney or Pitney or whoever. The singer’s rewards are those of narcissism, but the narcissism resides more in the technology than in the individual psyche.

By conventional artistic standards, karaoke is “better”– nobody would want to buy a record of me and my friends singing, accompanied only by our own guitars or whatever was at hand or maybe nothing. In karaoke, by contrast, everything except perhaps the singer’s voice, sounds just like the hit recording. But in sing-along, what’s important is not the product but the process.
In this same way, a technologically advanced video game like Madden Football is “better” than a pick-up game of touch football. Madden looks like real pro football. It allows you to use complex plays and defenses. The non-technological pick-up game is more like sing-along. You use only your own resources, and the object is not so much to win as to go outside and have a good time doing something together.