Little Miss Raincloud

January 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Optimism, hard work, success. They’re part of the culture, and we drink it into our consciousness just like Coca-Cola. If you have the right, positive attitude, and you work hard at your idea, you’ll be a winner.

Even if you personally don’t live by these basic American values, they are such a dominant part of the culture that you probably think you should live by them. Values are ideas and principles that are intrinsically good. You can’t argue with them. As my friend Linda Tischler found out.

Linda (wife of sociologist Henry Tischler) is a journalist, and she has been writing about business for a long time. As a senior writer at Fast Company magazine, she was invited to be on a panel at a conference of the N.A.F.E., the National Association for Female Executives. They couldn’t pay her, but they’d cover her expenses. The name Laguna Niguel, California had a nice ring to it. So did the name Ritz Carlton, so she took the offer.

The audience was full of hopeful female entrepreneurs —“momtrepreneurs” as they liked to call themselves— women who had started up a business during naptimes. What they wanted to hear from the journalists was how to get their product into an article in Fast Company, Business Week, or similar magazines.

Linda told them frankly that the odds were very much against them. “I get seventy-five e-mails every day pitching story ideas like that, plus the phone calls and snail mail. And a lot of those pitches are from well-paid PR people at GE, Apple, etc.” She was telling them, in effect, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to do a story about you.

This was definitely not what the audience wanted to hear, and from the comments and reactions, she thought the momtrepreneurs at Laguna Niguel might wind up dumping her in the laguna. After all, these were women who had paid $400 for the conference that promised

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They wanted a pep talk, a “motivational speaker,” someone who would tell them how they could get on the cover of Fortune. And she gave them reality.

She also told them how she screens the pitches. “If your e-mail is bigger than two megabytes, it’s going to get deleted unread. If it doesn’t tell me in the first short paragraph or two what the idea is, out it goes,” and so on. I think her mistake was that she put her advice in the negative, what not to do. That along with her basic message made her a raincloud spoiling the sunny clime of Laguna Niguel.

Linda and Henry recounted her sad tale at dinner last night. It’s not all we talked about. Conversation turned, as it often does, to Iraq. And now I wonder if there isn’t a parallel. The Bush administration sold the invasion on fear (remember those WMDs), but they also sold it on American optimism. We would oust Saddam, and all the Iraqis, just like the Munchkins when Dorothy liquidates the witch, would be free and happy and forever grateful to their liberators.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way— the optimism was more based on neo-conservative fantasies in the US rather than realities in Iraq— but Bush still frames the war in terms of winning and losing, as though international politics is some kind of game with only two outcomes— victory and defeat, success and failure. Since, in another phrase much beloved among motivational speakers, failure is not an option, he’s throwing in another 20,000 troops.

As I walked home after dinner, I passed the building of an acquaintance, Allen Seiden. Allen is a good poker player, and he’d been playing long before the current poker boom — a boom that has allowed him to go from smoky house games to lecturing and teaching. “The first thing you have to learn if you want to win money in poker,” he tells his audience, “is a four-letter word that begins with F. The word is fold. Use it early, use it often.”

The audience nods, but the chances are that most of them don’t really learn the lesson. Most poker players, the average pigeons, will call the bet just to see one more card rather than admit that the hand is a loser, optimistically hoping for the card that will fill their straight and bring them success  Which is why Allen has been able to make money playing poker. And which may also be why Bush just sent more troops to Baghdad.

Good Day Sunshine

January 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

An extended family in the Southwest, hard pressed by economic and personal problems, gets in their ramshackle old vehicle and sets off for California, where they hope for some kind of success. Along the way, their vehicle breaks down, the grandfather dies, and they suffer other setbacks. But most of the people they meet along the way are eventually sympathetic and helpful, though the agents of the business world are not so kind. In the end, when they do get to California, they discover that it’s not the answer to all their dreams.

All of which is to say that I rented “Little Miss Sunshine” this weekend.

I don’t think the writer and directors of “Little Miss Sunshine” had “The Grapes of Wrath” in mind when they made the movie. Or maybe they did. After all, the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” is named Hoover, with its echoes of the depression and the Hoovervilles the Joads pass through. In any case, the parallels are there to be seen, even though the two films are very different in tone.

Like “The Grapes of Wrath” made 65 years earlier, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes a critical look at America. But while to many Americans “Grapes of Wrath” was a revelation in its depiction of the realities of economic hardship and the mistreatment of farm workers, “Little Miss Sunshine” takes on aspects of the culture that we already know about. It’s poking fun at— and poking holes in— some of our most cherished ideas, particularly those embodied in the father’s nine-step motivational program for success. The movie is an antidote to all those films and real life programs that preach the American gospel of optimism, hard work, and success. It’s a comedy, but there are few jokes or wisecracks. It’s a satire.

We can’t really dislike the father, but the movie makes us root for him to give up his view of the world, a view that sees everything in terms of winners and losers. We’re almost happy when he fails to sell his “Refuse to Lose” idea. In fact, the losers in the family are the people we are drawn to — the teenager who hasn’t spoken in months; the suicidal uncle who has lost out in (gay) love and in academics to another Proust scholar; the lecherous grandfather banished from a retirement community because he was caught snorting heroin; and the slightly chubby little girl who will never achieve her dream of winning a beauty pageant.

In the formula Hollywood film, the little girl would practice hard. The other girls in the pageant would be experienced, with the advantages of wealthier parents, fancier costumes, and professional coaches. Maybe one of them would even cheat. But our little girl would outshine them all, just like Rocky, The Karate Kid, or any of a host of others. And the success in the contest would then flow into all other aspects of her life.

But imagine Rocky or Karate Kid making a mockery of the match itself, then turning his back on it and saying, “You know, a contest like that— winning or losing it — is a pretty stupid thing to base yourself and your world on.”

Which is what “Little Miss Sunshine” does. When the silent teen finally does speak, he speaks for the film, and this is what he says: “Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work . . . .”

The Visualization of Probability

January 26, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

I used to play New York Lotto. I knew it was like throwing my money away. You pick 6 numbers out of 59. Let’s see: 59 C6. That’s 59! / 6! * (59 - 6)!. If you can’t do the math in your head, the Lotto ticket provides the answer on the back.

For a dollar, your chance of hitting it big is one in 22 million.

As my brother put it, quoting a statistician friend of his, “Your chances of winning the lottery are not substantially increased by entering it.”
“What do you mean?” I answered at the time. “They’re increased infinitely.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but not substantially.”
All of which says more about the concept of infinity than about the Lotto. If you buy a second ticket, your chances have gone from 1 in 22 million to 2 in 22 million, a multiple of two. But what multiple takes you from 0 in 22 million to 1 in 22 million? None, the answer is not finite.

What puzzles me is that even though I knew the odds, I continued to buy a ticket each week. I think it was a matter of visualization. When you fill out the ticket, you pick six numbers out of 59 on a simple 6 x 10 grid, and for your dollar, you get two plays. Here’s a lottery ticket I filled out for Wednesday’s drawing. I selected my numbers by going to an online random-number generator. After all, if the New York Lotto selects its numbers randomly, a random number generator should come up with the right answer. I have also circled the winning numbers.

The results don’t look too bad. I had three direct hits, and several of the other winning numbers are pretty close to one or another of my choices. The trouble is that with only fifty-nine places to put six numbers, they’re bound to be close. The little grid doesn’t convey the concept that there are 45 million different combinations of fifty-nine numbers taken six at a time.

Then one day I was looking up a number in the phone book (only a few years from now, kids hearing that phrase will ask what a phone book is. Or was.) It took me some flipping of pages and running my finger over the columns before I came to the name I wanted. But what would have been the chances of hitting it randomly, of opening the phone book, pointing to a name, and having it be exactly the one I was thinking of? Or what would be the chances of someone picking my name at random out of the phone book?

It turns out that the Manhattan phone book has about 1.2 million names (or it would if there were one name for every line). In other words, my chances of winning the lottery were about the same as someone picking my name at random from a phone book eighteen times as thick.

This photo is only eight phone books thick. Picture a book twice this size. And then imagine someone randomly turning to your page, and then from all the names on that page, picking yours.

So now when I go past the newsstand with its Lotto sign, I think of that gigantic phone book and not the little pink-and-white grid. And ever since, I haven’t bought a lottery ticket.

Now all I have to do is figure out what to do with that dollar a week I’m saving.

I Can See Clearly Now . . .

January 24, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

As someone with the visual intelligence of ketchup (as Dave Barry might put it), I have great admiration and envy for people who can think in pictures – graphic designers, architects, basically anybody who can draw at a level above stick figures.

In the social sciences it’s especially useful to be able to put ideas and data in visual form. In that arena, Edward Tufte is The Man, and his 1983 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is probably the seminal work in the field. I can't remember who turned me on to it, but when I started leafing through it, I was amazed.

Tufte now has a sort of blog with an “Ask ET” forum, which has, among other things a link to a flash version of Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music: The Classic Graphic by Reebee Garofalo. It ends about 1980, but you still might want to check it out to see if Garofalo's view of, say, Meatloaf's ancestors agrees with your own.

My latest find is this periodic table (pictured below) which groups the different visualizations into families. The original site (though not the copy on this page) has a flash function so that when you drag your pointer over an “element,” it pops up an example of that type of visualization. Check it out.


January 22, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Montclair SocioBlog has been “tagged.” If you don’t know what that is — as I didn’t— it’s just like playground tag, except that when someone tags your blog, you have to post five odd or obscure facts about yourself and then tag other bloggers.

I always hated tag when I was a kid. I was no good at it. I was slow. I was one of those kids who wore “Huskies.” Funny how feelings don’t change all that much from age nine to what now passes as maturity if not dotage.

But this is a collective blog, in principle at least, and that raises questions about the ground rules. Do we put facts about our department? About its members? I figure that some combination is probably the quickest way to get to five. So here goes.

1. I already mentioned it — the Huskies thing.

2. As a department of ten, we are fluent in Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish, can get by in French, German, Italian, Russian, and Czech, and can toss off the odd phrase in Japanese and Yiddish. Some of us also speak English.

3. One of us shares a name with the musical brains behind the Beatles and a defensive lineman for the Giants when they won the Superbowl. Another of us shares a name with successful songwriter, and every December when he walks into stores and hears “Silver Bells,” he wishes that once, just once is that asking too much, ASCAP would send the check to his address instead.

4. None of us, as far as I know, has ever been in a rock band. Or wanted to be. Sad commentary.

5. When most of us came to Montclair, the social sciences were housed in what had been a girls’ dorm. Our offices had closets. With towel racks, even though the showers in the bathrooms and been disconnected.

I'm tagging These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty, the blog of Montclair grad Trish Pottersmith.

Groups and Wisdom III

January 20, 2007 
Posted by Jay Livingston

James Surowiecki argues for the “wisdom of crowds.” The average of the guesses of a lot of interested people will be closer to the right answer than will the guess of the smartest individual. If you want to get the answer to something, let them all bet on it and then watch where the money pushes the market.

The “wisdom of crowds” runs smack up against another concept in betting— the “smart money” — the conventional idea that some bettors are consistently more astute, while others are “punching bags.” After all, if the crowd, the majority of bettors, were usually right, they would long ago have driven the bookmakers out of business.

Ideally of course, a sports book makes money on the “vig,” the 10% surcharge on losing bets. (When you bet on a football game, you put up $11 to win $10. The point spread supposedly makes both sides equally attractive. If the bookie has the same amount bet on each side — say $1100 on the Bears and $1100 on the Saints —he’s guaranteed to make $100, collecting $1100 from the losers but paying out only $1000 to the winners.)

Sociologist Ray D’Angelo, who has studied bookies, says that yes, it’s the vig that the bookies count on. That plus a few out-of-control gamblers. But how often do the bets on the two sides of a game balance out? And what happens if they don’t?

One thing bookmakers do to correct an imbalance in betting is to change the point spread. By watching changes in the point spread, you can often tell which team the crowd likes. For example, in last week’s Bears-Seahawks game, the original line suggested to Las Vegas casinos was Bears minus 7. But bettors loved the Bears, and the line quickly changed to 8. Even that didn’t deter Bear bettors or attract enough Seahawks money. Oddsmakers continued to move the line up to 8 ½ and even 9. In the end, the crowd was not wise. The Bears won, 27-24, but their bettors, who gave up a lot more than three points, lost.

This week it’s the Saints and the Bears (not, as I nearly typed from force of habit, the Saints and the Roughnecks). And apparently the crowd likes the Saints. They opened as three-point underdogs. But today, some books have cut the line 2 ½ or 2, and one big book ( is giving Saints bettors only 1½ points. One Website that allows you to see the number of bets confirms this crowd preference: twice as many people have taken the Saints.

So do we follow the crowd? Or should we be “contrarians” and bet against the crowd? The contrarian view says that the bookies stay in business by being smarter than the public. Bookmakers probably also subscribe to the smart money view. That’s why Ray D’Angelo’s small-time bookmakers didn’t worry about bets from “out of control” gamblers. Those bettors were definitely not smart money.

But some bettors really are the smart money. I once heard an interview with a man who sets the line for one of the big Las Vegas casinos. He said he might not be worried by a lot of money from the general public coming in on one side. But there are particular sports bettors whose opinion he respected so much that even a relatively small bet from one of them would cause him to move the line.

My guess is that in tomorrow’s game, it’s the sheer volume of money on the Saints, not the bets of a few experts, that has pushed the line down. In any case, if you’re a contrarian, you’ll go with the Bears (also if you’re a Chicagoan, but that’s a different matter). If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, you’ll bet the Saints.

There’s one more risk in going with the crowd when their betting has moved the line — the worst-case scenario: You call up your bookie on Sunday and find that all the money coming in on the Saints has driven down the line. Instead of getting three points, the line is 2 ½. You figure, hey, it’s only a half-point, a minor consideration far outweighed by the wisdom of the crowd. You take the Saints and settle in to watch the game. It’s a close one, tied for much of the fourth quarter, right up until the final seconds, when the Bears kick a field goal to win 24-21. If you had been able to get the three points, you'd have a push. But the crowd pushed the line down to 2½, leaving you a half-point short, and you hurl your copy of The Wisdom of Crowds through the TV screen.

UPDATE: The Bears won 39-14. The bookies cleaned up, and the crowd was left to reconsider its collective wisdom.

Groups and Wisdom II

January 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki begins with the story of Francis Galton at the fair. Galton, whose life spans much of the 19th century, was among other things, a statistician. He also believed in improving the human race by selective breeding. In fact, he coined the term eugenics.

At the fair, Galton noticed people submitting their guesses on the weight of an ox. Galton the statistician kept track of all the guesses— some 800 in all— and computed the group mean. Galton the eugenicist assumed that the guesses of the ignorant would detract from the overall accuracy, while the guesses of farmers and butchers would be closest to the actual weight.

When all the entries were in, the mean of the group guesses was 1197 pounds; the ox’s weight, 1198 pounds. Not even the savviest ox breeder came closer than the group as a whole.
I teach a general intro course for majors, and the first concept I want them to grapple with is the social fact. I usually start with Durkheim and suicide rates. But this semester I'm thinking of doing variations on a theme by Galton for the first day of class.

1. Bring a jar filled with M&Ms.
2. Have students pass the jar around and submit a piece of paper with their name and their guess as to the number of M&Ms. (Maybe announce that there will be a prize so as try to prevent wise-ass guesses.)
3. Collect the guesses but announce that there’s going to be one more player, the group itself, i.e., the mean of all guesses.
4. Maybe ask them to speculate on whose guess will be closest or how they think the group will do compared with the guesses of the smartest students or the students who eat a lot of M&Ms and are therefore more familiar with the subject.
5. Record the guesses, compute the mean, announce the right answer.
6. If Galton is looking down and blessing this experiment, the group mean should be closer than any individual guess, even that of the most experienced M&M eater.
I’m not sure if this really gets across the point about social facts. It does show that there is something about a group that makes it different from just the sum of its individuals, but it requires no interaction, no social influence.

On the other hand, there’s a moral to the story that I like: in order for the group to be so smart, we need the contributions of everyone, even those whose guesses were farthest off. The same principle will hold true for discussion throughout the semester. So don’t suppress an idea just because you think you don’t know enough about the topic.

Now all I need is an M&M-counting machine.

Groups and Wisdom I

January 14, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Friday, The Washington Post published an article about a plane crash that occurred twenty-five years ago. The plane hadn’t been properly de-iced, and it barely lifted off the ground before crashing into a bridge.

The moral of the story, though, is not about ice but about group structure and culture, especially as these shape lines of communication. The Post calls it “a textbook example of what can go wrong when pilots do not communicate and listen properly.” As the plane was moving down the runway, the co-pilot looked at the instrument panel and said, “God, look at that thing, That doesn't seem right, does it?” He repeated his reservation, but the pilot ignored him.

At the time, the accepted way of doing things, the cockpit culture, was an authoritarian one with the captain at the top. This culture made it more likely that the captain would not hear information coming up from others and less likely that those below would speak up loudly enough to make sure they were heard.

The pilot and co-pilot in the doomed plane were “residue of an era when fighter jocks from World War II and Korea flew for the airlines. In that gung-ho environment, captains were always right. They did not need advice, and co-pilots and other crew members often were afraid to assert themselves.”

The crash led to an industry-wide attempt to change cockpit culture. Now the pilot has a checklist of conditions and readings that he and the others must review, and he has to listen closely to what others report about these items. Hospitals have tried to put a similar system in operating rooms, and in both of these places, the last checklist item is, “If anyone sees any red flags, something they are uncomfortable with, bring it to my attention.”

There’s a more general sociological truth here, one that decades of case studies and small-group experiments have shown. Authoritarian systems are very efficient for doing routine tasks in unchanging environments. But when the situation changes, centralized authoritarian structures are accidents waiting to happen. They are inflexible, mostly because the top people are reluctant to change their ways and ideas, especially if these ideas seem to have been working. Often, people lower in the system have helpful ideas for dealing with the new circumstances, but the people at the top don’t pay attention or dismiss the ideas as unworkable. By contrast, democratic systems, with information flowing freely in all directions, are much better at adapting to change.

The Post mentions only cockpits and operating rooms. But the timing of the story is interesting. The story didn’t describe pilots and surgeons as “staying the course” despite negative information, but the Post ran it only a day or two after President Bush announced his intention to put even more effort and troops into his Iraq policy, essentially ignoring information and recommendations from a variety of other voices including members of the Iraq Study Group, the military, and Congressional Republicans, and an overwhelming majority of the US population.

(Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality Based Community for catching this story.)

The Bridge II

January 9, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Geico Washington Bridge deal (mentioned in the previous entry) is dead. The Port Authority cancelled the gecko-at-the-gate arrangement. The New York Times article does not specifically mention the Montclair SocioBlog by name, but it does refer to “the loud and swift response to the contract.” Still, we’re proud do have done our part.

The incident reminded me of a proposal some years ago to defray costs at the Statue of Liberty by charging visitors a dollar. I don’t recall how long ago this was, perhaps in the 1980s. My searches on the Internet, including Lexis-Nexis, couldn’t find any reference, probably because the proposal got nowhere fast. I do recall one politician saying something like, “It’s the Statue of Liberty. She says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor.’ She doesn’t say ‘gimme a buck.’”

What’s also interesting in this issue of the interplay of public and private is that Geico, the private corporation, may have been more responsive to public opinion than was the public institution (the Port Authority). Geico was worried about its image in the public eye. But for the Port Authority, it’s not clear whether public opinion was the decisive factor in this case of multi-causality. Even in today’s statements, it’s hard to tell whether the Port Authority really shares the view that the Bridge is a public piece of architecture not to be prostituted as an advertising vehicle. In fact, one of the arguments against the deal was economic — that the PA was selling too cheap. It’s like the old punch line, “Now we’re just haggling about price.”

A Bridge Too Corporate

January 6, 2007

Posted by Jay Livingston

The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was a close one, so was the Meineke Car Care Bowl played in Bank of America Stadium, unlike the FedEx Orange Bowl or the Citi Rose Bowl and the Allstate Sugar Bowl (formerly the Nokia Sugar Bowl).

OK, you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to remember when these games took place without the benefit of corporate sponsorship and in stadiums named for cities or universities or heroes, not businesses, and with no corporate logos painted on the grass.

Maybe we are becoming more and more tolerant of corporations trading their help to “public” institutions in exchange for the right to use those institutions for their own publicity and profit. Schools, always underfunded, are natural targets for Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The school gets some money; the companies get an exclusive for their sugar-water and snack machines. “Public” television, similarly starved for funds, turns to corporations, who in turn get to have their names announced in connection with an honorable cause.

Now we have the Geico George Washington Bridge. For about $1.6 million a year (a bargain according to advertising experts), Geico will have billboards over the tollbooths at the Bridge, signs on the approach ramps, and their logo on the Port Authority’s Website and mail.

In another era perhaps, this encroachment of corporate profit-making and image-mongering might have been unthinkable. Roads and bridges were the responsibility of government. Now as I drive, I see signs telling me that some stretch of highway is being kept clean thanks to Donald Trump. I wonder how far the privatization of once public facilities will creep. All we have to do is keep starving our schools, museums, libraries, and other public institutions. Where else can they turn but to corporations?

I look forward to the approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with ads for the Lincoln Navigator. The National Gallery brought to you by GE, the Bank of America Grand Canyon . . . .

A (North American) Hockey Game Broke Out

January 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

File this one under Sport and Culture.

Over at Blue Monster, Dan Myers posts a photo he took of an American flag made of hockey sticks and pucks. It’s on the wall at the ESPN Zone in Chicago. Myers adds, “the irony of a hockey-themed American flag doesn’t escape me given that it is the most international of our major sports leagues.”

There's also the irony of the association of the American flag and a sport noted for its violence — slashing, high-sticking, and of course, fighting. European hockey, apparently, is a different game, cleaner and less violent. The experience of European players in the NHL provides a study in socialization and acculturation.

Chris Gee, a grad student, compared penalty time for North American (US, Canada) and European-born players and found that while European-born players in the NHL averaged 39 minutes in the box, the average for North Americans was 53 minutes. And Europeans accounted for only about 11% of the penalties for fighting.

Position might have something to do with it if Europeans are underrepresented among defensemen. But Gee thinks it’s cultural, and as they spend time in the NHL, the Europeans become socialized to North American ways. Europeans with three or more years experience were far more likely to get caught charging or high-sticking.
Fighting and aggression are revered in Canadian hockey, but in Europe it’s a very different story. But after Europeans arrive here they learn what’s successful and normal; they see the crowds rise to their feet during a fight and they become Americanized.
Gee’s research appeared last September in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise. I found a report via Lexis-Nexis in the Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 28, 2006.

Happy New Year

January 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t generally care for the televised versions of celebrations. Even on a forty-inch, high-density TV, the Tournament of Roses or the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade or New Year’s Eve in Times Square leave me cold. The whole idea of a celebration is to be a participant not a spectator, to feel the energy of the crowd surging through your own body. And you can’t do that from thousands of miles away sitting on a couch with the remote in one hand even if you have a glass of champagne in the other and a silly hat on your head.

But Sunday night as I watched the TV screen in a quiet Florida condo, there was one moment that got to me — a quick montage of celebrations in cities further east that had already rung in 2007: Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Seoul, etc. Durkheim was right about rituals: they reinforce the feeling of commonality, of sharing. He was also right that rituals define a group. If you’re part of the group, you participate; or maybe it’s more accurate the other way round: if you participate, you’re part of the group.

In some cases, this group-defining function of rituals sharpens differences among us. It’s at the root of the “war on Christmas” flap, with people like Bill O’Reilly ranting about the secularization of Christmas and the evils of saying “Happy Holdiays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Whose ritual is this anyway? If it’s a Christian ritual, non-Christians are excluded. If it’s a more inclusive American ritual, the Christ-centered religious elements have to be muted. (Of course, some extremists want it both ways, so that Christmas is a national holiday and yet still very Christian, a designation that would promote their definition of the US as a “Christian nation.”)

New Year’s is the only holiday I can think of that draws no such boundaries between groups. As one of my students put it, it’s the Earth’s birthday. So everyone who lives on this planet is part of it. We celebrate locally, but the images from around the world prod us to think globally.