February 28, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
I had dinner last weekend with a group of people that included the voice of the New York Knicks. Since 1994, he has been doing the play-by-play for every Knicks game. And I had no idea who he was.

Now I’m not a big Knicks fan, but you’d think I’d have at least heard of him. My friends and relatives who are Knicks fans didn’t know of him either, and here’s why: he broadcasts the games in Spanish. His name is Clemson Smith Muñiz

I didn’t even know there was a Spanish basketball broadcast, but as Clemson said, the Spanish-speaking people in this media market far outnumber the entire population of Utah. (I did not point out that those three or four million Hispanics – or the basketball fans among them – would probably be happier if they could follow the Jazz rather than the Knicks.)

He reminded me of something else, an obvious point about the relation between content and structure. Announcers work for the team, not the TV or radio station. I should know that, right? After all, at some point in every broadcast they tell you that the descriptions and accounts blah blah blah are the property of the team. So are the describers and accounters.

That makes it harder for announcers to make trenchant criticisms of the team (a restriction that in the Knicks’ case might make for a lot of dead air time.). But there are ways around it. “I learned this from Marv,” Clemson said, “You don’t say, ‘This guy’s terrible.’ You say, ‘He’s six-eleven and he has one rebound.’”

There’s also a cultural factor. “When you do the games in Spanish, you’re more emotional than when you do them in English.”

He does the radio broadcast, so he has to do a lot more description than what TV announcers give. Out loud I imagined a sequence ending with Crawford coming off the pick for the 18-foot jumper, ending with the classic Marv Alpert “Yessss.”

I asked if there were a Spanish equivalent of that “yesss.”

“Si, señor,” he said, “Si, señor.”

I want to hear that. So I’m going to have figure out how to do that SAP thing on the TV. Los Knicks, 6-22 on the road, go into Atlanta tomorrow night with a one-game winning streak. If only they had a schedule brought to you by the letter “M” (Milwaukee, Miami, Memphis, Minnesota).

Quarterlife - Hybrid TV

February 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A new television show starts tonight – Quarterlife. The show started on the Internet back in November. I didn’t hear about it until early this month and started watching because it was a Zwick/Herskovitz show. They are the guys who created thirtysomething, My So-Called Life (fifteensomething), and Once and Again (fortysomething). This time it’s twentysomething. I’ve seen thirty-two episodes. They’re short – about seven minutes each, not counting the credits.
The show was created as a hybrid. Quarterlife is not only the name of the show, it’s also a MySpace-like site that the characters use, posting their vlogs and sending vmail. But the creators of the show also made the site real, so that fans can use it in the same way the characters do.
During the writers’ strike, more people took to getting their fiction on the Internet, and the strike was based on the assumption that this trend would continue. I wonder how the format will affect the shows. Will shows created for the Internet be different? Will shows look different if they are shot for two-inch iPods as well as 52-inch Sonys? Will the content be different? So far the show seems to me not up to the level of Zwick and Herskovitz’s earlier shows. I think that’s because the seven-minute format forces them to use heavy-handed plot manipulations where an hour format (45 minutes) allows things to develop in ways that seem more “natural.”

Beyond content, there’s the McCluhan question: what is the message of this medium? Right now, you can go the Website and see vlog entries from the characters. Were these created specifically as Internet content, or are they “deleted scenes” from the show? It doesn’t really matter. More interestingly, you can also see vlog entries from fans that are indistinguishable from the fictional vlogs. You can read the blog entries of the characters, and apparently you can send them a message, “add to friends,” etc. I haven’t tried it. I haven’t been able to get into writing to fictional characters since I stopped sending letters to Santa. But then again, I’m like so twentieth century.

The Kids Are All Right

February 23, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poster presentations have long been a part of academic conferences. At the ESS today, in the Grand Ballroom, seventy undergraduates put up posters summarizing their work. Some of the posters were syntheses based on library research, but several of the students had done their own original work. These kids were better than all right, and there was a quite a diversity of method.

Sara Tomczuk (The College of New Jersey) has worked summers on Long Beach Island (“down the shore”). Motels, stores, and restaurants there bring girls from Eastern Europe to work, paying them far less than they would pay Americans. Sara interviewed some of these girls about the satisfactions and dissatisfactions of these arrangements.

* * * *

Erin Pollard (Ursinus) used official records and persistent telephoning to dig out information about the racial composition of private and public schools in five cities.

* * * *

Christa Vanet (Penn State, Abington) observed interactions between the homeless and the non-homeless.
* * * *

Tamaria Green and Regine Saintilien (The College of New Jersey) did a case study of a toxic waste dump slated to be located near a school. They got their information from the DEP, from their own attendance at a variety of meetings, even from Google-eye overhead photos of the area.
* * * *

Skye MacKay (University of New Hampshire) did a survey to find correlates of having been tested for HIV. Interesting, the largest beta was for age, not number of sexual partners.

* * * *
The graphics were often impressive, especially for those of us who remember the hand-drawn posters of the previous century. But even more encouraging was listening to so many students who were truly excited about their work – the process of research as well as the results.

A Roomful of Ethnographers

February 22, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was snowing on the Eastern Sociological Society meetings. Sociologists stood in the shelter of the Roosevelt Hotel.

Inside, in a small conference room, I found day two of the Miniconference on Tally’s Corner Forty Years Later. Ethnographers talking ethnography. They had some questions about what Liebow might have missed or how his interpretations might be incomplete. But all agreed the book is a classic, and they all had their well-thumbed copies.
Liebow was a tall white guy who hung around with black streetcorner men in Washington DC in the early 1960s. And he himself said that things had so changed by the end of that decade that the same project would have then been impossible.

And now? Most of people in that conference room today agreed that the major changes are crime and drugs. For the men in Tally’s Corner scuffling by with dead-end jobs, the streetcorner was a respite, a comfort, a haven for “identity reconstruction,” as Al Young put it. But now, the street is a place of anxiety, tension, and fear. Al quoted one of his informants on his way to a night shift job who was confronted by a few ten-year-olds on the bus.

“What are you ridin’?” asked one of the kids (what gang are you with?).

“I’m riding the Madison bus to work,” he said.

The kid hit him on the head with a beer bottle, and the man was so enraged that in a flash he had thrown the kid down and was on the verge of stabbing him with the 7-inch knife he carried for protection at that hour.

Reuben May, whose Living Through the Hoop is an ethnography of kids in a small Georgia city, had a similar take. Choices for these kids have narrowed. Either they’re inside the gym, or outside on the corner “slinging rock.”
(The panel: left to right, Reuben May, Deidre Royster, Katherine Newman, Al Young, Mitch Duneier.)

I’m sorry I missed Part I of this miniconference yesterday. I was told that Mitch Duneier reported on correspondence he’d come upon between Liebow and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose “Moynihan Report” came out after Liebow had done his research but before the publication of Tally’s Corner. The letters provide some backstory for both publications. And Herb Gans was in the conference room that day to add his own personal recollections of these men at that historic moment.

Unique Week

February 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I guess social scientists have a preference for generalization, for relationships among variables that travel well, that obtain in several settings. We’re puzzled by the unique. So I was struck by two blog posts this week.

Chris Uggen cites a column in Runner’s World magazine to the effect that when you take up long-distance running, your times improve steadily for the first seven to ten years; after that, it’s all downhill. Or is it uphill? Whatever, your times get slower. But – and here’s the interesting part– the curve applies no matter how old you are when you start. The forty-year-old who started running at age twenty is long past his peak, while the sexagenarian who started at fifty is in his prime.

Chris, who himself runs respectable marathons, speculates that this age-invariant pattern may be unique to running. (Well, not quite. He implies that the curve of frequency of sex in a relationship may also be age-invariant.)

Meanwhile, over at The Monkey Cage, Jennifer Hochschild has an interesting finding on skin tone among African Americans and Hispanics. It’s a variable that correlates with just about everything social, economic, and psychological But Jennifer is a political scientist, and she was interested in political correlates. And she couldn’t find them. She held the data upside-down and shook it vigorously, threatening worse if it didn’t give her what she wanted, all to no avail. “Perceptions of discrimination against oneself or one’s racial or ethnic group, strength of group identification, partisanship or ideology, organizational membership”– nothing correlated.

“We finally realized that it was the very lack of pattern that was the interesting finding.”

Her finding of no finding didn’t just violate the academic preference for pattern. It was also politically incorrect – so much so that one audience member at a conference called it “bullshit research.” Not nice, but it’s refreshing to know that academic conferences have hecklers. It makes us seem a shade less stodgy.

Contexts - Colors and Consciousness

February 17, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I can’t remember the blog where I came across these optical illusions (a sign that I'm reading too many blogs), but the link is here. Apparently these are well known even outside perception-biz circles – even the teenager-in-residence here had seen them – but they were new to me.
The two lettered squares, A and B, are actually the same shade of gray.
Here’s another.

The “blue” tiles on the top face of the left cube are the same color as the “yellow” tiles in the top of the right cube.

It’s hard to believe – after all, seeing is believing. But you can go here and see these and other illusions of color, brightness, and form along with masks that block out everything but the relevant squares. Unfortunately, it happens instantly, and all you can do is toggle back and forth between the masked version and the fully unmasked version. So it’s not so convincing.

Better to do it gradually.

I copied the top illusion into Paint and started using the Eraser. After a bit of erasing the shading difference was only slightly diminished. (Yes, I know my eraser technique is sloppy, but I never keep inside the lines either when I do my coloring books.)

But after only a bit more erasing, the illusion became clear.

(It’s harder to do with the cubes because the target squares are so small that you have to do a lot of very careful erasing. When you do, you see that both the apparently yellow and blue squares become gray.)

I’ve got to show this to my class on Monday, I thought.

“But what’s the sociological significance?” asked the voice on my right shoulder.

“To hell with significance,” said the voice on my left shoulder. “Just take a few minutes at the start of class – the time some people spend calling the roll – just to show them something interesting.”

Waste time with cool stuff, or teach sociology?

Then I realized that in fact there was a sociological message – contexts. Whatever intrinsic qualities things may have, we invest them with meaning (and color), and we derive that meaning (or color) from their contexts.

Cultural Literacy II — Lu Xun (魯迅), Meet Alfred Hitchcock, er, I Mean FDR)

February 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Recognize anyone in this picture?

Of course not, mostly because I can't figure out how to get Blogger to upload images of a decent size. But for the real thing, go here.

The artists are Chinese, so there are more Chinese figures in the picture than a Western version would have, like Ciu Jian (the father of Chinese rock 'n' roll, just in case you didn't know).

It also shows yet one more advantage of the Internet. In a print version, there would be that accompanying version of the picture with all the figures in outline form with a number within each figure. In this version, when you put your pointer on a figure, the name pops up, and if you click, you go the Wikipedia entry for that person.

But why Mike Tyson and not Ali? And why do they think Hitchcock and FDR are fungible?

Hat tip to Lee Sigelman at The Monkey Cage for this link.

"I'm Not a Racist or Sexist, But These Other People . . ."

February 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

After the New Hampshire Democratic primary, there was some talk of the Bradley Effect: the black candidate gets a smaller percentage of the actual vote than predicted in the polls. Apparently, norms of political correctness keep people from telling a stranger (i.e., the pollster) they’re not going to vote for the black guy; the privacy of the polling booth removes that social pressure.

You can come at this problem from a second angle by asking not just, “What do you think?” but “What do other people around here think?”

Do you think most people you know would vote for a presidential candidate who is black, or not?

Would Would Not Unsure

% % %

65 21 14

Would you personally vote for a presidential candidate who is black, or not?

Would Would Not Unsure

% % %

90 6 4

When you get a 25-point discrepancy like this (30 points in some polls), it’s hard to know which is more accurate.

The same effect holds for women candidates.

Do you think most people you know would vote for a presidential candidate who is a woman, or not?

Would Would Not Unsure

% % %

56 34 10

Would you personally vote for a presidential candidate who is a woman, or not?

Would Would Not Unsure

% % %

81 15 4

Note that 2 ½ times as many people (15% to 6%) said they wouldn’t vote for a woman as said they wouldn’t vote for a black. The same discrepancy holds for how they thought others would vote. About one in five thought their fellow Americans wouldn't vote for a black, but a third of the sample thought that their acquaintances wouldn't vote for a woman.

Data are from a CBS News/New York Times Poll. Jan. 9-12, 2008. N=995 registered voters nationwide.

Drugs and Class, Then and Now

February 11, 2008
Posted by Jay LivingstonI mentioned the 100-1 rule in my previous post (“My Crack Dealer”): selling five grams of crack brings a mandatory sentence of five years. To get that same sentence for selling cocaine, you’d have to sell 500 grams. Get caught selling 499 grams of coke and you’re still better off than the guy who sold five grams of crack.

The most favorable explanation for the disparity is that at the time – i.e., during the drug hysteria of late 20th century America – legislators believed crack to be one hundred times more powerful and dangerous than coke. A less flattering, though equally believable, explanation is racism. Crack users and dealers were predominantly black, coke users and dealers white. Perhaps legislators felt that black drug sellers were one hundred times more powerful and dangerous than white drug sellers.

Or it could be a matter of social class. It’s happened before. First, there’s a drug so expensive as to be reserved for the upper classes. Then manufacturers develop a cheap version of the drug, and it now becomes widely available to the lower classes. The media are full of stories of the personal and public devastation the drug is wreaking. The “good” citizens react and pass legislation that falls heavily on the drug of the poor, less so on the preferred drug of the rich.

That’s what happened during the gin crisis the gripped England in the 1730s. Up until then, only the wealthy, propertied classes could afford distilled spirits, mostly brandy. It’s not that they didn’t drink to excess – the phrase “drunk as a lord” dates back to the mid-1600s – but their drinking wasn’t a social problem.

Then came cheap gin and the democratization of drunkenness. The lower classes had the tuppence to get drunk as a lord. But they lacked the means to keep the drunkenness from becoming a problem. I suppose it didn’t really matter if the lords were too drunk to work; their wealth insulated them, their families, and the society against the drawbacks of drunkenness. Not so the inhabitants of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

What followed were the gin laws of 1736, so discriminatory that they provoked riots. That may be the main place where the parallels between gin and crack diverge. It’s hard to imagine people taking to the streets over the 100-1 law. But then, lower-class Londoners did not have the vote, and the streets may have been their only avenue for political action. The gin laws were not very effective (back to the parallels with crack), but after fifteen or twenty years, the crisis had run its course, and lower-class drinking was no longer a threat to the integrity of society.

My Crack Dealer

February 9, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

His name was James Brown (no not that James Brown), and I never actually met him. I was called as a potential juror at his trial. I was reminded of this because of the current proposals in Congress to reduce sentencing disparities in drug cases. Under the current law the same sentence that applies to 500 grams of cocaine applies to only 5 grams of crack.

The proposed change would allow some people convicted of crack offenses to have a chance for parole. Of course, the Bush administration’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey, is in favor of continuing the 100-1 rule. Under the new legislation, he said , “1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide.”

You’d think that on the fear thing, the Bushies had gone to the well once too often by now. But still Mr. Mukasey tells us that if sentencing is made rational, your “community,” no matter where you are in the nation, may be at risk of violent gang members.

My crack dealer James Brown might well have been the kind of person Attorney General Mukasey was talking about. He was a black man in his late twenties; maybe he was a member of a violent gang.

But he was charged with selling one vial for crack for $5 to an undercover cop.

Maybe he was in fact a real bad guy, a drug kingpin, and the only thing the cops could get him on was this small offense.

“He’s been sitting in jail for the last five months,” his Legal Aid lawyer told me. “He can’t make $750 bail.” Some kingpin.

As it turned out, Brown got lucky – one juror refused to go for the guilty verdict and hung the jury.

So that was my crack dealer. My state spent thousands of dollars keeping this guy in jail for several months and putting him on trial – a guy who was making $5 crack sales on a street corner. And then they wanted to spend another $200,000 or more to keep him in prison.

Would they try him again? I called the prosecutor to find out. “Probably,” he said, “Most of the cases we try are small ones like this.” Didn’t he think that was a waste of taxpayers’ money? His answer was, in so many words, “I don’t make the policy around here.”

Neither did Mr. Mukasey create the policy, but the policy he and his boss are advocating is equally wasteful and equally discriminatory. But then, George W. Bush never smoked crack, he just snorted cocaine.

The Wisdom of Crowds IV (Superbowl LXII)

February 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. The Statistical Wisdom of Oddsmakers.

Andrew Gelman writes:
if you look up "football" in the index of Bayesian Data Analysis, you'll see that football point spreads are accurate to within a standard deviation of 14 points, with the discrepancy being approximately normally distributed. So, a 14-point underdog has something like a 15% chance of winning. It's funny how people don't get this sort of thing.
The Giants were a 12-point underdog. The money line was about 9:2 – very close to the line Andrew would have set given the point-spread. Do bookies all have well-thumbed copies of Bayesian Data Analysis on their bookshelves?

2. The NonWisdom of Oddsmakers, the Wisdom of Crowds.

The oddsmakers set the opening line at 13 ½, but not because they thought that represented the strengths of the teams. They thought that the “true” line should be 12 or 12 ½. They reasoned that a lot of unwise bettors – people who bet on only the Superbowl and don’t know much about football – would be bet New England. The Patriots after all were undefeated, the Team of the Century, and all the rest of the hype. These bettors, so the logic went, would bet the Pats even at the inflated line.

But from the start, the supposedly naive money came in on the Giants. The line came down, and people still bet the Giants. The bookies took a bath. It happens.

3. Local Color.

David Tyree, the Giant who made The Catch, is a graduate of Montclair High School.

For other posts in this blog on football, betting, and the wisdom of crowds, go here.

Cultural Literacy

February 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

College students know about Lolita, at least at the high-SAT campuses. Apparently the same cannot be said for the folks at Woolworth's in the UK. Until the flak hit the fan, they had been offering a bed-desk-cupboard unit for girls age six or so. Nothing wrong with that. Except the name of the unit was the Lolita Midsleeper Combi.

British mums in an online chatroom didn’t think it was such a good idea to give girls’ bedroom furniture the name of a sexually precocious fictional twelve-year-old. The Internet makes it much easier to organize this kind of protest, and Woolworth’s discontinued the item.
But how had it slipped through in the first place? According to the Times,
"What seems to have happened is the staff who run the Web site had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either," a spokesman told newspapers.
"We had to look it up on (online encyclopaedia) Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now."
The Sun (“Fury at Woolies Lolita Girls Bed”) added
Woolies confirmed the bed had now been axed. A spokesman said: “We will be talking to the supplier with regard to how the branding came about.”
I’ll have to ask Claude the brand consultant about this.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time pedo-ignorance has caused embarrassment in the UK. In its Christmas marketing, the website for Tesco, a large British retailer, had a Toys and Games section which offered Legos and Barbies and other stuff you’d expect. It also included a stripper pole, with the message, “Unleash the sex kitten inside ... soon you'll be flaunting it to the world and earning a fortune in Peekaboo Dance Dollars.”

After complaints, they moved the item to the “fitness” section.