SocioBlog - the Book?

March 30, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stuff White People Like opened shop on January 18th of this year. On March 20th, it had a book contract for a reported $300,000.

The story in today’s Times uses words like “shock” and “outcry” (why not “awe”?) to describe the reaction in the publication biz and perhaps in blogland. One book person quoted notes, correctly, that Martin Mull did this decades ago with “The History of White People in America.”

But that’s like complaining that someone has already written a book about French cooking or a biography of Lincoln. The accusation of non-originality is a thin veneer and doesn’t do much to hide the underlying envy. (No envy here at the SocioBlog, of course. Those 19.3 million hits, and counting, at Stuff White are meaningless ephemera.)

Now we can add blogosphere to the non-literary worlds – movies, TV, sports, politics – that have long provided paths to the best seller lists. On the Times non-fiction list today, a third of the titles are by “writers” who are, as they say at the Oscars, adapted from another medium – wordsmiths like Newt Gingrich and Nikki Sixx. At the top of the list is that literary lioness Valerie Bertinelli, whose Losing It “focuses on depression and her effort to lose weight.” The publisher is Free Press, a familiar trademark for sociologists. Nice to know that Valerie is hanging out in the editorial offices with Talcott Parsons and the Becker boys (Ernest and Howard), among others.

Celebrity seems to have become a kind of universal currency. If you have enough of it, you can circulate among elites and move from the high level of one world to a high level in another. Celebrity politicians become best-selling authors; celebrity body-builders become actors and then governors; celebrity real estate developers become TV stars; celebrity call girls become million-download singers. And now celebrity bloggers.

But where are the celebrity sociologists?

Every Crime, Every Month

March 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The comedian Robert Klein used to do a spoof of those late-night TV ads: “Now you can get every record ever recorded. . . .” Well, now you can get every crime ever recorded. Almost.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for all its flaws, is still an important source of data on crime in the US. And for anything prior to 1973, it’s pretty much the only source.

Now Michael Maltz has created a file with data on serious crime (the “Index offenses”), month by month from 1960 to 2004, for each police department. If your police department is one of the 17,000 you can track their crime statistics.

Remember when someone broke into your car and stole the radio back in October of 1986, and when you reported it to the police you weren’t sure if they were taking you seriously, maybe because the desk sergeant said, “So? What do you want me to do about it?”* Well, you can check to see if your victimization made it into the larceny stats that month.

You can download the zip file here (it’s about 150Mb). Unzip it and you get an Excel file for each state. It took me a couple of minutes to find the manual hidden among these. It’s a Word file (“Using . . .”).

Good luck, crimheads.

*This actually happened to a friend of mine and in my precinct, though I have disguised the year and month.

Hat tip to Andrew Gelman.

Working for Peanuts

March 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of the books my good liberal parents gave me when I was a kid was a biography of George Washington Carver. I think the subtitle was “381 Uses for the Peanut.” I could be wrong about that number, but I’m sure it didn’t include this.

For the full story, go here.

Hat tip to The Soc Shrine, which claims that the pseudocrack is also known as Carver’s Revenge. But neither that term nor any of the other street names listed by SocShrine turns up at Urban Dictionary, at least not yet.

Sociolinguists may want to keep an ear out for this one.

Justice Scalia Does the Math

March 25, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Even those who disagree with him speak of his brilliance, his incisive intelligence, and his wit. Apparently, he does better on the verbal part than on the math. An article by Adam Liptak in the New York Times today nails it. In an opinion upholding a death penalty conviction, Scalia dismisses the problem of wrongful convictions because they constitute such a minuscule fraction of cases. For support, he cites the number: “Between 1989 and 2003, the authors identify 340 ‘exonerations’ nationwide—not just for capital cases, mind you, nor even just for murder convictions, but for various felonies.” (Note that Scalia puts exonerations in quotation marks. He still thinks the dudes are guilty.) Then he quotes approvingly from a prosecutor.
[L]et’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt: let’s assume that he understated the number of innocents by roughly a factor of 10, that of 340 there were 4,000 people in prison who weren’t involved in the crime in any way. During that same 15 years, there were more than 15 million felony convictions across the country. That would make the error rate .027 percent—or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.
Most students in the undergraduate methods course could tell you what’s wrong with this fraction. Exonerations are rare because they require extraordinary legal effort, efforts that prosecutors and often judges strongly resist. Claims of innocence in any but the most serious cases don’t get that kind of effort. And most of those 15 million felony convictions are not for the more serious degrees of murder and rape. So the 4,000 in the numerator of the fraction is almost certainly a severe undercount of all wrongful convictions. For the denominator, however, Scalia takes all felony convictions in the US. He’s using either a wrong numerator or a wrong denominator, or both. For an analogy, Liptak quotes Samuel Gross in a forthcoming article in Annual Review of Law and Social Science:
By this logic we could estimate the proportion of baseball players who’ve used steroids by dividing the number of major league players who’ve been caught by the total of all baseball players at all levels: major league, minor leagues, semipro, college, and little league – and maybe throwing in football and basketball players as well.
I’ll try to remember this example the next time I teach about stat and methods. Or courts. Or the next time I read about Scalia’s incisive intelligence.

To the Moon, Winston

March 22, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One-third of British kids surveyed said that Winston Churchill was the first man to walk on the moon. The British press is having a field day with this colorful item. (I mean, “The British press are having a field day with this colourful bit.”). Here’s how the Times played it:
March 20, 2008
Winston Churchill was first to walk on the Moon, say children
Lucy Bannerman

Winston Churchill: leader, victor, and, according to a third of schoolchildren, astronaut. The most celebrated British Prime Minister of the 20th century was the first man to walk on the Moon, one in three young people told a survey.

The black hole in their knowledge was revealed after an online poll asked 1,400 children, aged from 6 to 14, some basic astronomical questions.

Not only did a significant number confuse Neil Armstrong with the statesman who led the Allies to victory . . . .
Seems like there’s less here than meets the eye. An online survey doesn’t give you a representative sample, nor do we know how many of these kids were in the younger side of the distribution. Would we wring our hands if a lot of US 6-10 year olds didn’t know who FDR was?

I also wonder how the question was asked. Was it “Who was Winston Churchill?” with moonwalker as one of the distractors? Since the survey was mostly about astronomy, this would be a reasonable choice for those younger kids who didn’t know who he was. What would a 1940s PM be doing in an astronomy quiz anyway?

Or was it “Who was the first man to walk on the moon?” with Churchill as one of the choices. If you’re eight years old and you don’t know the answer, you might go for a name that sounds vaguely familiar.

The story also reveals some interesting things about what Times writers “know.” They know, for instance, that a black hole is a gap or an absence of matter and not a powerful magnetic gravitational field that sucks in everything.*

They also know for a fact that Churchill was the person who “led the Allies to victory.” No ethnocentrism here, right? But my schoolteachers told me that Ike played that role. And Russians no doubt were taught that it was Stalin.

*I once heard a Boston Celtic, in a post-game offhand comment, say that Kevin McHale in the low post was “a black hole – once the ball goes in there, it never comes back out.” Apparently, Times writers know less about astronomy than do NBA jocks.

Mi Casa But Not Su Casa

March 21, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Not exactly “it depends on what the meaning of is is,” but relevant to the problem of constructing questions. Andrew Gelman posted this a few days ago.
When preparing our GSS survey questions on social and political polarization, one of our questions was, “How many people do you know who have a second home?” This was supposed to help us measure social stratification by wealth– we figured people might know if their friends had a second home, even if they didn’t know the values of their friends’ assets. But we had a problem – a lot of the positive responses seemed to be coming from people who knew immigrants who had a home back in their original countries.
Put that in your pipe and use it in your methods class.

I’ve been phone-surveyed (not by the GSS), and several times I have asked the interviewer what some part of a question meant. The response was usually, in so many words, “Hey, I didn’t write these questions. I just get paid $6.50 an hour to read ’em.” OK, I would think, but I know that my answer doesn’t mean what your employers think it means.

Ivan Dixon

March 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago, I was stuck in a motel room one morning. My son,14, was flipping through the TV channels and hit upon a Twilight Zone marathon on F/X or Sci-Fi. The episode when we turned on the TV had only about ten minutes left, but at once I realized, in some Twilight Zonish dejà vu way, that I had seen this episode long ago when I was fourteen. It was about a small-time boxer at the end of his career, a man facing the reality of the limitations of his life. Not the sort of thing that a kid would understand, certainly not a kid like me. The twilight of a career was not the “twilight” that the the show had in mind. On the contrary, the message of this episode, delivered by a young boy who looks up to the fighter, is that he should believe in the impossible and keep boxing.

But there was something about the performance, the way the actor conveyed the sense of exhaustion and acceptance. Here was a man, a real grown-up, coming to grips with the realities of his life and his situation. That was the message that came through, not the call to ignore reality and live in the fictional Zone. The actor’s performance transcended the silliness of the scripted plot, making the character so real that I still remembered him decades later.*
BOLIE: You know, a fighter don’t need a scrapbook, Henry. You want to know what he’s done and where he’s fought? You read it in his face. He's got the whole story cut into his flesh. St. Louis, 1949. Guy named Sailor Leavitt. A real fast boy. And this, Memorial Stadium. Syracuse, New York. Italian boy. Fought like Henry Armstrong. All hands and arms, just like a windmill on the wind. . . .
The actor was Ivan Dixon, who died Sunday.

I never saw him in Hogan’s Heros, but I did see “Nothing But a Man” when it was released. I didn’t recognize him then as the boxer I had seen on The Twilight Zone just a few years earlier. That realization didn't happen until decades later in a motel room in western Massachusetts.

If you haven’t seen “Nothing But a Man,” you should rent and watch it immediately. If you teach sociology, you should use it in class – for what it says about race in the US, for what it says about how social arrangements affect the interior life of marriages and of individuals. You should watch it for the performances by Dixon, Abbey Lincoln (who doesn't sing a note), Yaphet Kotto and others.

When I first saw “Nothing But a Man,” I thought it was the best black-themed film I’d ever seen. I still do.

* Another blogger has linked to the Twilight Zone episode on YouTube. If you want to see it, you can find it here.

Hooked on Uniformity

March 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where are we on phonics now?” I asked Steve, a quasi-relative (he’s a sort of step in-law) who I rarely see. We were having dinner with family down here in Sarasota (it's spring break). He teaches school and does research on primary education. Lately, he’s been digging through historical materials on one-room schools. It turns out in the nineteenth century too, the teaching of reading was subject to changes in fashion, and some of those fashions were remarkably similar to what we find today under labels like “phonics” and “whole language.”

Which teaching system works best? It depends on the kid, of course. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that kids are not all alike and that some learn better with one system while others do better with another.

Then what’s the problem, I asked.

“Texas,” he said, “California.”

In these states, a central committee decides on the book to be used for each subject in all public schools. Their preferences have a huge impact on publishers, whose fortunes may depend on an “adoption” in these states. (California accounts for more than 10% of the US population, Texas nearly 8%.) So decisions in these large, centralized states affect what is available even in other states. The structure of choosing textbooks shapes the content of the books.

But there’s a cultural component as well. “We have this strange assumption that the way to go about it is to figure out what’s the best, and then make everybody use it,” Steve said.

I wondered out loud if this way of thinking is peculiarly American, this uncomfortable amalgam of individualism and uniformity. We think each person should be free to make his own choices. But we also want everyone to choose the same thing, and we get upset when someone chooses something else. (Visitors to these shores since deTocqueville have remarked on the narrow range of political views in the US compared to those in other countries, which are apparently more tolerant of political diversity.)

So we have all these competitions to determine which book or movie or singer is best. Then, once we know what’s best, that’s the one we all freely and independently choose. Or, in the case of textbook committees, we assume that this is the book that will be best for all our schoolchildren.

They Do Get Fooled Again

March 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times, on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, asked nine “experts” to “reflect on their attitudes” then and say what most “surprised them or that they wish they had considered in the prewar debate.”

These were all war supporters (the American Enterprise Institute is well represented), and basically, the Times was giving them a chance to say why they were wrong and how they got fooled. Did they take the Times’s bait? Of course not. They all still say in one way or another that they were right in 2003.

I was reminded of something else that came around on the Internet today. (Hat tip to Lee Sigelman at The Monkey Cage)

SPOILER ALERT. Watch the video now – it’s only a minute long – because otherwise the next paragraph may spoil it for you.

After you see the scene the second time, you say, “Of course, it was there all the time, and I never saw it.” But these military and foreign policy experts in the Times are still insisting that their first perceptions were correct. There was never any bear, and the people who say there is a bear are wrong. It’s only because of the incompetence of the Bush Administration and the repeated mantras of the left that people even think there is a bear.

It’s dejà- Kuhn all over again. The adherents of a paradigm don’t abandon it for a new one just because it no longer fits with the facts. And the new paradigm succeeds not because it convinces the old guard, but because the old paradigm loses its power to draw new believers. If that’s true in the hard sciences, how much more it must apply in government policy.

That’s why I found it particularly impressive when Barack Obama said, “I don’t just want to end the war. I want to end the mentality that got us into the war.” Of course you don’t do that by trying to convince the Perles and Kagans of the world – these men who spurred us on and who still seem to be praying that they do get fooled again. You just make sure that your advisors have a much different mentality.

(I was going to give this post the title “The Bear That Wasn’t” – a wonderful fable about people enforcing their ideas upon recalcitrant facts. But I didn’t want to give too much away.)

They've Got Us Outnumbered

March 14, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Full-time jobs in higher education:
  • Faculty - 48.6%
  • Administrators - 51.4%
The data are from the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Department of Education) and are reported at Inside Higher Ed.

They’ve been gaining on us for a long time, but this year they’ve finally overtaken us. In part, it’s because Parkinson’s law* leads to the mitosis of administrative positions. But the other part is the key term “full-time.” Universities increasingly rely on adjunct faculty – part-timers who get paid piecework to teach one or two courses. In my own department, there have been several semesters when over 40% of our courses were taught by adjuncts.

It’s a great system. The adjuncts are usually good teachers – often better than the full-timers. Teaching is the core of their work, they do a lot of it, and because they teach at so many different schools, they have a diversity of experience that’s an asset in the classroom.

It’s good for the university too. It allows the administration to maintain “flexibility.” And most important, it saves a bundle of money. Hence the preponderance of administrators over faculty.

Still, most of us want to retain the fantasy of colleges and universities as institutions of higher learning, not higher administration (or, as with the superendowed elite schools, institutions of higher financial exploits).

I think I have the solution: adjunct administrators.

Instead of hiring another Vice-president for Administrative Organization or another Dean of Organizational Administration, hire part-timers. Low salary, no benefits, no long-term commitment.

I’m a department chair, and at least half of what I do in that role could be done by an adjunct – signing forms that I don’t read, writing recommendations that say nothing, nodding sympathetically while listening to complaints from students. Administrators higher up the line do these same things. I know because I see the lines for their signatures on the same forms and recommendations.

I’m not saying fire anyone. But the next time an administrator or two retires, give the real half of their work to one person, and hire adjuncts to do the other half. After all, the two most important areas in the university – computer tech support and parking – are already staffed mostly by part-time hourly employees, often students. And they generally do a good job. Well, maybe not the parking.

* “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

“An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”
“Officials make work for each other.”
The total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rises by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Not to Mention the Finns

March 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sex – is there anything that better exemplifies cultural variation? Maybe food. Americans are famously comfortable with excesses of eating – restaurants advertising “all you can eat” as though gluttony were a virtue, as Steven V. Roberts (Cokie’s husband) once said. European ideas about eating and drinking have a different emphasis. The French, notably, emphasize not quantity but quality, proportion, and aesthetic pleasure.

Our ideas about sexual indulgence, however, are somewhat narrower than those of Europeans. Even New Yorkers overwhelmingly thought that Gov. Spitzer should resign for having patronized prostitutes. (Spitzer’s legal problems may center more on money laundering than on sex, but I doubt that “structuring” was what the public was thinking about in judging the governor.)

Meanwhile in Finland this very same week, the foreign minister admitted to sending hundreds ofcell phone text messages to a topless dancer and her porn actress sister, and he’s not resigning. The other cabinet ministers have rallied to his side. Maybe the Finns will approve of anything so long as it’s done on a Nokia.

And according to the story (in the Daily Mail but it seems to be legit), the prime minister too had his non-marital sex life exposed without any loss of public support. A former lover published what the Mail calls a “steamy kiss-and-tell account of their relationship” just before the general election last year. He was re-elected anyway.

Hat tip to Jonathan Kulick at The Reality-Based Community for the link to this story. The title of this post, for those not familiar with ancient music, is from Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”:
he Dutch in old Amsterdam do it,
Not to mention the Finns.
Folks in Siam do it;
Think of Siamese twins.

Confidence Games

March 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives have been whining about universities for quite a while now, complaining about political correctness and liberal bias. They do seem awfully greedy, those conservatives. They control just about everything, and they're still not happy. As Rick Hertzberg (or was it Todd Gitlin?) said a few years ago, the conservatives get both houses of Congress, the Presidency, the Supreme Court . . . and we get a handful of campuses.

The public apparently did not share the conservatives’ dismay about academia. Each year the Harris Poll asks people how much confidence they have in the people who run the major institutions in the country. Here are some of the results.

The Presidency and the Court, much beloved of conservatives in the Bush years, suffered a steep decline in that period. Even the military lost a third of its very confident supporters in a 5-year period (Iraq? Gitmo? Abu Gharaib?).

Meanwhile, we politically correct academics have held our own. We are now looked upon more with more confidence than the White House, the Court, organized religion, and big business (along with several obvious also-rans not shown here, like Congress, Wall Street, TV news, etc.)

Does This Mean My Drug Co-pay Will Go Up?

March 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Placebos work better if they cost more. That’s the finding reported in the New York Times and surprisingly few other papers.

Dan Ariely asked subjects to estimate the degree of pain relief they got from a pill. Some were told that the pill cost a dime, others that the pill cost $2.50. All the pills were placebos, and a majority of people in both groups reported “significant pain relief.” But that number was higher among those who got the expensive pill (85%) than among those who got the ten-cent version (61%).

Ariely is an economist – his new book Predictably Irrational is on the business best-seller lists – but his explanation is physiological: “Sick humans secrete substances you just can't buy over the counter.”

Maybe so. But what makes the brains of the $2.50 people secrete more of whatever that substance is? Anyone who has taken the intro social psych course should recognize this as our old friend Cognitive Dissonance. If we’re paying this much for it, it must be good. Otherwise, the cognition that we are paying dearly for the pill conflicts with the cognition that it’s not working.

We can’t very easily adjust our estimate of the cost. But pain is more subjective, so we reduce the dissonance by changing our estimate of pain relief. You get what you pay for, as my mother says. And even if you don’t, you’ll think you did.

In one of the classic experiments conducted by the early Dissonators (Aronson and Mills, 1959), women who wanted to join some group had to go through a sort of initiation. Those who had a tougher initiation (I think they had to read aloud some slightly off-color passage – this was the fifties, remember) rated the group as more worthwhile. Those who were admitted easily, on the other hand, didn’t think so highly of the group once they were in.

Or as Marx said, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have someone like me as a member.” (You knew which Marx it was going to be, didn’t you?)

Not So Fast

March 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Old joke: A turtle mugs a snail. The police finally arrive and ask the snail about the crime. “I don't know,” says the snail, “It all happened so fast.”

I missed this post by Jessica at Scatterplot last week. Two hundred people (is it really that many?) go to Grand Central Station and all freeze in place at the same time for five minutes. Jessica sees it as a large-scale “breaching experiment.”

Me, I’m not so big on breaching experiments (“Let’s do some weird shit and see how people react,”). I don't find it ennobling to think that the chief intellectual forebear of social psychology is Allen Funt. And as with Candid Camera, I usually find the gag itself more interesting than the reactions of the naive victims. So to my eye, the Grand Central video is worth watching not so much as sociology and more as art (broadly defined). Which is what its creators – Improv Everywhere – intended.

Here’s another of their gags – Slo-Mo at Home Depot. They do the freeze thing here too, but pay attention to the slow motion early in this excerpt.

Getting back to the turtle and snail. The video is really a demonstration of relativity. Look at this speeded-up version of some of the early scenes.

The Improv Everywhere “agents” who were in slo-mo now look like they are going at a normal pace, and the regular customers are running around frantically.

Everything is relative.

You can find a full account and more video at the Imrprov Everywhere site.

The Art of Imprisonment

March 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to putting people in prison, we’re number one. We lock ’em up at a rate five to ten times that of other industrialized democracies (France, UK, Australia, etc.). We've been number one for decades, but the proportion of the US adult population in jail or prison has now risen to one in 100. That’s the finding published in the new Pew report . And Chris Uggen, who knows about such things, says that the 1% figure is an undercount.

Here’s a graph based on BJS figures.

Only a few days earlier – one of those coincidences of the Zeitgeist – the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit that included “Million Dollar Blocks.” These are blocks in New York City that the state is spending at least one million dollars on. Not for housing, not for medical care, not for welfare, but to put the residents of that block in prison. The researchers, Eric Cadora and Charles Swartz, took the minimum sentence of each person sent to prison in 2003 and multiplied by $30,000 per year (another lowball estimate). Using the home addresses of these prisoners, they calculated the cost per block.

They teamed up with Laura Kurgan of Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab to produce the graphics. This is Brooklyn, whose million-dollar blocks (35 in all) are in red.

Here’s a close-up of one area.

(It’s in the museum, so it must be art. Anyway, I’m sure these are visually much better in the MOMA exhibit.)

Remember, that’s just for people sentenced in a single year.

I know $1,000,000 isn’t much these days. Still, it seems like a lot of money for a single block.

Nine years ago, in an article for The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser wrote of the “prison-industrial complex.” Like the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of, it was a way to turn fear into profit.
The United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.
Schlosser’s warning, like Ike’s, had little effect.

Hat tip to Henry Tischler, who told me about this. His wife Linda actually saw the exhibit at MOMA.