Deadly Sins (a Sunday Sermon)

August 30, 2008  
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can you have too much sex? Yes, apparently. In the news this weekend, David Duchovny claims to be suffering from “sex addiction” and has just entered rehab. (Maybe it’s my age, but I think I might do an Amy Winehouse on this one and say no, no, no.) The Duchovny case history will no doubt be labeled “the x-rated files.” Or maybe it’s Californication as reality TV.

Lust, as we all know, is a deadly sin.  Desire is all right, but lust is “too much of a good thing.” It distorts the proper proportions. But what about the other deadly sins? In case you forgot them, here are all seven:
  1. Lust
  2. Anger
  3. Gluttony
  4. Pride
  5. Envy
  6. Sloth
  7. Greed
    Hieronymous Bosch - The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things
    Click on the image for a larger view
Does the same rule of moderation and proportion apply? Yes, but. In the words of the Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the others.”

No problem with sins one through six. We criticize ourselves or others for having too much sex, eating too much food, or lazily avoiding work. The same goes for the emotional sins. Some people need “anger management,” others need to curb their envy. We have a variety of negative words for those who are too proud – egotistical, narcissistic, conceited, etc.

With food, sex, self-esteem, relaxation, etc., we recognize that there are limits. But we give Greed a pass. Is it possible to have too much money? Apparently not. Those who amass more and more of it win the admiration of others, and as a society we do little to curb their passion. In fact, we encourage it, and not just with esteem; we grant it tangible rewards like tax breaks unavailable to those of lesser means. The tax code, especially in the Cheney-Bush administration, seems to have been written as an elaborate gloss on Gordon Gecko’s maxim “Greed is Good.”

The Seven Deadly Sins are sins because they distort the balance between the individual and the society. They all represent individual pleasures grown so large that they become detrimental to the society. But for some reason, when it comes to the unbridled pursuit of money, we don't see the sinfulness.  We don't even see any downside in the imbalance.

For example, elsewhere in the news, Joe Nocera in the New York Times details how billionaire Carl Icahn gained control of XO Communications only to use the company’s financial woes as a way to enrich himself.
As chairman, he could have tried to have helped the company rebuild — or sold the company to someone who was interested in doing so. But that doesn’t really appear to have ever been his motive.
It wasn’t easy, and Icahn met resistance, but through a combination of sneaky tricks and power, he got his way.
“Carl is very smart and acts very aggressively in his own self-interest,” said Robert Powell . . ., who has followed the XO shenanigans closely. “And if you get in the way of his self-interest, he will trample you.”
Icahn is already a billionaire and has been for some time. I have no idea why he needs more money. Nevertheless, he wants to screw a company in order to add still more to his bank accounts.
Yet nobody ever suggests that the Icahns of this world check themselves into rehab.

Big hat tip to Philip Slater, author of Wealth Addiction. The title says it all.

And You Think Textbooks Cost a Lot Today

August 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

  • A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.
  • Hence if you have a "normal" college--eight semesters, four courses a semester--and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay.
That's from a post at Brad DeLong' blog, and he provides this information about college expenses to look at the rationale for the large lecture. His point is that back in those early university days, the large lecture made economic sense.
  • Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them--hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader--while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever...
But with books now so cheap (O.K., relatively affordable), why do we still have large lectures? The reasons must be non-economic -- i.e., social.

The full post and many of the comments (40 at last count) are worth reading.

These Eyes

August 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Eyes – windows to the Soul. Also to the Rock, Alternative, Country, Metal, Folk, and most other genres, though not all.

Wired Magazine reports on a great bit of content analysis of popular music. The researchers, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, are visual artists, not sociologists, but they counted up references to body parts in the lyrics of popular songs. Then they broke the data down by genre and created this chart.

(Click on the image to see the larger version.)

Even in this small version, it's clear that Hip Hop is the most body-oriented genre, both in frequency and diversity, and Gospel the least – earthy versus ethereal.

Eyes and hand run one-two in all genres except for Blues, where head and arms outrank eyes, and Hip Hop, where ass takes the gold and head the silver.

Go here for the original, which allows you to click on the genre and see a more complete breakdown, like this chart of Gospel.
I can understand why knee gets mentioned relatively often in Gospel (prayerful posture), but I was surprised that ass was mentioned with the same frequency as neck and tongue. Obviously, I haven't been listening to enough Gospel.

There's a wealth of data. Take a look at the site and see what ideas and associations it triggers for you.

Warning: some of the pictures in some of the genres (no surprises here) may be NSFW.
HT Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

College - The Material World

August 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was move-in day at college (the one my son is going to, not Montclair). The stuff of modern college life lay displayed on the sidewalk awaiting transshipment to the dorms.

Necessities have changed since I went to college way back in the previous century. It’s not just the computers and printers instead of typewriters, iPods instead of stereos, electric guitars far outnumbering acoustic. But televisions, once a luxury, are apparently nearing the level of a necessity (how else can you play your Wii or other games?) .

Cleaning supplies are much more in evidence. Even the boys were packing Dust Busters and Swiffers.

There were some things that surprised me but that the frosh took as commonplace.

Nearly every kid (or his or her roomate) came with a refrigerator (1). Microwaves (2) were nearly as common. And several kids brought cases of water. Yes water, as though this college that parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for were some third-world country where the stuff that comes out of the tap is dangerous to drink and you have to bring your own supply. (The Aquafina in the above picture, as you surely know, is merely Pepsi’s filtered version of that same tapwater.)

Of course, there's water, and there’s water.

And despite the cleaning-supplies thing, the cluster of stuff on the sidewalk sometimes announced the student's gender loud and clear.

That object circled in the upper right is a teddy bear, and the movie poster on the left is for Breakfast at Tiffany's (apologies for the bad angle of this photo). The pink sheet set is unmistakable. And it reminded me that just a few days before this, I had heard another girl, one about to head off to a different school, say that she had chosen bright pink sheets. Also a yellow rug, green towels, and maybe something orange. “I’m trying to have a theme – citrus.” When I asked about the pink, she immediately responded, “Grapefruit.” I guess she’d thought about this one before. I couldn’t imagine having this conversation with a college-bound boy.


August 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, Jeremy Freese had a post at Scatterplot on interaction effects:

There are so many ways of dividing a sample into subgroups, and there are so many variables in a typical dataset that have low correlation with an outcome, that it is inevitable that there will be all kinds of little pockets for high correlation for some subgroup just by chance.
Today, the Onion News Network had this example, probably inspired more by Mark Penn than by Jeremy, but instructive nevertheless.

Hat tip to Ezra Klein at The American Prospect.

Head Start for Stats

August 21, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you want students to master quantitative methods, I guess you have to start while they're young.

As you have no doubt guessed, this has nothing to do with statistics. The products – backpacks, wristbands, etc. – are like medical alert bracelets for kids, to alert adults to the child’s food allergies or other medical conditions.

The Problem of Evil

August 19, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Does evil exist and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it or do we defeat it?
That was the question Pastor Rick Warren put to Obama and McCain in the televised interviews at the Saddleback Church.

The problem of evil and what to do about it. It’s a potentially daunting and complicated topic, one that theologians and philosophers have written about at length over the centuries. It’s also potentially very simple – evil is bad, and we’re against it. It’s us versus them.

Obama’s answer wasn’t exactly a long theological discourse, but it did acknowledge some complexity. His examples suggested that evil lies not in individuals but in actions, and the examples he gave were not people that we have declared war on. (“We see evil in Darfur.”) One of those examples was something about us: “ We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities.” Obama even cautioned against the good-vs-evil mentality, implying that we, the good guys, might wind up doing evil. “A lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil… In the name of good.”

McCain saw no such ambiguity. “Defeat it,” he said, and the audience applauded loudly. McCain also saw evil as residing in individuals, and he named names, names of those we are already fighting: Bin Laden, radical Islamic extremists, Al Qaeda. For McCain, it’s simple. We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and we will defeat them. [Applause.]

The Manichaean view seems to play well politically – hauling out images of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda for the Two Minutes Hate – at least for domestic consumption. As a basis for foreign policy in the real world, it may have its limitations. For one thing, it only works if you are powerful enough to enforce your definitions of evil on the entire world, for it turns out that not everyone in the world shares the same idea of what or who is evil.

Are we Americans the good guys fighting the forces of evil? A recent poll commissioned by the Telegraph (UK) asked people in five countries, “Do you think that the United States is overall a force for good or force for evil in today's world?”

Here are the results (I’ve omitted the “Don’t Know” percentage).

The poll was carried out online between May 23 and 29 by YouGov plc. The total sample was 6,256: Britain 2,241; France 1,005; Russia 1,001; Italy 1,004; Germany 1,005. To get the full results, go here.

I Majored in Sociology and All I Got . . .

August 15, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . . was this t-shirt.

I saw this in Strawberry Fields last week. I guess the sociology department at his school decided to try a little viral marketing.

Minneapolis Mystery

August 12, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post here brought in four to five times the usual number of hits on this blog, and I can’t figure out why. Yes, it was linked by a couple of other sociology sites (Correntewire and Global Sociology), but they accounted for only 10% of the hits. Most were “direct traffic.” More mysteriously, most of the hits were from Minnesota.

And all of those were from the Minneapolis area.
It’s nice to be big in Hennepin County, if only for a day. But who are all these people, and why did they decide to descend on this blog for a video you can find all over the Internet?

Considering the Audience

August 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Historia de un Letrero (The Story of a Sign) won best short film at Cannes. The director is Alonso Alvarez Barreda. It’s hard to talk about this video without spoiling it. Take the four and half minutes to watch it (six minutes if you sit through all the credits)

(A two-minute knock-off version is here.)

I think it has a lesson for teaching. It’s the same lesson I get from a story Nora Ephron tells about the teacher in her high school journalism class. The problem for the class was to come up with the lead (or as we say nowadays, the lede) for a story in the school newspaper.
He dictated a set of facts that went something like, “The principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento, Thursday, for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, and two other people.”

So we all sat down at our typewriters, and we all kind of inverted that and wrote, “Margaret Mead and X and Y will address the faculty in Sacramento . . ..” Something like that.

We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave it to Mr. Simms, and he just riffled through them and tore them into tiny bits and threw them in the trash, and he said, “The lead to this story is: There will be no school Thursday!
The challenge is not just to present the relevant facts, or in a sociology class the relevant data and ideas. The problem is to present them so that your audience immediately grasps their relevance. Both the ad man (or whatever he is) in the film and the journalism teacher come up with the brilliant lede by asking not, “How does this look to me?” but “How does this look to the audience?”

Fortunately, as teachers we do not depend so utterly on the response of our audience. We’re not begging, and some teachers get away with ignoring the audience altogether. But a department facing a decline in majors may not be so different from a newspaper struggling to maintain its circulation.

I think I want the dude in the shades and pink necktie to go over my lesson plans.

Timely Furniture

August 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Not sociological, but for 08-08-08 (at 08:08 a.m.), I thought this was too cool to pass up.

It's a sofa, designed by Emmanuel Laffon de Mazieres. Photos from other angles here.

Hat tip to Cecile, from whose blog I copied both the picture and the idea.

Omission / Commission

August 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I haven’t checked XKCD’s data, but it seems right. Think of all the regrets in your life. Which do you have more of
  • things you didn’t do but wish you had
  • things you did do and wish you hadn’t
My graph would probably look like the one in the illustration – a skyscraper stack of sins of omission dwarfing a low bungalow of actions taken and forever regretted. How many times do we say, “If only I had . . .” compared with the times we say, “If only I hadn’t . . .”?

Psychologists probably have lots of explanations for this (is there a “psychology of regret” section in the APA?). The sociological explanation starts with norms. We all greatly overestimate the cost of breaking norms. “I couldn’t do that,” we think. But of course we could.

The power of the norm diminishes the farther we get from the actual situation. When Stanley Milgram asked his students to ask subway riders for their seats, he could not imagine that such a simple assignment would be so difficult. Milgram was speaking from the comfort of a seminar room miles from the city. When he actually went to the subway, he understood.

So when we think back on the norm not broken, the road (or kiss) not taken, we forget how it actually felt to be there.

The reality is that breaking these norms seldom results in anything more than temporary embarrassment, not the nagging regret that lingers for a lifetime.

Update (Aug. 7, 7:45 a.m.): The awesome Anomie has refined XKCD’s data by breaking it down by sex, comparing “kissed her” against “kissed him,”* and posting a more graphically sophisticated chart. For both sexes, regrets over inaction far outnumber regretted actions, but it looks as though the ratio is much higher for men.

*I assume, Katy Perry notwithstanding, that the “kissed her” regretters are male, and the “kissed him” regretters female.

Methods and Madness

August 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every so often I find myself thinking that sociology isn’t really so different from journalism. We both look for cultural and social trends, we base our conclusions on questions (or questionnaires) and interviews.

Then a column by Maureen Dowd or someone like her slaps some sense into me. Today, Dowd maintains that women who supported Hillary in the primaries may stay away from Obama because he is like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – “clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious.” And slim.

Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal article “Too Fit to Be President?” by Amy Chozick, who writes: “Hillary supporters — who loved their heroine’s admission that she was on Weight Watchers — were put off by Obama’s svelte, zero-body-fat figure.”

What evidence did Chozick offer? One comment posted to a Yahoo discussion board. And how did that comment come to be there? Chozick went fishing for it. She posted:
Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his “no excess body fat”? Please let me know. Thanks!
Most of the responses made fun of the question itself. But one person created a user ID of onlinebeerbellygirl in order to say, “I won't vote for any beanpole guy.” That was the evidence Chozick chose and Dowd repeated.

I’m saving this as an example for research methods. The Yahoo discussion has been taken down, but Sorry No (who gets a big hat tip) documents the whole thing and links to a cached copy of the Yahoo board.