Faisez-moi la grammaire

March 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The French don't care what they do, as long as they pronounce it correctly.” The line is from “My Fair Lady,” by Lerner and Loewe, and I remembered it well on my first trip to France, when people kept pretending not to understand what I was saying. I’m sure I’ll never be able to get directions to Neuilly.
But it’s not just pronunciation that the French care about. Lerner should have added something about spelling and grammar.
In March, we have NCAA basketball. The French have the national dictée, a spelling challenge that millions of people take – and take seriously – but which only a handful do perfectly (because of all those damn accent marks probably).
We Americans have a friendly and accommodating view of language. When our highest elected official constantly contorts the English language, it’s a matter of amusement, not concern. If a French candidate blows the subjunctive, he may find his gaffe used as the entire text of an attack ad.
A friend lives in a Paris building that has one of those little cage elevators. If someone doesn’t close the door firmly, the elevator won’t move from that floor. A sign reminding tenants to be sure “que la porte est fermée” hadn’t been posted for more than a couple of hours before someone had corrected it: “que la porte est SOIT fermée.”
British author Anthony Burgess wrote of eating in a family restaurant in the countryside. When the waitress, the fourteen-year-old daughter, asked, “Et comme dessert?” Burgess answered, in French, “Fruits.”
“Des fruits,” she noted, correcting a man three times her age. In France, the customer is not always right, especially when he omits the partitive article.
Now there’s this.

(Update, April 2012.  Unfortunately, the original video has been replaced with this version which has been edited to report on the response to the original.)
At first, it looks like a typical, moderately sexy music video. She strokes the naked fesses of a statue and sings, “Faisez-moi l’amour.” But wait. Even I know that faisez is wrong. It should be “faites-moi l’amour.”
It turns out the video is a bit of viral marketing for a company, Bescherelle, that sells grammar books and other language materials (including dictées). The video is full of grammatical errors, and French youth rose to the challenge to find them all. In the first week or so after its release, it had taken second place on MySpace TV, a record number of “don’t miss” designations, and 18,000 downloads.
You can find lots of grammatical errors in US music videos, but that’s not why kids watch them.
(Full story here; corrected grammar in the video here.)

Maira Kalman

March27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

My introcution to Maira Kalman was via Max, a dog and the protagonist of her first (?) book, Max Makes a Million.
Call me Max.
Max the dreamer.
Max the poet.
Max the dog.

My dream is to live in Paris.
To live in Paris and be a poet.
Then came Ooh-La-La (Max in Love) and Max in Hollywood, Baby. Even if you don’t have the excuse of a kid to read these to, you should read them.

At the Children’s Museum on 83rd Street I saw a wonderful exhibit or installation or whatever you call it based on her work.

She is best known, I expect, for the NewYorkistan map, a cover for the New Yorker magazine in December of 2001 – three months after 9/11, two months after the US invasion of Afghanistan, when we were struggling with the odd names of all those odd places.

Since January, she’s been doing a weekly piece for the New York Times. This week’s (“So Moved”) is about democracy in America, but you can’t write and draw about democracy in America without a hat tip to Democracy in America.

(Click on the image for a version large enough that you can read the print.)

If I Had a Hammer

March 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve commented before (here, for example) that the American tendency to define problems in moral terms leads us to come up not with solutions but with punishments. I realize that if all you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as though it’s a nail. But surely there must be a variety of approaches available, especially when we need to deal with kids. Yet under policies that go by names like “zero tolerance,” we empty the toolbox of everything else, and we wind up with the Supreme Court deciding whether it’s O.K. for school authorities to strip-search a 13-year-old girl because they think she might be carrying Advil.

Now we have this from yesterday’s New York Times. Investigators in the office of George Skumanick, DA for Wyoming County, PA, found a picture on a girl’s cell phone – a couple of girls age 13 or 14 at a slumber party. The picture shows them from the waist up, and they are wearing bras. One of the girls is Marissa Miller, now fifteen.
Mr. Skumanick said he considered the photo “provocative” enough to tell Marissa and the friend, Grace Kelly, that if they did not attend a 10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence, he was considering filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. If convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders.

The Times story doesn’t say exactly how the investigators got their hands on this salacious photo. Presumably, a teacher confiscated the phone because a kid was using it in school. Then school officials looked through the stored photos on the phone (a sort of iStripSearch), found the picture of the bra-clad girls, and called the DA’s office.

Wyoming County is just north of Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre, where a juvenile court judge was sending kids to for-profit juvenile jails for the slightest infractions. The judge was getting payoffs from the firm that ran the jail.

Unfortunately, the hammer-obsessed are not confined to Northeast Pennsylvania. At Scatterplot, Drek posted a not-so-uninteresting item about the way Sheboygan, Michigan responds to teen sex – two court cases involving consensual sex between a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old. Drek was concerned about the unequal treatment. The 17-year-old girl with the 14-year-old boyfriend faced up to nine months in jail. The 17-year-old-boy with the 14-year-old girlfriend faces 25 years in prison.

Do any other advanced countries rely on extreme criminal penalties to deal with consensual sex between teenagers? Even if it’s sex that most adults don’t approve of, isn’t there some less destructive way to deal with it?

Know Your Limits

March 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Just in case you haven’t seen this instructional video on gender roles that has been getting wide distribution on the Internets. It’s from Harry Enfield and Chums, a British TV show of the 1990s. I post it here without further comment.

Weight for the Bus

March 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bus shelters are great places for advertisements and other public information. But what if it’s information that you don’t want to publicize . . . like your weight?

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

This is in Amsterdam (that woman weighs 68 kilos, not pounds), and I’m not sure what the inscrutable Dutch have in mind. Maybe it's supposed to encourage people to forget the bus and walk instead. Or to do what just about everyone in Amsterdam does – ride a bike (like that one at the right edge of the photo.)

(Hat tip: Marcel Maréchal at La Pub des Idées)

Omerta at JAMA

March 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you thought sociology journals don’t respond well to criticism, try the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A medical researcher, Jonathan Leo, at some obscure school in Tennessee (Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate) reads an article in JAMA about the use of antidepressants in stroke patients. He finds some flaws in it. He goes online and discovers that the author of the article has been on the payroll of Forest Laboratories, the makers of Lexapro and other antidepressants. He publishes a letter about this in BMJ (aka British Medical Journal).

Does JAMA welcome this revelation and vow to be more open when it comes to conflict-of-interest charges? Think again. Instead, they go all Goodfellas, as a matter of policy.
Medical Journal Decries Public Airing of Conflicts

The Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the world's most influential medical journals, says it is instituting a new policy for how it handles complaints about study authors who fail to disclose they have received payments from drug companies or others that pose a conflict: It will instruct anyone filing a complaint to remain silent about the allegation until the journal investigates the charge. (emphasis added.)

That’s from a story by David Armstrong in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (The rest of the article is gated.)

Kathy G. at The G Spot has more information, though I’m not sure what her source is.

The editors at JAMA deny making these threats, but they are on record with their policy: don’t say nothin’ to nobody “while an investigation is under way.” JAMA’s investigation into the antidepressant matter had taken five months. When did it finally publish a correction and an acknowledgment from the author that he had received and not reported payments from Forest Laboratories? A week after Dr. Leo’s letter appeared in the BMJ.

The Distribution of Fame

March 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Might Natasha Richardson’s fame have contributed to her death? That’s the question Steven Dubner at Freakonomics asks. It seems like a silly idea to me, and my first thought was, Gee, I didn’t realize that Freakonomics was so desperate for material. But they’re not, and apparently Dubner is serious.
if I were part of a famous family and was advised to go to the hospital after a minor mishap, the invasion of privacy might have appeared to outweigh the benefit of what was a seemingly precautionary measure. Do I really want to deal with the possibility of tabloid photos, career rumors, the sheer noise of it all?
The paparazzi certainly played in important part in the death of Princess Diana. And there are other celebs who must go to great lengths for some modicum of privacy. But how many?

The question is really this: what does the power law distribution of fame look like? The power law is about inequality. One example is Pareto’s 80/20 rule – 20% of the population controls 80% of the wealth. The actual distribution is more unequal than Pareto imagined. But what about other areas? Maybe twenty percent of the students in a class account for 80% of the discussion.

There are 13 million songs available for download. But the top 0.4% account for 80% of downloads. (Most of those 13 million are not downloaded at all. Of the songs actually downloaded, the top 1.7% account for that 80%. Source here.) The curve is even more skewed for CD sales.

What does the power law distribution of celebrity look like? Let’s assume there’s some finite quantity of celebrity in the world. Most of that fame goes to a relative handful. They are the ones who have to worry about stalkers, mobs of fans, paparazzi.

But how famous was Richardson? It turns out that she and her probably more famous husband Liam Neeson lived in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side, and I learned of that only recently. I imagine they walked the streets freely. Even if they were noticed, they weren’t harassed or bothered.

I’ve noted before that in most fields, even the performing arts, the top people can remain mostly invisible to the public and the press. The best classical pianist in the world would go unrecognized even in a sophisticated city like New York. One of the greatest violinists in the world stood for nearly an hour playing his Stradivarius in a Washington, DC metro station, and nobody recognized him.

Even among movie actors, the power law curve descends steeply. One morning a year or two ago, I was having coffee in an ordinary café. I looked up from my newspaper and there, directly across a narrow counter from me, was an actress who has been in dozens of movies (four Oscar nominations including one win for best actress). Nobody else in the café noticed.

Null But Not Void

March 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Code and Culture is a new blog by Gabriel Rossman at UCLA (ht Jenn Lena). His post Tuesday on “Publication Bias” discussed the problem of false positives in publications. Suppose 20 researchers do the same study, and 19 get non-significant results. Of the 19, most give up. The two or three papers submitted with null findings get rejected as uninteresting. But the one study that by chance got positive results at the p <.05 level gets published. Worse, this false positive now becomes the conventional wisdom and the basis of further rejections of null findings. Rossman has a neat workaround for this problem for those willing to sort through all the literature on a topic. But there’s also the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, which is just what it says. It’s serious, and not to be confused with the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

Long before the appearance of the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, Bob Rosenthal (eponym of the effect) used to argue that psych journals should ask for submissions that do not include data. They would then decide whether to publish the study based purely on the design. Then they would ask the researchers to submit the data, and if the results were null, so be it.

I wonder what this policy would have done for Rosenthal’s effect. As a class project in his course, we carried out such a study in a local high school. Students would look at pictures of people and hear taped instructions telling them to estimate whether the person in the picture had been experiencing success or failure. The kids sat in language-lab booths, and by random assignment, half the kids heard instructions that would elicit more “success” scores; the other half heard instructions that would elicit “failure”scores. Or at least that was the idea.

When we looked at the data, the strongest correlation in our matrix was between this variable that was randomized (success tape or failure tape) and the sex of the student. It dwarfed any expectation-effect correlation. Nevertheless, we were supposed to look at any correlations that had asterisks and analyze them.

It wasn’t my first disillusioning experience in experimental psychology.

When Blogging Leads to Blogging

March 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Mike’s comment yesterday suggested, I wasn’t the only one to blog the basketball paper (aka “Avis goes to the NCAA”). I certainly wasn’t the most methodologically sophisticated. Andrew Gelman and some of the Freakonomics commenters were.

Now Justin Wolfers has printed a rebuttal of sorts to these criticisms. It’s by the authors of the original paper, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope, who present a new graph showing the home team’s winning percentage for all halftime differences from behind by ten points to ahead by ten points.

They plot a curve to show the “expected” percentage for each point-differential.
(In the months following the 9/11 attacks, there was much hand-wringing about failure to “connect the dots.” So I have added a red line that does just that, making it easier to see the discontinuities, those points where the line turns down instead of continuing up.)

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)
Focus on the winning percentage when either the away team was losing by a point, or the home team was losing by a point. In both of these situations, the losing team did better than expected.
True, they did better than expected. But given the overlap in the standard-error ranges, the data still don’t provide a clear answer as to whether it’s better for the home team to be down by one or up by one at the half.* More curious, Berger and Pope say nothing about halftime ties, which turn out favorably for the home team more often than either minus one or plus one scores.

* Berger and Pope say that this is the wrong question: “Directly comparing the winning percentage of teams down by one with teams up by one is problematic.” That’s odd. It would seem that winning is the central question. The title of their paper puts it pretty clearly: “When Losing Leads to Winning.”

I guess that when the paper is finally published, they’ll change the title to “When Losing Leads to Doing Better than Expected.” Or better yet, “If You Can Make Halftime Prop Bets and the Score Is Tied and the Money Line is Close to Even, Sock It In on the Home Team.”

March Madness

March 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“When Losing Leads to Winning.” That’s the title of the paper by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope. In the New York Times recently, they put it like this:

Surprisingly, the data show that trailing by a little can actually be a good thing.
Take games in which one team is ahead by a point at the half. . . . The team trailing by a point actually wins more often and, relative to expectation, being slightly behind increases a team’s chance of winning by 5 percent to 7 percent.
They had data on over 6500 NCAA games in four seasons. Here’s the key graph.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The surprise they refer to is in the red circle I drew. The dot one point to the left of the tie-game point is higher than the dot one point to the right. Teams behind by one point at the half won 51.3% of the games; teams leading by a point won only 48.7.*

Justin Wolfers** at Freakonomics reprints the graph and adds that Berger and Pope are “two of the brightest young behavioral economists around.”

I’m not a bright behavioral economist, I’m not young, I’m not a methodologist or a statistician, and truth be told, I’m not much of an NCAA fan. But here’s what I see. First of all, the right half of the graph is just the mirror image of the left. If teams down by one win 51.3%, teams ahead by one have to lose 51.3%, and similarly for every other dot on the chart.

Second, this is not the only discontinuity in the graph. I’ve put yellow squares around the others.

Teams down by 7 points at the half have a slightly higher win percentage than do teams down by 6. By the same graph-reading logic, it’s better to be down by 4 points than by only 3. And the percentage difference for these points is greater than the one-point/tie-game difference.

Then, what about that statement that being down by one point at the half “ increases a team’s chance of winning by 5 percent to 7 percent”? Remember, those teams won 51.3% of the games. How did 1.3 percentage points above 50-50 become a 5-7% increase? You have to read the fine print: “relative to expectation.” That expectation is based on a straight-line equation presumably derived from the ten data points (all the score differentials from 10 points to one – no sense in including games tied at the half). That model predicts that teams down by one at the half will win only 46% of the time. Instead, they won 51.3%.

Berger and Pope’s explanation of their finding is basically the Avis factor. The teams that are behind try harder. Maybe so, but that doesn’t explain the other discontinuities in the graph. Using this logic, we would conclude that teams behind by seven try harder than teams behind by six. But teams behind by 5 don’t try harder than teams behind by four. And so on. Why do only some point deficits produce the Avis effect?

* Their results are significant at the .05 level. With 6500 games in the sample, I’d bet that any difference will turn out to be statistically significant, though the authors don’t say how many of those 6500 games had 1-point halftime differences.

**Wolfers himself is the author of another economics journal article on basketball, a study purporting to reveal unwitting racism among NBA referees. In that article as well, I thought there might be less there than meets the economist’s eye.

Having Trouble Getting Through "Surveiller et Punir"?

March 16, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Post Secret (is there anyone who still doesn’t know about it?) is just what it says: postcards of secrets. People send them anonymously since the secrets are usually the sort of thing you’d want to keep secret – actions, thoughts, feelings, and biographical facts that might be stigmatizing.

And then there was this, from yesterday’s batch – not nearly so interesting as, say, the one from the woman whose boyfriend didn’t bring her to orgasm so she masturbated with a loaded gun, which did,
  – but of more sociological relevance.

The Best, The Brightest, The Bonuses

March 15, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headline today is about the $165 in bonus money going to AIG executives.

I guess don’t understand the concept of a bonus. I thought it was extra money you got for actually doing something. Something good.

Athletes have bonuses written into their contracts. ARod gets $1.5 M if he wins the MVP; $6M if he equals Ruth’s home run total. Steinbrenner figures that these achievements will also bring more money to the Yankees.

AIG is a sort of bizarro ARod, the worst of the worst in the economic collapse. The insurance company leverage rate of 11:1 was about three times that of other firms. But when it came to the really risky stuff – the credit default swaps and derivatives – they were leveraged at 35:1 (my source here is Jon Stewart in his tête-à-tête with Jim Cramer). So guess who’s getting most of the $165 million.

Edward Liddy, chairman of AIG, had two reasons the bonuses had to be paid. One is that AIG was contractually obligated. They had promised the money “early in 2008, before the company’s near collapse, when problems stemming from the mortgage crisis were becoming clear.” To me, this sounds as though the insiders at AIG, when they saw that the company was heading for a heavy fall, stuffed their pockets with as much of the cash as they could.

The second argument for paying the bonuses is even better.


The best and the brightest. Either Mr. Liddy has a wonderfully understated sense of irony or he does not remember the history of that phrase. The Best and the Brightest was the title of David Halberstam’s book about the people who brought us Vietnam. The architects of that debacle, like the financial geniuses responsible for the current meltdown, were men of high IQ and fancy education. Yet their ideas and theories took the US into the most disastrous foreign policy debacle in its history, at the time.

Update: Judith Warner, in her New York Times blog today, discusses the phrase, with references to Halberstam, but also to Shelley and Henry Adams, whose use of if beat Halberstam by roughly 100 and 50 years, respectively.

To Turnitin or Not to Turnitin

March 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Turnitin.com, scourge of plagiarizing students, might be just a little bit too picky. And those student claims of innocence might just be true.

Inside Higher Ed
reports on a study of Turnitin and SafeAssign (a part of Blackboard I didn’t know about) done at Texas Tech. The researchers submitted 400 papers to both services. Turnitin pointed its accusing finger 2-3 times as often as did SafeAssign.

The big problem is that Turnitin is just too damned suspicious.


Thanks Ed (Inside Higher Ed and I are on a last-name basis), but I figured this out by myself a couple of weeks ago. We don’t have Turnitin at Montclair, but one of our adjuncts uses it, and he failed a student for plagiarizing a paper. She protested. So the matter was referred to the department chair – me. The teacher sent me the Turnitin report, and there it was in black and white: Her 1400-word paper on Filipino Americans had a “similarity index” of 69%.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I’d never seen a Turnitin report, so I checked out some of the sources. The first flagged item was the following.
The Philippines is located in the southeastern portion of Asia. Her neighbor on the north is the republic of China (Taiwan of Formosa), while on the west is Communist Vietnam.
I entered the URL of the source (#2 in the summary sheet in the picture above. In case the print is too small for you to read, it’s filipinamates.com. Turnitin was hot on the scent, and I followed. This was the first screen I found.

Not wanting to let a clear case of plagiarism slip by, I had to click on Enter. I found myself with this menu.

I won’t bore you with the details of my further searches for the sources of plagiarism offered by this menu except to say that Trekkie Monster from “Avenue Q” was right.

The other sources listed by Turnitin were equally non-inculpatory though not nearly so interesting. If you write in your paper that the area of Mindanao is 36,670 square miles, and someone else put that fact in their paper or on their website, you’re toast in Turnitin’s book. It even flagged passages the student had put in quotation marks.

To quote Ed again, “All of the members of the Texas Tech team said that they emerged from their study with serious reservations about using the services.”

So did I.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up -- Or Can You?

March 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Getting data is hard. It’s time consuming and laborious and often, truth be told, not all that interesting. On top of that, you worry about validity – does the data set really tap what I say I’m studying? And in the end, it may turn out that the results are disappointing; you wind up with something reviewers won’t think is worth reporting.

It’s not like medical science, with its strict and precise definitions and measurements – those doctors in white lab coats carefully testing the effects of drugs and coming up with results that help humanity.

But now medical science shows us the way to get convincing data, data that shows results: make the stuff up.


Concocted. That’s the word they use (in case you have trouble reading the print in the boxes – the full story is here). Dr. Reuben concocted data. Why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because no huge drug company like Pfizer is underwriting my “research” that shows their pain drugs to be so highly effective.

I’m going to repeat a quote I posted a couple of months ago. It’s from a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine written well before this latest bit of news about Dr. Reuben:
It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.

More Guns, More Killing

March 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

You know what the responses will be even before you read them. The anti-gun side will point to the shootings in Alabama and say, “Look what happens in a place where any nut can get his hands on two AK-47s or M-16s and a .38.” The pro-gun faction will point to the shootings in
Germany and say, “See, even strict gun laws can’t prevent this sort of thing.”

Either way, it’s hard to make the “more guns, less crime” argument, though I’m sure John Lott will try. If only everyone in those Alabama towns had been carrying a handgun, so goes this line of reasoning, someone would have shot the guy after he’d killed only a few people. Given the circumstances of the killings, that seems unlikely. And given Alabama’s gun laws, quite possibly some of those victims or people nearby did have guns. The police officers who chased him certainly did, though as far as their own safety is concerned, their bullet-proof vests were far more important than their weapons.

In both these cases, the killings were possible only because the killer had access to very lethal weapons. Yes Germany has strict gun laws, but the killer’s father had eighteen guns in the house, and they were probably all legal. He was what some people would call a “gun nut.” Others use the term “gun enthusiast.” (We like enthusiasm, so it’s O.K. to have your own private arsenal just so long as you’re enthusiastic about it.)

Here’s my prediction for what will happen. Some European countries, maybe even Germany, will make their gun laws even tighter. In the US, people will shake their heads, cry, pray, and focus on the personal stories of the killer and victims. Will Alabama or any of the easy-gun states change their laws? Of course not.

Here in the US, we will focus on individual explanations. “Authorities Search For a Motive,” says the CNN headline. Gee, it’s a shame what happened, but what can you do? There’s just no way to predict when someone will snap.

European authorities will think in situational terms: how can we change the situation so that no matter how angry or deranged someone is, he can’t commit this level of slaughter?”

Why Is Half the Football Team in My Class?

March 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I quoted Ann Coulter’s scornful put-down of Keith Olbermann’s academic credentials – a degree in Communications from the agricultural college at Cornell.
“Communications” is a major, along with “recreation science,” most commonly associated with linemen at USC.*
Apparently Coulter’s column isn’t fact-checked, for in reality (maybe her column isn’t reality-checked either) those USC footballers are much more likely to major in Sociology.

Last fall, USA today published data showing the clustering of athletes (juniors and seniors only) into certain majors. At some schools, it was Interdisciplinary Studies (LSU, ASU). At USC, 57% of the football team (22 out of 38) were majoring in Sociology. Other football teams that clustered in Sociology included
  • Florida State (54%)
  • Hawaii (47%)
  • Oklahoma (44%)
  • SMU (48%)
  • Duke (40%)
Here’s a screen shot of the interactive chart USA Today published. The darkness of the blue shading indicates the degree of concentration of majors. That dark blue rectangle at the end of Social Science is the 80% of the LSU basketball team that are majoring in Sociology (four out of five players – a small N but a tall one.)

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

At the actual site, as you drag the mouse over each rectangle, it reveals the information (school, sport, major, percentage, N).

It would be nice to have some more information how athletes make these decisions. Why does the basketball team cluster in one major while the football team prefers another? And why do jocks on some teams or at some schools go their own way?


* I guess Recreation Science is what used to be called Phys. Ed.

There’s an anecdote – it may even be true – about Joe Namath, who had come from Alabama with a huge (for its time) signing bonus on his dubious knee to play for the New York Jets. At a press conference, one of the New York sports reporters asks, “So what’d you major in at Alabama, Phys.Ed.?”

“Nah,” says Namath, “I wasn’t smart enough for Phys.Ed. I majored in journalism.”

Elitism - Ivies and Aggies

March 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I had thought that Republicans had cornered the market on anti-elitism. Any time the Democrats let slip some hint of “elitism” – the notion that one thing might actually be better than another – the Republicans pick it up and beat them over the head with it like something from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Why not? Anti-elitism is part of the American value on equality. (See earlier posts on anti-elitism here and here .)

So you can imagine the reaction when one public figure who went to the “real” Cornell dumps on someone else who attended merely the Cornell agricultural college and majored in communications.
I would venture to say that the students at a third-tier law school are far more impressive than those at the Cornell agriculture school – the land-grant, non-Ivy League school he attended.

He went to Cornell. But he always forgets to mention that he went to the school that offers classes in milking and bovine management.

He didn't go to the Ivy League Cornell; he went to the Old MacDonald Cornell.
It’s like a graduate of the Yale locksmithing school boasting about being a Yale man.

The real Cornell, the School of Arts and Sciences (average SAT: 1,325; acceptance rate: 1 in 6 applicants), is the only Ivy League school at Cornell and the only one that grants a Bachelor of Arts degree.

He went to an affiliated state college at Cornell, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (average SAT: about that of pulling guards at the University of South Carolina; acceptance rate: 1 of every 1 applicants).
Communications is a major, along with recreation science, most commonly associated with linemen at USC.

He should thank me for revealing all this. Finally, he can stop pretending that he went to the hard-to-get-into Cornell.

Now he won't have to quickly change the subject whenever people idly remark that they didn't know it was possible to major in
communications at an Ivy League school.
You can imagine what the conservative commentators would do with a blatantly elitist statement like this.

But wait. The person who wrote it is a conservative commentator. Ann Coulter. Her target is Keith Olbermann. (This isn’t a verbatim transcript. I took out the identifying names, and added a transition here and there.)

Coulter is a graduate of the Ivy League Cornell.* But it’s not just Olbermann and other Ag School people that she looks down on. A sidebar on her website disdains people who the Times describes as “ordinary.” The word Coulter prefers is “repellent.
Even the NYT Can’t Make “Swingers" Sound Anything Other Than Repellent
She reprints the Times headline and four brief excerpts.
At a Sex Club, the Outré Meet the Ordinary
. . . hairy-chested buzzards to Spandex matrons from the suburbs.
. . . a couple in their 60s went at it nonchalantly near buffet trays of ziti.
. . . a small, round woman
. . . the unassuming features of your fellow passenger on the bus.

Apparently, not all elitism is repugnant to the Republicans, for they love Ann Coulter. I guess it’s a case of “she’s an elitist, but she’s our elitist.

* I wonder which of these two Cornell grads two nights ago was more enthusiasticor even knewabout the Big Red clinching a spot at the NCAA.)

The Association - XKCD version

March 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I criticized the way the press had played up an article on rap music and sex. The article implied cause where the article had established only “association.” I speculated that the reporters hadn’t taken even a basic course in sociology or statistics. I guess they don’t read XKCD either.

Or is it really about post hoc ergo propter hoc?

Mapping Mortgages

March 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today had maps showing the rise in overpriced houses – mortgages that were more than four times the applicant’s income – 2000 to 2007.

)Click on the image for a larger view.)

At the USA Today website , you drag a slider over the map to change from one to the other – cool technically but not especially useful.

I wondered if there might be any similarity between the 2007 map and the county map of the Presidential election.

It’s hard to tell from just looking. If there is a correlation, it’s probably driven by the swath down the middle of the country – light blue for affordable mortgages, Republican red in the election – but I don’t have the original data. And remember, these are counties, not houses or voters. That large geographic area probably accounts for far fewer of each than do the areas east and west of it.

I've Got a Fast Connection So I Don't Have to Wait . . .

March 4, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

You don’t expect an article form the Journal of Economic Perspectives make it to the national news . . . unless it’s about pornography, politics, and piety. Here are some typical headlines.
Red Staters Buy More Online Porn than Blue Staters (USA Today)
Red State Porn Purchasing Power (SF Chronicle)
Porn in the USA: Conservatives Are Biggest Consumers (ABC News)
The study, by Benjamin Edelman at the Harvard Business School, look at paid subscriptions to online porn sites from a single company (one of the top ten), which provided Edelman the zip codes of their subscribers.

Here’s the table that got the most attention in the press.

(Click on the table to see a larger version.)

In his New York Times blog, Charles Blow reprinted the table with the third column highlighted in red. That column shows several conservative states (Utah, Araknsas, Oklahoma) in the top ten, and several liberal states (New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut) in the bottom ten. Blow says, “New evidence suggests that people who live in states that laud morality may also be the most lascivious.”

Is that what Edelman found? Is that even what the table shows? Look again.

When Edelman used porn subscriptions per capita (column 1), New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were in the top ten, a finding that the media pretty much ignored. When he changed the denominator to homes with Internet access (column 2), New Jersey and Massachusetts were still in the top ten, joined by California. It was only when he changed the denominator to homes with broadband that some of these liberal states wound up in the lowest fifth, and states like Oklahoma and Arkansas hit the top ten.

Here’s what really happened. When it comes to paying for online porn, variation by state is fairly small. As Edelman says at the conclusion of his article, “interest in online adult entertainment [is] relatively constant across regions.” But regions do differ in broadband access. Using broadband rather than population has a big impact. Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey are all high in broadband access (near 60% of households); Oklahoma, Arkansas, and West Virginia are all in the lowest quintile (less than 40%).

What column 3 shows is not so much who’s paying for porn but who has broadband. “Avenue Q” fans will understand:

(The first 30 seconds or so is all you need to get the idea, although the best line comes near the end.

The outlier in my analysis is Utah – lots of broadband, lots of porn. Can any Mormonologists out there explain this?

Nobody Knows You When You're Downwardly Mobile

March 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mark Kleiman notes a line from a New York Times story about downward mobility. The line concerns Ame Arlt, age 53, who had been making $165,000 a year as vice president at a media company. Now she makes $10-15 an hour doing mostly data entry.

Saddest line in the story: “Even though she has parted ways with some friends because she is no longer in their social stratum . . . “ I’ll have to get a new dictionary. The one I have seems to have an obsolete definition of the word “friend.”

Did Mark think that her former friends had abandoned her? That was my first thought. In my mind’s ear, I heard Billie Holiday singing the bridge to God Bless the Child:

Money – you’ve got lots of friends
Waitin’ round your door
When it’s gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more.

These lines are at 1:16 into this clip.

But on reading the sentence a second time, I got the impression that Ms. Arlt was the one who had decided to let the friendships drop. It’s not about their snobbery, it’s about her sense of self.

That interpretation may be more accurate, but it’s certainly not the more popular one. In fact, as I was trying to think up a title for this post, I ran through the lyrics of all the “friend” songs I could think of, and they all said the same thing: “I’ll be your friend even when things go bad for you.” None of them looked at it from the position Ms. Alt is now in. None of them said, “When I’m down and out and you’re still in good shape, I won’t be self-conscious or ashamed about still being friends with you.”

Can anyone think of a song, or anything else, that expresses that idea?