Murder in the Cathedral

May 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Operation Rescue issued the following statement regarding the assassination of Dr. George Tiller as he served as an usher at his Kansas church.
We are shocked at this morning's disturbing news that Mr. [sic]Tiller was gunned down. Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice. We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning. We pray for Mr. Tiller's family that they will find comfort and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
I like “shocked” with its inadvertent Casablanca allusion. For years they have been calling Dr. Tiller a murderer, a mass murderer. They wanted him “brought to justice” even though he had committed no crime. And now they are shocked, shocked, to find that one of their followers got the message.

In 1170, King Henry II, frustrated by Archbishop Thomas Becket’s refusal to cede any church jurisdiction to the crown, called out to his underling knights, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest.”* Four knights rode to Canterbury and killed Becket.

The next day, King Henry issued a proclamation. (My memory is hazy here. I think the lines below may be from T.S. Eliot’s version.)
At this disturbing news we are shocked, shocked,
That the Archbishop has been killed by swords.
We wanted on his head to bring down justice
But through peaceful means. We’re not to blame – trust us.

*That is the most famous version of the quote. More recent scholarship has Henry taunting the knights: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric!”

White Is Not a Race

May 31, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and others on the far right are calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Before she was nominated, when Obama said that “empathy” was a quality he would look for in a Supreme Court justice, Republicans picked up the word and waved it like the red flag of danger. Even David Brooks, who enters stage right to play the role of the calm and thoughtful, but always reliable, conservative, suddenly remembered that “emotions are an inherent part of decision-making.” In his column yesterday, Brooks asks of Sotomayor,
Can she process multiple streams of emotion? Reason is weak and emotions are strong, but emotions can be balanced off each other. . . . Is she aware of the murky, flawed and semiprimitive nature of her own decision-making, and has she accounted for her own uncertainty? If we were logical creatures in a logical world, judges could create sweeping abstractions and then rigorously apply them. But because we’re emotional creatures in an idiosyncratic world, it’s prudent to have judges who are cautious, incrementalist and minimalist.
The role of emotion and the “semiprimitive” nature of decision-making – Brooks says that these affect all humans. It was a mere oversight that he never mentioned these factors in his writings about other justices or nominees. But faced with the nomination of Sotomayor, Brooks seems to be seeing he as Penelope Cruz as the hot-blooded Latina in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

These Republican reactions and arguments rest on the basic assumption that white male is the default setting. White is not a race, male is not a gender. Only blacks, Hispanics, and others have race. Only women and gays have gender. Because white males do not have race or gender, race and gender cannot affect their decisions or perceptions. But for a Latina, awash in race and gender, these qualities will distort her views. Therefore, she must prove that she can overcome race and gender – in other words, that she can think like a white male.

Situation Comedy

May 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“If there’s one second of spare time, and if you look away from him and lose eye contact, he immediately whips it out and starts looking at it,” she said.
“She” is Evvajean Mintz, speaking about her husband, Richard, a partner in a Boston law firm. His annoying bit of dinner-table behavior is the subject of an article in the food section of the yesterday’s New York Times. The “it” she is referring to, as you have no doubt guessed, is his Blackberry.*

Cellphones and Blackberries are the new normative battleground. The rules are far from clear. Adults think it’s rude to text at the dinner table; obviously many kids think otherwise. In fact, I wonder if there are any situations at all that these kids would redline for texting.

Most people think that you shouldn’t make cellphone calls in a theater – most, but not all, for the management has to remind people of the rule. But what about on public transportation? Some buses ban them; others don’t. Some commuter trains have cellphone cars the way they used to have smoking cars. How about sporting events? My sister-in-law complained about cell-phone users at the Yankee game.

Sometimes our reactions are personal and rational. We can’t enjoy the play or movie if we have to listen to competing cellphone conversations. We know that the kid who is busy with his Blackberry in class is not giving us his full attention. But more often our reactions are social. We are acting not as individuals but as members of society. We resent the texter or talker not out of self-interest but on behalf of the social situation. As Goffman says, we have a stake in the situation that we find ourselves in, and even though we may have absolutely no personal connection to others in that situation, we think that they too should show their commitment to it. The cellphone/Blackberry user is saying to all those present that despite her physical presence, she herself is not part of the situation. Her allegiance is to others elsewhere.

The Times reporter talked with danah boyd (or as the Times style sheet insists, Danah Boyd), who says that teenagers are
just doing what they’ve always done: hanging out with their friends.
The cellphone makes it possible to bring your social circle to the dinner table. “You don’t really have to disconnect,” she said.
That’s putting a smiley emoticon face on it. The teens are not bringing their social circle to the table. Instead, what the others at the table see is a teenager who has disconnected from interaction with them in favor of some distant, private, and invisible friend.

I don’t mind if the woman on the bus is reading the newspaper or listening to her iPod or talking to the person next to her. I don’t mind if the guy at the Yankee game is yelling out his assessment of the players’ abilities. But if they’re talking on their cellphones, that’s just not right.

*Seinfeld viewers may be reminded of a bit of dialogue from The Stand-in episode (1994). Elaine is explaining to Jerry what happened on a first date: “He took it out.” (Watch it here .)

That was then. But if it were now, and if the guy, just prior to a possible first kiss, had taken out his Blackberry and started thumbing it, Elaine might have similarly decided that she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Update: Randy at Potato Chipping has a nice post noting that the Times seems to be on a moral-panic campaign to turn texting into a social problem. The texting-at-table article is a sort of follow up to a more “serious” article that appeared in the health section a day or two earlier.

Young /Old Differences - Age or Generation?

May 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some years ago, a colleague of my brother offered this example of mistaking generational differences for age differences. If you took a cross-section of the Miami population, you would conclude that when Miamians are young, they speak Spanish; as they get older, they switch to English. And when they get very old, they speak Yiddish.

I was thinking about this recently – not just because I’ve been in Florida for the past few days, but because of two articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The first was about Southern schools that hold segregated proms even though the student body is integrated.
“Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no. … They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”
The other was Matt Bai’s column on a similar difference in attitudes towards homosexuality.
The gist of the disagreement now isn’t partisan or theological as much as it is generational. Unlike their parents, younger Americans and those now transitioning into middle age have had openly gay friends and colleagues all their lives . . . . They’re less inclined to restrict the personal decisions of gay Americans.
At first, I thought the articles offered two parallel branches of the same trend – a generational shift towards liberalism on social issues. But when you have differences between young and old, there are two possible explanations – generation and age. If the difference is generational, then the kids of today will retain their liberal attitudes in the same way that they will probably retain their musical preferences. My guess is that Bai is correct and that today’s teens and twentysomethings will continue to support gay marriage.

But what about those segregated proms? It’s possible that the differences are a matter of aging, not of generation. If so, when today’s kids are older and have teenagers of their own, they may come to adopt their parents’ views. The separate black and white proms may continue even though nobody can justify them in terms of rationality or values. As one teenager quoted in the article says, “It’s how it’s always been. It’s just a tradition.”

Grannies with Bags

May 22, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Lee Sigelman at The Monkey Cage posted this video of an older woman waiting to cross the street and then showing her displeasure at the guy in the Mercedes who impatiently honks his horn.

More specifically, she whacks his bumper hard enough to trigger the air bag.

Sigelman posts it as a test: Your guess as to what the driver will do reveals your philosophy of human nature.

But for us ancients, it more likely brings to mind Gladys Ormphby, the handbag-wielding Laugh-in character played by Ruth Buzzi.

See several Gladys bits strung together here.

The Things We Carried

May 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening sequence in Lawrence Kasdan’s1983 film The Big Chill shows a now dispersed group of college friends packing their bags as they prepare to come together for a funeral. No dialogue, just “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” on the soundtrack.

As the film cuts from one suitcase to another, there’s a visual joke: into the bag of each person, man or woman, goes a hair dryer, each a different color. At the time, this single iconic object located these former SDS types in social space. Kasdan could have simply had a sign flashing YUPPIE in bright letters with an arrow pointing to the person’s head. The hair dryer thing was marginally more subtle.*

That was then. Now, it would be chargers.

We packed for a short trip this week, and there they were – chargers for cell phones, laptops, cameras, and iPods. There were a couple of others I wasn’t sure about, but we took them along just in case.

*The hair dryer also figured symbolically in the 1975 film Shampoo, whose central idea is to play against the effeminate-hairdresser stereotype. Warren Beatty as George the hair stylist zips around on his motorcycle to do the hair of (and simply do) beautiful women all over LA. He carries his hair dryer tucked in his belt like a gangster’s Magnum.

Do You See What I See?

May 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

President Obama took a lot of flak from conservatives when he mentioned “empathy” as one quality, among several others, that he would look for in a Supreme Court justice.
We need somebody who has the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, African American, gay, disabled and old.
For conservatives, empathy is irrelevant. They take an absolutist position: the facts are the facts, and the Constitution says what it says. The court should not bend that Constitution in order to accommodate the interests of teenage moms, African Americans, or anybody else.

But empathy is not just about the interpreting the Constitution.. It’s also about the facts. And, as Obama seems to recognize, a set of facts – what you see – depends on where you are looking from.

Here’s a video that has nothing to do with gays or blacks or teenage moms. It’s a high-speed chase, shot from inside a police cruiser, It isn’t from Cops. It’s from a 2007 Supreme Court case (Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769) .

Watch the video, then answer the two questions. (Warning: this ain’t Mario Kart. It ends with the Officer Scott using his police car to deliberately ram Harris’s Cadillac, which crashes at high speed into a light pole. Harris suffered a broken neck and was left a quadriplegic.)*

On a six-point scale, from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree:
  • During the pursuit, Harris drove in a manner that put members of the public at great risk of death.
  • During the pursuit, Harris drove in a manner that put the police at serious risk of death.
Harris’s lawsuit depended on the answers to these factual questions. For the Supreme Court justices, the video said it all. Justice Alito: “I looked at the videotape on this. It seemed to me that [Harris] created a tremendous risk [to] drivers on that road.” (Scalia got a laugh her by adding., “He created the scariest chase I ever saw since ‘The French Connection.’”

Justice Breyer says the tape flat out turned him around. “I was with you when I read . . . the opinion of the court below,” Justice Breyer related. “Then I look at that tape, and I have to say that when I looked at the tape, my reaction was somewhat similar to Justice Alito’s.”

But would everyone see it the same facts in this video? Well, yes and no, at least according to a Harvard Law Review article, “Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe.” The authors, three law professors,** asked a sample of 1350 people – not Supreme Court justices – to view the tape. The overwhelming majority of people said that the chase put the public and police at risk. Three-fourths thought that the use of deadly force was justified, but only a slight majority felt that it was worth the risk.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

But the percentages varied among groups. Using mostly demographic variables, the authors created four types of juror – types they identify as Ron, Pat, Bernie, and Linda – who had vastly different responses to the questions. Only 36% of the Linda group felt that the use of deadly force was justified, compared with 87% of the Rons. As to who was at fault, 94% of the Rons but only 29% of the Lindas assigned the fault to Harris.

The paper has several other comparisons as well as correlation tables on specific demographic variables. It’s also the only law review article I’ve ever read that made me laugh out loud (well, chuckle), thanks to the way the authors present their typology (not that I spend much time searching for yocks in law journals). It’s also eminently readable and non-legalistic. Download it here.

The authors’ point is that people may watch the same tape, but they see different things,

* Respondents were also provided the following set of facts:
  • The police clocked Harris driving 73 miles per hour on a highway in a 55 mile-per-hour zone at around 11 pm.
  • The police decided to pursue Harris when Harris ignored the police car’s flashing lights and kept driving rather than pulling over.
  • The chase lasted around seven minutes and covered eight to nine miles.
  • The police determined from the license plate number that the vehicle had not been reported stolen.
  • Officer Scott joined the chase after it started. He did not know why the other officers had originally tried to stop Harris.
  • Scott knew that other police officers had blocked intersections leading to the highway but did not know if all of the intersections were blocked.
  • Officer Scott deliberately used his police cruiser’s front bumper to hit the rear of Harris’s car[,] hoping to cause Harris’s car to spin out and come to a stop.
  • Officer Scott knew there was a high risk that ramming the car in this manner could seriously injure or kill Harris.
  • Harris lost control, crashed, and suffered severe injuries, including permanent paralysis from the neck down.
**Dan M. Kahan, David A. Hoffman & Donald Braman


May 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

We had our convocation today.

Convocation is better than commencement. It looks pretty much the same – caps, gowns, and the rest – but it’s smaller, just for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Commencement is in a big sports arena miles away. Convocation is in our own amphitheater. At commencement, students rise and are recognized en masse. At convocation, each student is called by name and walks across the stage, getting handshakes or hugs from the faculty in his or her department. Plus, the speeches are usually shorter.

(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

The Dean’s Recognition Award this year went to Michelle Newton, a sociology student. The Dean noted Michelle’s many accomplishments – other honors and awards and a GPA of 3.99 (I checked my records to make sure I wasn’t the creep who gave her an A-minus.)

Michelle had also done a poster session at the university’s student research day, presenting her research on empathy and attitudes towards animal rights.

Needless to say, we were all delighted to have her as a student, and we’ll miss her greatly. Next year she starts law school on a full scholarship.

Congratulations to Michelle and all our graduates.

Crowds and Wisdom: The Social Construction of Bubbles

May 15, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve blogged before about my skepticism of the wisdom of crowds (here for example). I had been thinking about sports betting and line shifts. But I’d missed the 800-pound gorilla that could make the wisdom-of-crowds crowd run for the exits: bubbles. Bubbles like the one that got us into the current mess. The Obama administration is calling for more “transparency” for swaps and derivatives. But was opacity the problem? True, these instruments weren’t traded on an open market, but the people who did trade them weren’t keeping stuff secret. The problem with these instruments – instruments designed to manage risk – was that nobody really knew how risky they were. Worse, they thought they knew, and they greatly underestimated the risk. Why? Back in February, Felix Salmon, in an article in Wired, put the blame here: It’s the Gaussian copula, a simple (as these things go) formula for evaluating the risk of a derivative. Derivatives and swaps are complex combinations of risk elements, but those elements are not independent of one another. To figure out the true risk of a tranche of one of these instruments, you’d have to know the myriad of correlations among all the elements.
Falling house prices, affect a large number of people at once. . . . If . . . you default on your mortgage, there’s a higher probability [others] will default, too. That's called correlation—the degree to which one variable moves in line with another—and measuring it is an important part of determining how risky mortgage bonds are.
But defaults are relatively rare, so how could you assess the degree of correlation? Along comes David X. Li, a quant. The formula, the Gaussian copula, is his claim to fame (or now, infamy).*
Li's breakthrough was that instead of waiting to assemble enough historical data about actual defaults, which are rare in the real world, he used historical prices from the CDS market. . . .Li wrote a model that used price rather than real-world default data as a shortcut (making an implicit assumption that financial markets in general, and CDS markets in particular, can price default risk correctly). Using Li's copula approach meant that ratings agencies like Moody's—or anybody wanting to model the risk of a tranche—no longer needed to puzzle over the underlying securities. All they needed was that correlation number, and out would come a rating telling them how safe or risky the tranche was.
The copula uses price. But price, as graduates of Father Guido Sarducci’s Five-Minute University know, is a product of “supply ana demand.” Price, at least in the short run, is based not on some true underlying value. It’s based on what people think. It’s pure social construction. The construction fed on itself.
You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them—an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. But it didn't matter. All you needed was Li's copula function.
The socially constructed reality of price eventually came up against the economic reality of value: the Wile E. Coyote moment.**
the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.
*As the article makes clear, Li is not to be blamed for the way the Wall Street predators misused his formula.

**Is there actually a Road Runner cartoon with such a moment? There must be, but I could not find it on YouTube.

Labor and Capital - The Tipping Point

May 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The struggles of organized labor may have had a change of venue since the days of copper mines and Joe Hill, but the melody lingers on. (Full story here.)
(Click on the picture for a larger view.)

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive and looking well.
Says he, “I’ve left the mines. I’m at
The Essex House Hotel.
The Essex House Hotel.”

“Jumeira’s cut the workers’ hours
They’re handing out pink slips,
And if you work the banquet room,
They stiff you on your tips.
Two million bucks in tips.”

“We beat them at the Waldorf
The St. Regis and the Hyatt.
If three-hour strikes are what we need
To win, we’re gonna try it.
We’re surely going to try it.”

“Joe Hill ain’t dead, by God,” says he,
“He hasn’t changed his ways.
He’s standing with the busboys
And the waiters schlepping trays
The waiters schlepping trays.”

“From Mariott to Sheraton
To Plaza Athenée,
Where workers strike, Joe Hill is there
To see they get their pay.
Their tips and hourly pay.”

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive and looking well
Right there beside the workers in
The Essex House Hotel
The Essex House Hotel.

Wouldn't You Really Rather Have a Professor?

May 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was grading exams yesterday and missed the Inside Higher Ed story on the continued adjunctification of our world. The data come from an AFT report.

Unfortunately, the report does not give data on the number of courses taught by each category of employee, just the numbers of people in each category. We don’t know whether all those grad students in research universities were teaching a course or two on their own or whether they were TAs doing a discussion section.

The trend is clear, though less so at research universities than at public colleges: the full-time, tenured or tenure-track professor is becoming the Buick of academia. You can still find them, but they’re gradually being replaced by non-union-made models that are easier to maneuver and far less costly to buy and maintain.

Multiple Choice - What Is It Good For?

May 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Multiple-choice tests are
a. a convenience for students
b. a convenience for teachers
c. a quick way to test knowledge of facts
d. a travesty of education

It’s All of the above. Students often do prefer multiple-choice items. Less time and effort – circling a letter or blackening a Scantron box as a opposed to writing an essay.

For the teacher, they are easier to grade (the computer does it for you), and you don’t even have to compose your own test. Most textbooks come with prepackaged “test banks” of questions. The questions are often bad. They ask about unimportant things, and they often violate rules of good test construction. Some have more than one right answer
  • A and C
  • B and D
  • A, B, and D but not C
Others have non-parallel choices:
It’s hotter in
a. the summer

b. the city.

It’s tempting for students and teachers to collude in this conspiracy and act as if some body of ideas and evidence, a set of complex thoughts, can be represented in a few dozen smudge marks. It reminds of the old Soviet factory workers’ joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Once, many years back, as I began the intro to the unit on Freud, a student asked, “Hasn’t Freud been pretty much disproved?” I don’t remember what I answered, but later it occurred to me that perhaps what the student wanted was to reduce the entirety of Freudian thought to a single question: Freud – True or False. Answer: False.

There is a use for these items – as teaching tools. I used to make the test bank available to students so they could check on their reading of the textbook. But I would add that more important than getting the right answer was understanding why it was right, why the others were wrong, and why the question was at all important. What more general ideas did it relate to?

I’ve also used multiple choice quizzes as a teaching device in class. After I give the quiz, I don’t collect it but let the students get together in groups to figure out the right answers. It’s encouraging how thoroughly they will parse the answers, exploring the implications of each choice, going back and checking in the reading. These discussions also alert me to problems with the questions – ambiguous wording, more than one valid choice, etc. – so that I can correct them if I ever do decide to use them on a real exam.

I do use them – to accommodate student preferences and to avoid complaints about subjective grading. But for the most part, I dislike the idea of multiple-choice tests. I also find it ironic that the teachers who rely on them are also often the teachers who see education as preparing students for the real world. What in the world (the real world) will students ever be asked to do that resembles a multiple-choice test?

Sociology Blogging - Never Too Soon

May 8, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m thinking of assigning blogs as coursework next time around. Jenn Lena at Vanderbilt created a sort of group blog, My Sociological Imagination, with different teams of students posting each week. Students were also required to comment regularly on other’s posts. (The seven percent solution – 7% of the final grade for the blog post, 7% for comments.) Jenn says that the blog posts were better than what students in past semesters wrote when she gave the same assignments as papers. Maybe it was because students knew that their work was going to be read carefully by their classmates, not just the teacher. (Read Jenn’s evaluation here, specs for the assignment here – both useful.)

I was impressed by the Vanderbilt students. But if I do shift to blogs, it will probably be because of the kids in Mrs. Castelli’s class in a high school outside Chicago. I can’t remember how I happened on Mrs. Castelli’s blog, but it has links to her students’ blogs, so I browsed through them.

I’m guessing that blogging was optional since barely a dozen a kids in two periods have blogs, but the ones that did create their own blogs seem to have fun with them. A couple of the kids just seem to like writing as a kind of public performance. All the bloggers seemed to enjoy the visual aspect – playing around with the different Blogger formats and including pictures (one kid illustrates nearly every post, regardless of topic, with a picture of a sleek car). I think the most successful assignment was the one that apparently asked them to compare photos from two eras and look for changes in cultural ideals. The boys mostly chose athletes, the girls preferred models or actresses.

So, at least when it comes to blogging, the kids are all right. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, these kids have never known a world without the Internet. Putting your ideas about sociological concepts out there in a blog for the world to see isn’t much different from creating and customizing your page on MySpace or Facebook. Now if only they could learn to use their spell-checkers.

Slow Food Nation

May 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

An hour a day. That’s how much more time the French spend à table compared with Americans.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The title on the chart (it’s from the OECD) is misleading. It’s not that the French need the extra time because they actually eat so much food. In fact, they eat less. French visitors to the US are often surprised (if not appalled or overwhelmed) by the huge portions in American restaurants. What the French are doing is not so much eating as having a meal. (OECD spreadsheets often provide the same data on two different sheets, one in English, the other in French. The French title for this same chart is, “Durée quotidienne moyenne des repas.” Eating is a necessary activity for getting nutrients into your body. A meal is an occasion, an end in itself.)

Americans seem to take a utilitarian view of eating. It’s something to be done as quickly as possible so that you can get on to more important things. Better yet, eat while you’re doing those other things. The great advantage of the Egg McMuffin is that you can hold your entire breakfast (egg, cheese, bacon, English muffin) in one hand while you drive to work. Your coffee rests securely in the cup holder – a device as indispensable in American cars as the automatic transmission. In New York, I see people walking down the sidewalk eating – a slice of pizza, a sandwich, a bag of fries – something you just don’t see in France. There, you sit down with others and have a meal.

It’s not just a matter of individual preferences. Americans who want “slow food” run into cultural and structural obstacles. It starts in school, where lunch period is usually less than a half hour, and the last kids in line may have less than ten minutes before their next class starts. And for adult workers, how many workers get a “lunch hour” that’s really sixty minutes? How many eat a sandwich at their desks while continuing to work?

But in France . . . On my first trip to Paris, I would sometimes compare notes with other Americans I met. Often, they were infuriated by the “fermature,” the midday closing of stores for two hours or more. They couldn’t understand why a commercial establishment would forgo a chance to make money just so that the owner and employees could eat a leisurely lunch. It was downright inconsiderate, not to mention inconvenient for Americans, who didn’t want to spend two hours in a restaurant.

(HT - PollyVousFrancais, who also prints the chart showing that the French sleep more than do people in other countries. And as with the repas, they may also pay more attention to who they are doing it with.)

The Fading Auto Industry

May 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

It's not just American cars that may be vanishing. SocProf posted this picture of a Skoda.

The Czech car is actually there, but artist Sara Watson painted it to make at appear to disappear. (She spent weeks on the project.)

It reminds me of Julian Beever’s sidewalk trompe l’oeil art, with the minor difference that in Watson’s illusion, you don’t see something that really is there. With Beever’s drawings, you do see something, but it isn’t really there. Like this bottle of Coke.

It’s not the real thing – just chalk on a sidewalk.

I guess the sociological lesson is that what you see depends on where you stand. Both Watson’s and Beever’s illusions require the viewer be in just the right spot.. Here’s a Beever drawing, “Baby Food.” When you look at it from the wrong side, the baby is safe.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

More Beever here.

Is This Racist -- Actually?

May 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Overt acts of racism still occur – in hiring, in lending, in renting, and other areas. But people concerned about racism increasingly are concerned not with the actions of a few but with thoughts and attitudes that are more widespread, thoughts that we are often unaware of.
But you don’t need an Implicit Association Test when you have statements like this from right-wing blogger Byron York.

(Click on the box for a larger image.)

Some bloggers on the left are taking York to task over that last sentence. OK, “taking him to task” is not the mot juste. They’re calling him a racist.

York’s point was that support for Obama and his policies was much higher among African Americans than among whites. Obama’s approval rating in the New York Times poll was 68%, but the single number masks a large difference. Approval was 96% among blacks, 62% among whites, and there were similar black-white differences on other questions.*

Nobody was accusing York of using the data incorrectly. It was rather his attitude as revealed in that last sentence – “some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.” He doesn’t seem to think that blacks count.

In a subsequent post, York defends himself.
I thought the word “overall’ conveyed the idea that there was a difference between the total job-approval number and the complexities of opinion of Obama on various issues. Maybe “across-the-board’ would have been better than “overall.”
But “overall” isn’t the problem. The problem is “actually.” Actual in the sense of real. The statement assumes that only white’s opinions are “real” and that black opinions are not part of reality.

I don’t know if Byron York is a racist. I’m fairly sure he’s not a Klan sympathizer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in all his personal dealings with people of all races he is scrupulously fair. But I also doubt that he would have said JFK wasn’t “really” so popular because Catholics rated him much more highly than did non-Catholics. Or that Bush’s approval ratings were “actually” even lower than they appeared because he got very high approval ratings from fundamentalist Christians.

What’s at issue is his apparent assumption that America is “actually” white (and male), like Sarah Palin’s “real Americans.” So you can understand why people might think that he was, at some level, a racist. And that picture accompanying his article doesn’t help much either.

* These figures are from a NYT poll that York links to. But the numbers York gives in his article are different: “the Times had him at 69 percent approval,” “Asked whether their opinion of the president is favorable or unfavorable, 49 percent of whites in the Times poll say they have a favorable opinion of Obama. Among blacks the number is 80 percent.” Not only are the numbers different from what the Times gives, but they don’t add up. The 80% (black) and 49% (white), would not average out to 69% when weighted for population.