Clyde and the Academic Job Interview

March 31, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

NPR’s “On the Media” departed from its usual content – stories that make you think that the full title of the show is “Outrageous Things that Make You Want to Spit On the Media” – and ran an interview Brooke Gladstone did with Walt Frazier.*  It’s mostly about two things Clyde loves – basketball and words – with a passing reference to a third, clothes.  (“I’m a shy guy that likes to walk around in mink coats and a Rolls Royce.”)

In my own mind, the mention of Frazier usually triggers this anecdote about a job interview – not mine but that of another professor in the social sciences. Let’s call him Brett.  One day he was reminiscing about his job interview at Montclair back in 1972. 
At the end of my visit to campus, I had my interview with the Dean, and he asked me why I wanted to come to Montclair.  “Well, Dean,” I said, “I want to stay in the New York area till Frazier retires.”
It was a good story, and maybe he really did say that to the Dean.**  I have no doubt as to the truth of his statement. Frazier was worth staying around for.  In any case, it was prophetic. Five years later, in 1977, the Knicks traded Frazier to Cleveland.***  And in 1977 Montclair dumped Brett, who found a non-academic job. In Ohio.

* The edited radio version of the interview is here.  A video of the full one-hour interview is here.

** In one episode of the sitcom “Family Ties,” Alex (Michael J. Fox) goes to Princeton for an interview with the Dean. The Dean, whose last name happens to be Meminger, so the episode has several references to Dean Meminger.” The real Dean Meminger was a basketball player, a Knicks teammate of Frazier in the 1970s. The creator of “Family Ties,” Gary David Goldberg, raised in Brooklyn, loved basketball, and the name of the dean was no doubt a dog whistle to other Knicks fans.

*** Clyde on being in Cleveland: “I was all dressed up and no place to go.”

Upwardly Mobile Beer

March 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

In the Pittsburgh of my youth many decades ago, Rolling Rock was an ordinary, low-priced local beer – like Duquesne (“Duke”) or Iron City. ( “Gimme a bottle of Iron,” was what you’d say to the bartender.  And if you were a true Pittsburgher, you pronounced it “Ahrn.”).  The Rolling Rock brewery was in Latrobe, PA, a town about forty miles east whose other claim to fame was Arnold Palmer. The print ads showed the pure sparkling mountain stream flowing over rocks. 

That was then.  In the late 1980s, Rolling Rock started expanding – geographically outward and socially upward.  Typically, when ideas and fashions diffuse through the social class structure they flow downward. Less frequently, the educated classes embrace an artifact of working-class culture. But why? Their conspicuous consumption (or “signaling,” as we now say) is saying something, but what? What ideas about themselves and the social landscape are they expressing with their choice of beer?

I had an e-mail exchange about that question with Keith Humphreys, who blogs at The Reality-Based Community.  He too grew up in the area, and we both recalled being surprised years later to see Rolling Rock as a beer of choice among young stock traders and other decidedly non-working-class people.  But we had different ideas as to what these cosmopolitans thought they were doing. Keith saw it as their way of identifying with the working class. 
Those of us who grew up near Latrobe, Pennsylvania are agog when upscale hipsters who could afford something better drink Rolling Rock beer as a sign of their solidarity with us.*
I was more skeptical.  I saw it as the hipsters (or before them, the yuppies) trying to be even more hip – so discerning that they could discover an excellent product in places everyone else had overlooked.  Rolling Rock was a diamond in the rough, a Jackson Pollock for $5 at a yard sale.  The cognoscenti were not identifying with the working-class. They were magnifying the distance. They were saying in effect, “Those people don’t know what a prize they have.  But I do.”

I had no real data to support that idea, so I asked Gerry Khermouch, who knows more about beverage marketing than do most people.  His Beverage Business Insights puts out industry newsletters, and he writes about potables (potent and otherwise) for Adweek and Brandweek.  He’s also beverage buddies with the guys who changed Rolling Rock marketing. Here’s what he said,
far from expressing solidarity with the working class, urban drinkers far afield regarded it as an upscale icon in much the way that Stella Artois has claimed today - a triumph of pure marketing.
One ad campaign in the 90s, “Subtle Differences,” aimed directly at the drinker’s connoisseur fantasies.  Here are two examples.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s the little nuances that make life more interesting. Rolling Rock uses slightly more malt than other domestic golden lagers for a refreshing taste that’s got a little more body, a little more bite. If you’ve noticed, we salute you.

Words like nuance were not exactly an appeal to solidarity with the working-class.  Neither was the strategy of raising the price rather than lowering it. 

To the marketers, the nuance, the malt, bite, and body didn’t count for much.  Their big investment was in packaging.  Instead of stubby bottles with paper labels, they returned to the long-necked bottles with pictures and text (including the mysterious “33” on the back) painted onto the glass. Apparently, the return to the original packaging, along with the  “Old Latrobe” reference, added notes of working-class authenticity.

As for the actual beer inside those bottles, it may have once been what the ad copy said. The beer’s early water-over-the-rocks imagery suggested that the beer itself might be a bit watery. The new owners tried to change that image.  But in 2006, when Anheuser-Busch bought the company, they closed the Latrobe brewery, and Rolling Rock became a watery, biteless product indistinguishable from the other innocuous lagers that dominate the US market. 

* This observation by Keith was an aside in a post about the future of the marijuana market. That post is here.

Madeline in the US?

March 19, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Reposted (with more graphs but no Madeline) at Sociological Images

Readers of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans may remember the title character’s emergency appendectomy.  It is, after all, the central plot point.  Madeline is whisked away to a hospital, where she later shows her scar to her housemates. 

Ludwig Bemelmans came to the US at age 16 and became a citizen four years later.  He lived in New York. Yet he set this tale in France. 
And soon after Dr. Cohn
came, he rushed out to the phone,
and he dialed: DANton-ten-six -
"Nurse,” he said, “it’s an appendix!”
Everybody had to cry -
not a single eye was dry.
In a US version of the story, the tears might be caused when the bill comes.*

The Washington Post (here) has provided some data on medical costs showing why there might never be a US version of Madeline. The tab for an appendectomy here runs to $13,000, four times what it costs in France.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

No wonder the US spends twice as much as France on health care.  In 2009, the US average was $8000 per person; in France, $4000.  (Canada came in at $4800). Why do we spend so much?  Ezra Klein (here) quotes the title of a 2003 paper by four health-care economists: “it’s the prices, stupid.”

And why are US prices higher?  Prices in the other OECD countries are lower partly because of what US conservatives would call socialism – the active participation of the government.  In the UK and Canada, the government sets prices.  In other countries, the government uses its Wal-mart-like power as a huge buyer to negotiate lower prices from providers.  (If it’s a good thing for Wal-Mart to bring lower prices for people who need to buy clothes, why is it a bad thing for the government to bring lower prices to people who need to buy, say, an appendectomy? I could never figure that out.)

There may also be cultural differences between the US and other wealthy countries, differences about whether greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Is it an unlimited good? Are there realms, medicine perhaps, where it is not good?  Klein quotes a man who served in the Thatcher government:
Health is a business in the United States in quite a different way than it is elsewhere.  It’s very much something people make money out of. There isn’t too much embarrassment about that compared to Europe and elsewhere.
So we Americans roll along, paying several times what others pay for medical procedures, doctor visits, and drugs.**

Ludwig Bemelmans died a half-century ago, but Madeline lives on.  If publishers are considering an American version – like what Hollywood did in “The Birdcage,” “Dinner for Schmucks,” and other Americanized remakes of French movies – I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript (rough and in need of editing, I admit).  Here’s the ending.
And all the little girls cried, “Boohoo,
we want to have our appendix out, too!
We want a real scar
Not just some tattoo.”

“Good night, little girls!
Let this fantasy drop.
Appendectomies here
Cost thirteen g’s a pop.

“And that’s not including
The hospital stay –
The US average:
Sixteen big ones a day,

“And that pretty penny
For hospital care is
Four times as much
As the price back in Paris.

So please go to sleep!
Let’s have no more drama. There
Might be improvement ahead
With Obamacare.

*  See Steven Brill on the bitter pill of the medical bill - here.)

** The most viewed SocioBlog post ever was this one from 2009.  It consisted mostly of four graphs on health care costs.  It got Boinged because of one line: “Our Lipitor must be four to ten times as good as the Lipitor that Canadians take.”

Grand Olds Party

March 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Jeb Bush told CPAC that the Republican party had an image problem.
Way too many people believe that Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.
People have good reason to believe those things. But the “way too many” suggests that the GOP’s problem is not image or brand, it’s demography. For five years or longer, the Republican faithful have been complaining that “their” country was being taken away from them, and they were going to take it back. (See my “Repo Men” post from 2011.)

They were right. Their country, a country dominated by older white men, is fading in the demographic tide. The groups whose numbers in the electorate are on the rise don’t look like them.  Andrew Gelman (here) recently published these maps on who votes Republican and who votes Democrat. The maps are an update to his 2009 Red State, Blue State.

(The exit poll the data are based on sampled only in the 30 most competitive state. Texas and Georgia are large, and they have significant non-White populations. But demographic changes there are unlikely to have much effect on which party gets their electoral votes.)

The non-White proportion of the electorate will continue to grow. The female proportion may also increase, especially as education levels of women rise (more educated people are more likely to vote than are the less educated).  The key factor is party loyalty.  And, at least in presidential elections, people do remain loyal. I think I once read, “If you can get them for two consecutive elections, you’ve got them for life.”  Or words to that effect.  If that’s true, the age patterns of the last two elections should be what the Republicans are worrying about.

Trying to make themselves more attractive to younger people will not be easy. Oldsmobile tried it not so long ago (a post on that campaign is here).  “This is not your father’s GOP” might have similar lack of success.  But insisting that this is still your father’s GOP (or more accurately, some white dude’s father’s GOP) seems like a formula for failure.

New Yorkers

March 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ben Yagoda has a note on language, a hell of a note, on the disappearance of the phrase “a hell of a note.”  (It’s in the Chronicle, here.) Yagoda says
I seem to recall that it was a favorite expression of Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker
The Chronicle article included  picture of Ross, and while I don’t recall having seen it before, there was something familiar about it, something that reminded me of another legendary New Yorker.

(This was the best I could find at Google Images.  A good still shot of Dr. Van Nostrand would have been better.)

Fish Oil and Snake Oil

March 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

At a medical conference years ago, my friend Ron, a psychiatrist and former public health official, was seated at breakfast next to a cardiologist.  The man was slathering his toast with butter.  He also noticed Ron glancing at him and the butter-laden toast – a glance of puzzlement tinged with disapproval, like an AA member watching Bill W ordering a martini. 

“Only two things matter,” said the cardiologist, answering the question Ron had been too polite to ask.  “Good genes, no smoke.”

Ron told me this story as he was unwrapping the massive corned beef and chopped liver sandwich he’d picked up at the local Carnegie-Deli-style restaurant in my neighborhood. 

The good doctor was ahead of his time.  Now, years later, the old consensus on cholesterol and heart disease is fraying if not unraveling completely.  In today’s Times Magazine, Gretchen Reynolds (here) cites
studies showing that assiduously sticking to a diet rich in fish oils, another heart-healthful fat, doesn’t necessarily protect people from heart attacks or strokes.
It’s not that we’re now getting low-quality fish oil from the “slightly irregular” bin. It’s just that like so many other discoveries, the fish oil effect has fallen victim to the erosion that comes with more and more research. The JAMA (here) recently had this chart showing the fading of fish oil findings. 

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The social sciences too suffer from this law of diminishing results.  The first publication of some interesting, even startling, effect makes us take notice.  But further studies find correlations that are weaker; subsequent experiments fail to replicate.  The Chronicle recently reported on the pitfalls of “priming,” particularly the problems of one of its principle proponents, John Bargh.  In one of his better-known experiments, participants (didn’t they used to be “subjects”?) were primed with words suggesting advanced age – wrinkles, bingo, alone, Florida, etc.  The words were embedded in an irrelevant task so subtly that participants were unaware of them. Yet when Bargh timed these college-age kids walking down the hall, compared with the control group they walked more slowly, as though wrinkle and Florida had hobbled them behind an invisible walker. 

But other researchers have been unable to replicate these results.  The interesting thing is that they have, however, been able to get their findings published.  Usually, the positive-results bias among journals would consign these to the rejection pile.

I was telling another friend about this. She’s a neuroscientist and professor of psychology. “There are lots of failures to replicate. You don’t always get the results,” she said.  “That doesn’t mean the effect doesn’t exist.”
I asked her if she knew about the Bargh controversy.  No, she said, but she knew of this experiment.  “I tried it with my students in my course,” she said.
“We couldn’t replicate.”

But maybe that’s the way it is in social science and medical science. If a magician pops the balloon to reveal inside it the three of clubs when the card you chose was the ten of hearts, he’s not much of a magician, and “But I get it right most of the time” is not much of a defense.  But science isn’t stage magic.  “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t” is not completely devastating.  We deal in probabilities, not certainties.

(HT: Keith Humphreys at the Reality Based Community for publishing the otherwise pay-walled JAMA chart.)

Stalls, Walls, Scrawls

March 9, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

In the third stall at a women’s room at the University of Western Ontario, someone had written, “What was the worst day of your life?” 

A few responses were humorous, but most were serious.
  • Every day, struggling with an eating disorder
  • The day I found out my father was an alcoholic
  • The day I was raped.
One student, Kierson Drier, who saw these, took a piece of notebook paper, wrote a sympathetic response to each of those, and taped it on the wall of the stall.

(Click on the image for a larger view.  Or to read the text, go here.)

It  went viral.  Reddit picked it up, and the story has been in Canadian newspapers.  But this example is not so unusual.  A study (here behind the Sage paywall) of bathroom grafitti at a New Zealand university found similar themes.
 inscriptions in the women’s toilets were talking about love and romance, soliciting personal advice on health issues and relationships, and discussing what exact act constitutes rape. Women also tried to placate more heated discussions (e.g., “Stop this. There is no reason to say these things. Why so much in-fighting?”).
The men wrote about politics and money (especially taxes and tuition).  Men also posted insults that were far more numerous and aggressive than those in the women’s room.  Only the men wrote racist graffiti.

Years ago, a colleague of mine had her students go into the opposite-sex bathrooms to look at the graffiti.  (I think it was for a course on language, not gender.)  I cannot remember what they found.  But I doubt that any men had written about things that were personally troubling.  Men are from insult-o-matic , women are from Post Secret

My guess is that in University Men’s Room USA these days you’d also find sports, gay bashing, and crude heterosexuality.  I don’t know how this would be different if all trips to the men’s room were to the stalls.  As it is, most are to the urinals, which afford the graffitista neither privacy nor hands-free technology. 

As for women’s rooms, a month ago a female colleague went into the ground-floor women’s room in our building and found racist graffiti that was so offensive she immediately reported it to have it removed. 

Community and Morality

March 8, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks today (here) reports on his guided tour of orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, including a stop at Pomegranate, a glatt kosher version of Whole Foods – “kosher cheeses from Italy and France. . . gluten-free ritual foods.”

OK, you have to be impressed by a gluten-free matzo.  But it’s the aura of community that has Brooks totally snowed.
For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.                

The other side of this ethos is that the “external moral order” Brooks speaks of is fiercely group based.  What is right is what’s good for this insular group and especially for its high priests.  In Jonathan Haidt’s terms, Loyalty and Authority trump Harm.  When it’s one of Us harming one of Them, it’s an easy call; the harm is meaningless to us.  But the same morality applies even when the victims are our own. When priests commit seriously harmful crimes against parishioners, loyalist morality moves the Church, whether headed by Benedict or Beckett, to protect the priests.

Brooks’s tour did not include a stop to chat with Nechemaya Weberman.  He’s in prison, serving 103 years for sexually abusing a young girl, starting when she was twelve.  She had been sent to him for counseling and therapy. The community reaction in this case followed the usual pattern: from the officials, “We can handle this more effectively within our own quasi-legal system”; and in the Orthodox street, an omertà-like reaction against any group member who does anything that might help  the secular prosecution in enforcing the laws of the state.  Typically, that means ostracism, but the penalty for breaking the code and taking the victim’s side can get nastier.*

Strong and cohesive communities have virtues that even secularists like Brooks (and I) envy.  But in protecting their “moral order,” when the chips are down and in-group loyalty becomes paramount, they often show an uglier side.

* Weberman was a member of a particularly intense sect, the Satmar Hasidim, as was the man in the linked incident who threw caustic chemicals on the face of a rabbi who had been speaking out on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse.  Satmar Hasidim attitudes may differ in degree if not in kind from those of the shoppers at Pomegranate.

Assume Some Friendly Data

March 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again – the paean to ignorance, the rejection of empirical science as a basis for knowledge or the assertion of facts. We don’t need studies to know that . . . (or more likely, We don’t need “studies” . . .)* I’m not surprised to hear this from the right, but on Sunday it hit from the blind side – the New York Times.

The Arts & Leisure section front page didn’t promise exactly a review of the literature on the effects of violence in the media. Instead, the Times critics would “consider the impact.”

The Times turned loose four movie and TV critics, but in the entire double-truck spread, there was only one mention of any empirical findings: Alessandra Stanley began her essay by dismissing the whole idea of research.
Studies are inconclusive about whether repeated exposure to violence on screen inures viewers to violence in real life, but you don’t need a government grant to assume that scenes of violence on television inure viewers to more violence on television.
At least she was careful enough to use the word assume. But assuming something to be true does not make at true. It’s like the old economists’ punch line: “Assume a can opener.” An assumed can opener cannot open a real can.

Stanley’s assumption is a plausible hypothesis – that after many viewings, Level One violence and gore lose their shock power, and audiences will respond only to Level Two, and so on. But if TV shows have become bloodier (have they? – it would be nice to have some evidence), there might be other explanations.

Stanley assumes that screen violence is like a drug that we develop a tolerance to. The old dose just doesn’t give us the buzz it once did. But maybe rather than video violence raising the tolerance ceiling, that ceiling has always been at the same height, and the media have just been getting closer to it. And maybe the reaction to violence differs among segments of the audience. I don’t need a grant to assume that my explanation is true. But if I want to know how much water it holds, I need good research.
* An earlier post on “we don’t need research” is here.

Someone on the Internet Is Wrong

March 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the end of “Wag the Dog,” we hear a voice-over of a TV news item:
 Famed film producer Stanley R. Moss died suddenly of a massive heart attack while sunbathing poolside.  Mr. Moss was 57 or 62-years-old, depending on the bio.
The point of this line is also the point of the film:  big players in Hollywood, Washington, and possibly elsewhere pass off untruths as facts –  facts that fit their personal or political needs.

But how can we know when a Stanley Moss was really born?  I was reminded of this problem on Friday, March 1.  It was the centennial of Ralph Ellison’s birth.  Or was it?  This is what I got when I Googled “Ralph Ellison born.”

(Click in the image for a larger view.)

Some say 1913, others 1914.  They can’t both be right.  Are we rushing Ellison’s centennial? Is the true birth date of this man* invisible?

The Internet shrinks the time and space for the spread of error.  In older media, error doesn’t go viral, but it still can spread.  Lisa Yui, an accomplished pianist and music scholar who teaches at Montclair, told me of trying to track down the precise dates of birth and death of a little-known composer.  She consulted a well-known musicologist  – an older man still throughly immersed in the print era.  She visited him in his book-heavy house and asked how to get reliable information.  His answer: government records and tombstones.  If you can’t trust books, how can you trust Websites?


* My favorite Ralph Ellison anecdote was included in this post.

Les Banlieues - Lost in Transition

March 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The French translation of suburb is banlieue.  But in connotation, the words are near opposites.  In the US, the word suburbia suggests green lawns, peace and prosperity, happy children at play,a retreat separated from the problems and stress of cities.  Ironic titles like “Suburgatory” and “Disturbia” work because they suggest that behind this ideal picture, not all is well.  That irony would be impossible in France.  The French term banlieue calls up an entirely different image, one something like our “inner city” only bleaker – a place of crime, violence, gangs, unemployment, riots, and people with darker skins.
In the Hausmann-Napoleon III makeover of Paris in the 1870s, les misérables were pushed to the outskirts of the city and beyond.  Nearly a century later, that was where the post-War government built the high rise HLMs (roughly, “the projects”), primarily for the influx of laborers from North Africa.  

(Click on a picture for a larger view.)
A half-century, the fruits of that misguided urban planning appear in “Banlieue 93,” Arnau Bach’s photo exhibition.  The 93 is the postal/département designation of an area at the eastern edge of Paris. Charles DeGaulle airport lies at the outer edge of the 93 in Roissy. Closer to Paris are places like Bobigny, where Bach took most of his photos.

The entire collection of thirty-six photos with captions is at the photojournalism site Pictures of the Year, where it was awarded first prize.

The Horsemeat Scandal

March 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ikea withdraws Swedish meatballs as
horse contamination is revealed
Ikea halted sales of its Swedish meatballs yesterday as the horsemeat contamination scandal continued to spread across Europe.

Horsemeat was found in 1kg packets of frozen Köttbullar pork and beef meatballs sold by Ikea across Europe
— The Times (London), Feb. 26, 2013

And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them, speak unto the children of Israel, saying, whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

Of the swine ye shall not eat, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.

Of the lamb and the cow ye may eat, for they divideth the hoof and chew the cud.

Nevertheless these shall ye not eat:  the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

Nor shall ye eat of the horse, because, well, because it’s a horse dammit.  You just can’t eat horses, just like you can’t eat people

Horses aren’t people – we all know that.  But we treat them like people.  There’s a line we draw, and horses are on the people side of it, like the dogs and cats we keep in our houses.  We’d keep horses there too if they weren’t so damn big. And smelly. Little kids don’t write to Santa to bring them a cow or a swine.  But a pony – that’s a horse of another color. 

And just as we do for dogs, cats, and people, we give horses names – different names for each one.  We pay attention to the horse’s individual qualities.  We can have deep and meaningful relations with a horse just as we can with our dogs and cats.  Liz Taylor nuzzling National Velvet – or was it the other way round?

All cultures have dietary rules that separate what you can eat from what you can’t.  The rules of Leviticus are based on the characteristics of the animals.  Does a particular species conform to the specs for that category. Fish gotta swim.  They also gotta have fins and scales.  So if a shrimp or lobster swims in the water but doesn’t have fins and scales, it’s not a complete fish.  It’s weird*  Don’t touch it.  Don’t eat it.

But some rules seem to be based on our social relation to the animal. The animals that are closer, the ones that we name and talk to and treat like distinct individuals, of them we shall not eat.


* Anomalous is the term used by Mary Douglas. This post is based in part on an oversimplification of her Purity and Danger. It is also based in part on Edmund Leach.  Apologies to them, and to Leviticus.