Old Book, Old Line

August 31, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1970s, it seemed that every undergraduate who had gone within twenty yards of Career Services was carrying a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute.  I hadn’t seen anyone with the book in a long time, so I assumed that Parachute had long since fallen to earth and lay forgotten in some distant meadow.  I was wrong. The Times business section has an article (here) about the book, now out in its 2015 edition.

Six years ago, I exploited the title for a blog post about photo retouching in celeb mags.  This was back in the day when Madonna and ARod were newsworthy.  Never afraid to recycle my garbage, I reprint the post in full.


July 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Sociological musings in the checkout line at the Publix. Two lovers, two magazines. Same story. But why is A-Rod so much darker on the In Touch cover than on Us?

I did not buy the magazines to see if the stories too were different. I didn't even buy the Star to see if Mary Kate was going back to rehab.

The title of the post was What Color Is Your Paramour.  I liked it, but I’ve always  wondered if anyone got the allusion

Ordeal or No Deal

August 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Students in my criminal justice class were often incredulous when I described the trial by ordeal.  The worth of a person’s testimony is determined by his or her ability to successfully undergo some ordeal.

The Ordeal of Cold Water

An ancient method of testing the guilt or innocence of the common sort of people. The accused, being tied under the arms, was thrown into a river. If he sank to the bottom, he was held to be guiltless, and drawn up by the cord; but if he floated, the water rejected him, because of his guilt. [source]

“But what does floating or sinking have to do with whether the person committed a crime or whether what they say is worth believing?” students would ask. Exactly. Some students even suggest that there’s more than a touch of sadism in this irrational inflicting of suffering. For it is irrational, as my students quickly see. The underlying assumption  –  the equation of worthiness and ordeal – is ridiculous. We enlightened folks in 21st century America would never use such logic, right?

You can see where this is going.

(Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan)

The logic of the ice-bucket challenge is nothing new.  Walkathons and bikeathons rest on the same idea:  the worthiness of a charity – how much money I will donate – must be based on someone else undergoing an ordeal. Walking or biking some distance are the popular default ordeals. The person entering the event makes a deal with me, a potential contributor. The longer the ordeal, the more I must contribute.  Presumably, if the person winds up not walking, then our deal is off, and I need not contribute a penny. The charity is not worthy of my money. 

These and other “thons” are now  so common that they no longer get much attention.  The ice bucket challenge is different mostly in its degree of success, which is considerable. That success owes much to the involvement of actors, sports stars, and the like. Celebrities still endorse products, but somewhat less directly – all those jocks sporting the Nike logo or Britney dancing in a video with lots of Pepsi –  not quite the same as Ronald Reagan telling us straight out to smoke Chesterfields or O.J. Simpson talking up Hertz car rentals. So when celebrities speak in favor of something, especially something that they have no financial stake in, we pay attention.

The underlying logic of endorsements is also not quite in keeping with enlightened rationality.  Are the opinions of high-status people and their willingness to undergo an ordeal valid indicators of a charity’s virtue? Yet we seem to think that if Lindsay Lohan is willing to have Jimmy Fallon dump a bucket of ice water on her, ALS must be a more worthy cause than others I could write a check to.

The other interesting thing about the ice bucket challenge is that it seems not to have been planned. It was not an ad campaign cooked up and widely promoted by some PR firm hired by the ALS foundation.  Instead, it seems to have been a lucky accident, unplanned and unpredicted.  It started small and grew gradually until it eventually went viral.* 

Through it all, a few observers have pointed out the logical fallacy in the ice bucket assumption. I refer of course to the Enlightenment rationalist Charlie Sheen, who dumped a bucket of room-temperature greenbacks on himself, challenging us to admit what the game was really about – money for a charity – and that the ice water was irrelevant.  And then there was Sheen’s fellow philosophe Patrick Stewart who made the same point, though with more style.

* In an earlier post (here), I used Gabriel Rossman’s ideas about exogenous and endogenous influences in the spread of ideas. If we could see a graph of contributions to ALS or even of videos and tweets, we would have a better idea of whether the popularity of the ice bucket was centrally planned or whether it followed the endogenous person-to-person model.

Cops vs. Man With Knife

August 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened.  (See this account in The Atlantic.) Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away?

The video is all over the Internet, including the Atlantic link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video (you can find it in the Atlantic link above and elsewhere). Then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man. (The video is from 2011. I’m surprised it hasn’t been recycled this week.) Powell had a steak knife, and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.

Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started.* By the time the person started recording, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The quote above is from an article in this week’s Economist (here), which includes this graphic:

I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

* I don’t know how the St. Louis incident got started. Who called the police, and what did they say? In the video, Powell is not menacing anyone, and the bystanders seem bemused rather than fearful.

Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass. It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference. Or at least it used to. In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors rewrite Douglass’s words; their books then become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 

Language evolves. But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

The Last Time I Saw Betty Joan Perske

August 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

One late autumn day about five years ago, I had come out of Central Park and was walking east on W. 72nd St.  Dusk on a weekday. The entrance to the Dakota was free of tourists. Nobody leaning forward to peer in through the vertical bars to see the spot where John Lennon died – just the silent doorman in his gray coat.

I walked on.  An old lady,  bent over and walking slowly, almost painfully, with her tiny dog, was coming towards me. Her face  looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  Who was she? Where had I seen her?  After she had gone past, I turned and watched her move slowly on. A few moments later, she turned and went into the Dakota.

She looked something like this:

I waited till she had gone inside, then walked back and approached the doorman.  “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “but who was that woman who just came in here?” 

He paused for a minute as if trying to decide whether this was a violation of a tenant’s privacy. “That,” he said, “was Miss Lauren Bacall.”

Lauren Bacall 1924 - 2014

[I used this story in an earlier post about names. Until the late 20th century, performers with ethnic or difficult  names changed them (or had them changed by Hollywood studios) to something more “American.” Now, they are more likely to stick with what they’ve got. I’m all for being multicultural, but I still think that Lauren Bacall is a perfect name for her. I have a hard time imagining what Betty Joan Perske would look like.]


August 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not “laughing out loud” any more. Or not only “laughing out loud.” The meaning has seeped out of that narrow box and is now broader and thinner. LOL is a generic sign of connection.*

“Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”  (John McWhorter in the New York Times.)

I have a  hunch that this LOL-as-connection is a not guy thing. I don’t know the research on texting and gender, but I would expect that it is mostly women who are dropping these LOLs into their texts. 

Laughter itself – the kind you hear, not the kind you text LOL – also has multiple meanings and uses. And the question of whose laughter and what it means has a lot to do with gender.

Mark Liberman, at the Language Log, posted recently  about speech and gender – men and women, and what they say. Not surprisingly, they talk about different topics, and they use different words – when was the last time you heard a man say something was “adorable”?  But they also differ in the not-word sounds that punctuate their conversations – especially laughter.

These tables show the frequencies per million words (MW) and the log odds of male and female use, of what people say in conversations.  (See Liberman’s post, here.)

(Click on the chart for a slightly larger view.)

(The double-parentheses markers (( and )) indicate sounds – starting or ending – that the transcribers couldn’t make out; i- and th- are false starts – words the speaker started but then changed.)

Number one among female-dominated items is [laughter]. Liberman, who is usually a great source of insight on language, has disappointingly little to say:

It's less clear why women should laugh 60% more often than men do — are women on average happier, or more overtly sociable? Or do men feel constrained not to express positive emotions?

Is that all – happiness and sociability? Surely there are other kinds of female laughter – from a tween’s embarrassed, conspiratorial giggle to Phyllis Diller’s aggressive guffaw.  Somewhere on that axis lies the female apologetic laugh, the one designed to take the edge off any sharpness in what a woman is saying.  When Terry Gross, in her “Fresh Air” interviews, asks a question that might put her guest on the spot, she will often insert this kind of laugh.

Here are two examples. In the first, she suggests to Hillary Clinton that Clinton might have tried to sneak in under the radar with changes in the State Department’s internal LBGT policies.  In the second, she asks QuentinTarantino about the violence in his films.**

The trouble is that when the transcript shows “[laughter],” you cannot know what kind of laugh it is.  Sometimes you can’t know even when you hear it.  Sociologist Freed Bales spent years developing a schema for classifying interactions in small groups, years in which he listened to countless hours of group discussion. The result was Interaction Process Analysis or IPA (in 1950, craft breweries were not even a speck on the horizon).  It had twelve categories – six paired opposites:
  • Shows Antagonism / Shows Solidarity
  • Asks for Orientation / Gives Orientation
and so on.

Laughter was coded as “Shows Tension Release”; its counterpart was “Shows Tension.”  True, some laughter showed tension release, but much did not, and twenty years later, in a revised IPA, Bales put laughter in the category “Shows Tension” under the general heading of “Negative and Mixed Actions.”  Still, much laughter doesn’t fit into that box.  

Sometimes we ourselves don’t know what our laughter means. In Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, subjects often laughed when the learner-victim cried out in pain. Clearly, this was nervous laughter. But when, in the famous film of the experiment, Milgram asks one subject why he laughed, the man says, “I thought it was funny, I guess.”

* To avoid ambiguity, when texters want to indicate “I got the joke,” instead of “LOL,” they use “haha.”

** Gross, especially in the Tarantino excerpt, uses the word like. A lot.  This may be a sign of her nervousness at asking a tough question. Or it just may be the way she usually speaks.

Sports, Markets, and Ficitons

August 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Owners of money-making operations can make more money if they pay their workers less. But they paying less is possible only if others are not offering to pay more. This often requires that the business form a cartel – an agreement among owners not to compete. That way, they can all pay their workers less than market value. 

As Adam Smith pointed out long ago, businesses don’t really want competition.  What’s interesting political conservatives who are not in business, despite their talk about freedom and capitalism and the free market,  often want to shelter hugely profitable business from competition.

Thus it was that yesterday Claudia Wilken,  a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton, told the NCAA it would have to start paying their workers.  The NCAA and its affiliated businesses (sometimes known as “universities”) didn’t just pay their workers less.  They didn’t pay them at all. Even better.

Of course, the NCAA claims that the football and basketball players are not workers creating a product that the NCAA sells for huge amounts of money. No, these are “scholar athletes.”  And for years, the courts have gone along with this fiction. With yesterday’s court ruling as a start, that may soon change.

The ruling, which would take effect in 2016, does not mandate that players be paid. But it could allow universities to engage in bidding wars for the best athletes, though the N.C.A.A. would probably try to prevent that by capping payments, which Judge Wilken said was permissible. [NYT]

We’ve been here before. In sport, the courts have long been slow in recognizing what was obvious to everyone else. In 1922, the Supreme Court exempted major league baseball from the Sherman Anti-trust Law, ruling that baseball was an “amusement,” not a business. Another fiction. Even in 1969, when the Court admitted that baseball was a business, the conservatives on the Court still continued to allow teams to enforce the “reserve clause,” which prevented players from seeking a better deal with another club.  If Mickey Mantle didn’t like the contract the Yankees offered, his only option was to retire.  Dissenting were three of the Court’s great liberals – William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and William O. Douglas.

The reserve clause finally disappeared, not because of a court ruling but because the players had formed a union.  In negotiations with the owners, the union was strong enough to force them to give up the reserve clause. College athletes have never been able to form a union.  Recently, athletes at Northwestern voted to form a union. In April, the NLRB ruled that the athletes were employees and could unionize.  Of course, those who were getting rich off the atheletes’ unpaid labor – the university and the NCAA – objected.  Just last month, they filed briefs arguing against the NLRB decision.

Still, it may be hard for college athletes to form unions given the short tenure of each member. And I expect that the NCAA and its universities will, like admittedly for-profit corporations, do everything they can to prevent or bust the unions.  So for now, the courts are the only hope for bringing any real pay, let alone competitive wages, to college atheletes.  So for now the courts are the workers’ only hope. Yesterday’s ruling offered that hope.

So when it comes to money-making athletics, who’s for competition?  Liberal judges and unions.

Writing Corporate Tax Law – How Else?

August 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

We refer to Senators and Congressional representatives as “lawmakers.” We democratically elect these people so that they can write and enact laws. But every so often the curtain parts, and we get a glimpse of who’s writing the laws, though these are usually laws that don’t make headlines. There was that time during the Bush years when corporate lobbyists were sitting right next to elected representatives - mostly Republican – at a committee hearing, telling them what to say.  The GOP defenders got all huffy at those who had pointed out who was really running the legislation show.

It reminded me of the Amazing Mr. Ballantine, the deliberately inept comic magician.  He would do a levitation effect where the floating object was held by an obvious “invisible” thread.  “Well, if you’re gonna look that close . . .” he would say to the audience. And then, “How else?”

Today’s New York Times has an article (here) about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.  Three-quarters of the way through the story, we get this paragraph:

Elaine C. Kamarck, the co-chairwoman of a bipartisan coalition of businesses and organizations that support a tax overhaul, says the only way a tax bill will pass is to use any savings derived from closing corporate loopholes solely to lower the overall corporate tax rate. The companies that have joined the coalition, which include Boeing, AT&T, Verizon, Walmart and Walt Disney, have agreed to put every loophole on the table, she said, because they believe “a low enough basic tax rate is worth giving up exemptions.” [emphasis added]

The message is clear: our elected representatives can change the law only if a handful of corporations agree. Ms Kamarck tells us that these corporations have selflessly allowed their tax dodges to be put “on the table.” Presumably, had they not been so magnanimous,  these corporations would not allow Congress to change the law.  She also implies that if the tradeoff – fewer exemptions but lower rates – doesn’t benefit the corporations, they’ll take their loopholes off the table and stop our elected representatives from changing the law.

Nice. I happen to think that educators are so valuable to society that their income should not be taxed. But that table Ms Kamarck mentions – the one where you tell Congress which tax rules you’ll accept – I can’t get anywhere near it.  So I pay my taxes. In fact, last year, I paid more in taxes than did Verizon and Boeing combined.  They, and several other huge corporations, paid zero.

I am, of course, naive to think that it was really Congress that wrote the laws that allow these corporations to pay nothing. It was the corporations themselves. How else? 

Who’s Covering Up?

August 4, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?

It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.”  They said the same thing five years ago.*

As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do.  Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”

Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty.  Marie-Claire says,

Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?

But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]

The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices.  Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas.  The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the US.

Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 1913 Harris survey  done for Expedia.)

This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies.  If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior. 

This process is much like the general scenario Howie** Becker outlines for deviance. 

Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.  Vague impulses and desires – ... probably most frequently a curiosity . . .  are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]

With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play:  fashion –  the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing. 

Becker was writing about deviance.  But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by.  In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned.  The fin-du-topless stories,  both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes.  Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis.  It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.

Obligatory picture of a French beach

In summer, the city of Paris spreads sand on the quais turning them 
into urban beaches. At Paris Plage, le topless is interdit. 

* I was somewhat skeptical (see this blog post from August 2009 ) since the basis for the stories – apart from the usual journalistic impressions and quotes – was a single French survey that turned out to have no data on who was actually wearing what at the beach.

** Becker says that nobody calls him Howard.

Folk Festival

August 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Folks used to be simple, ordinary people. They were the folks of folk music – not urban and certainly not urbane.  Folks were down-homey – the folks who live in my hometown. Or folks were literally homey; they were family – parents – as in  “We’re spending the holidays with my folks.”

One of these paintings of has folks in it, the other has just people.

Folks do not wear neckties or high heels.

That was then (“Saying Grace” is from 1951, “Nighthawks” 1942).  Now it seems that anyone can be folks.

Here are two of the folks we tortured.

Abu Zubaydah, waterboarded 83 times, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, 183 times. 

I don’t think that Obama planned to use the word folks rather than people. That’s just the way it came out.  He obviously did plan to use the word torture. He wasn’t going use bureaucratic language to paper over what has been clear to everybody. He wasn’t going to do a Dick Cheney and say something like, “We may have used enhanced interrogation techniques on known terrorists.”  Obama was speaking plainly, and it doesn’t get much plainer than just plain folks.

It’s not just Obama. Bush too used folks in the same way and for the same people.

We’re going to get the folks who did this. [Sept. 11, 2001]

[The US is engaged in] a war against an extremist group of folks, bound together by an ideology, willing to use terrorism to achieve their objectives.

Other public figures are less folksy.  I doubt that John Kerry or Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan would use the term so freely. Nor would Hillary; Bill didn’t.  But the trend is general, as Google Ngrams data from books shows.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Through the 1940s and 50s, folks seemed to go out of fashion.  Then in the 80s, folks began to come back into public discourse.  It’s very tempting to jump from this one bit of data on linguistic trends to a broad characterization of the changing American psyche, but I’ll leave that for other folks.