Green Light, Red Light, 3-2-1

June 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The good news about those countdown timers at pedestrian traffic lights is that they do what they’re supposed to do – save pedestrian lives and limbs. 

The research on this comes from two economists, Arvind Magesam and Sacha Kapoor (here). You may have heard Shankar Vedantam reporting it on NPR a few days ago (here).

The bad news is that while these timers are good for pedestriams, they are bad for cars. They increase car-on-car violence, and of a particular kind – rear-end collisions. 

Economists Magesan and Kapoor think of an intersection as market of walkers and drivers. The purpose of their study was “to evaluate a policy that improves the information of all market participants.” They conclude that giving everyone more information about when the light will change is what’s causing the accidents.

The largest increase is in rear-end accidents and we think it’s because two cars approaching a light, who both see the countdown, the guy behind, he sees the two or three seconds and thinks, oh, the guy in front of me is going to floor it too, I'll floor it and we’ll both get through the intersection. Whereas the guy in front thinks, OK, I only have two or three seconds left, I'm going to slowdown.   

It’s like the old joke:
Cop to driver who has run a light: Don’t you know what that yellow light means?
Driver: Yeah, go like hell, the red one’s next.

The problem is not that pedestrians and drivers have the same information but that drivers have two sources of information. My guess is that in these rear-enders, the driver in front is paying more attention to the traffic light. he sees that it’s yellow and might turn red at any moment now. He slows down. The driver behind is focused more on the countdown timer. He sees that he still has a second or two to beat the light. Crash.

The economists have a solution – asymmetric information.  More specifically

Install them so that the pedestrians are aware of the timers but the drivers are not. And one way to do that would be to broadcast the timers via audio so that the pedestrians can hear the countdown clock go down, but drivers cannot.

Would you want the added noise of an audio signal? And if the intersection is already loud with the noise of traffic, the volume on the audio would have to be fairly high for people to hear it.

There’s a different, and cheaper, way. Give the walkers and drivers different information. In New York, some countdown timers for pedestrians are not synched with the traffic lights for cars. At the corner of 79th and Broadway, the light for cars turns red at the 9-second mark and red at 6 seconds. 

At 72nd St., if drivers going downtown on Broadway focus on the timer, rather than racing through the intersection, they will stop while the traffic light is yellow.

 (The poor quality of the video makes it hard to see the timer, but take my word  –
it goes to 0 when the traffic light turns orange.)

As you can see from just these two videos, the time difference between the lights for drivers and walkers varies considerably from one corner to the next. I have no idea whether each timing is based on some logic and evidence about the specific intersection or whether these are different treatments in an experiment.

Stateways v. Folkways; Alito v. Roberts

June 27, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Stateways cannot change folkways.”* Or can they? That’s an empirical question, and it figures briefly in two of the dissents in the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision yesterday.

Chief Justice Roberts (Dread Justice Roberts – except for an occasional Obamacare decision) and Justice Alito both dissented. Their arguments were mostly about the Constitution. But both also made stateways/folkways predictions about the effects the decision would have on public opinion.

Justice Roberts went sociologist Sumner one better. The law would change public opinion – but in the opposite direction.

Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view.   That ends today.   Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law.  Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept. 
            *        *        *        *
Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs. [emphasis added]

Alito, on the other hand, thinks the Court’s decision will make gay marriage so widely accepted that those who oppose marriage equality will live in fear, able to “whisper their thoughts” only in the safe rooms of their houses.

It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas.

Once you get past the whiny tone (poor little Sam Alito: “My ideas will be won’t be popular any more and people will make fun of me”), you have an empirical prediction. Those who “cling to old beliefs” will be persecuted. You know, like early Christians (or contemporary Christians if you believe Bill O’Reilly). 

For one of his predictions you have to define “marginalization” and “vilification” and get measures of them before and after yesterday’s decision — a difficult task, maybe an impossible one, though the question remains an empirical one. It will be easier to operationalize and get data on how often America’s governments, employers, and schools mistreat the anti-gay-marriage thought-whisperers.

If previous SCOTUS decisions are a guide, you have to lean towards Alito, at least as concerns public opinion. Patrick J. Egan at The Monkey Cage (here) created this chart showing trends in public opinion following decisions on interracial marriage and abortion. He also included opinion on marriage equality in the years leading up to yesterday’s decision.

In 1967, the year of the  Loving decision, supporters of interracial marriage were in the minority.** By the time of that decision, support had risen, and it continued to rise. The Court had, to paraphrase Roberts, “stolen the issue from the people,” But that decision did not “cast a cloud over interracial marriage,” nor did it “make a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”  Much the opposite. But Roe v. Wade seems to have had little impact on public opinion.

Obergefell looks more like Loving than like Roe. Support for gay marriage has been on the increase and has already become the majority view. More important, the pro/anti differences are generational, as was the case with interracial marriage. The generations coming in are more liberal on this issue than are the generations exiting the population. Opposition to marriage equality will continue to fade, not because of persecution or because of “government, employers, and schools,” but because of heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illness.


* What Sumner actually said was, “legislation cannot make mores.”* But he said it in a book called Folkways (1906), the meaning is nearly identical, and it sounds better than what he really said. For more on inaccurate quotes, see James Grossman’s blog post “Did They Really Say That?” (here).

 Grossman adds, “if you are of a mind to check ‘legislation cannot make mores,’ please note that if you do it through Google Books you are likely to be asked whether you really mean ‘legislation cannot make smores.’”

** The chart shows GSS data on “oppose ban” – 44%.  A Gallup poll from roughly the same time asking about “approval” for interracial marriage showed only about 20% approving.

Character or Structure – The David Brooks Temptation

June 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was on jury duty this week, and the greatest challenge for me was the David Brooks temptation. I found myself on the verge of using that experience to expound on the differences in generations on the great changes in culture and character that technology and history have brought.

I did my first tour of duty in the 1970s. Back then you were called for two weeks. Even if you served on a jury, after that trial ended, you went back to the main jury room. If you were lucky, you might be released after a week and a half. Now it’s two days.

What most struck me most this time was the atmosphere in the main room. Now, nobody talks. You’re in a large room with maybe two hundred people, and it’s quieter than a library. Some are reading newspapers or books, but most are on their latops, tablets, and phones. In the 1970s, it wasn’t just that there was no wi-fi, there was no air conditioning. Remember “12 Angry Men”? We’re in the same building. Then, you tried to find others to talk to. Now you try to find a seat near an electric outlet to connect your charger.

I started to feel nostalgic for the old system. People nowadays – all in their own narrow, solipsistic worlds, nearly incapable of ordinary face-to-face sociability. And so on.

But the explanation was much simpler. It was the two-day hitch. In the old system, social ties didn’t grow from strangers seeking out others in the main jury room. It happened when you went to a courtroom for voir dire. You were called down in groups of forty. The judge sketched out the case, and the lawyers interviewed the prospective jurors. From their questions, you learned more about the case, and you learned about your fellow jurors – neighborhood, occupation, family, education, hobbies. You heard what crimes they’d been a victim of.  When judge called a break for bathroom or lunch or some legal matter, you could find the people you had something in common with. And you could talk with anyone about the case, trying to guess what the trial would bring. If you weren’t selected for the jury, you went back to the main jury room, and you continued the conversations there. You formed a social circle that others could join.

This time, on my first day, there were only two calls for voir dire, the clerk as bingo-master spinning the drum with the name cards and calling out the names one by one. My second day, there were no calls. And that was it. I went home having had no conversations at all with any of my fellow jurors. (A woman seated behind me did say, “Can you watch my laptop for a second?” when she went to the bathroom, but I don’t count that as a conversation.)

I would love to have written 800 words here on how New York character had changed since the 1970s.  No more schmoozing. Instead we have iPads and iPhones and MacBooks destroying New York jury room culture – Apple taking over the Apple. People unable or afraid to talk to one another because of some subtle shift in our morals and manners. Maybe I’d even go for the full Brooks and add a few grafs telling you what’s really important in life.

But it was really a change in the structure. New York expanded the jury pool by eliminating most exemptions. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, judges – they all have to show up. As a result, jury service is two days instead of two weeks, and if you actually are called to a trial, once you are rejected for the jury or after the trial is over, you go home.

The old system was sort of like the pre-all-volunteer army. You get called up, and you’re thrown together with many kinds of people you’d never otherwise meet. It takes a chunk of time out of your life, but you wind up with some good stories to tell. Maybe we’ve lost something. But if we have lost valuable experiences, it’s because of a change in the rules, in the structure of how the institution is run, not a because of a change in our culture and character

YouThought So Too? I Had No Idea.

June 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The governors of Virginia and South Carolina have now taken stands against the Confederate battle flag. So have honchos at Wal*Mart, Sears, Target, and NASCAR.

NASCAR! How could this cascade of reversals have happened so rapidly? Did these important people wake up one morning this week and say to themselves, “Gee, I never realized that there was anything racist about the Confederacy, and never realized that there was anything wrong with racism, till that kid killed nine Black people in a church,”?

My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not.

A few years ago in places like Ireland and Europe, people were surprised at the success of new laws banning smoking in pubs and restaurants. Oh, the smokers will never stand for it. But it turned out that the smokers too were quite happy to have rooms with breathable air. It’s just that before the laws were passed, nobody knew that’s how other people felt because those people kept smoking. The same thing happened when New York City passed a pooper-scooper law. The law is unenforceable, people said; cops will never see the actual violation, only its aftermath. And do you really think that those selfish New Yorkers will sacrifice their own convenience for some vague public good? But the law was remarkably effective. As I said in this post from 2009,

Even before the new law, dog owners had probably thought that cleaning up after their dogs was the right thing to do, but since everyone else was leaving the stuff on the sidewalk, nobody wanted to be the only schmuck in New York to be picking up dog shit. In the same way that the no-smoking laws worked because smokers wanted to quit, the dog law in New York worked because dog owners really did agree that they should be cleaning up after their dogs. But prior to the law, none of them would speak or act on that idea.

In South Carolina and Georgia and Bentonville, Arkansas and elsewhere, the governors and the CEOs surely knew that the Confederacy was based on racist slavery; they just rarely thought about it. And if the matter did come up, as it did in a recent Supreme Court decision about license-plates, they probably assumed that most of their constituents and customers were happy with the flag and that the anti-flaggers were a cranky minority.

With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks now as though for quite a while, many Southerners have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality. The murders in the Charleston church and the subsequent discussions about retiring the battle flag allowed Southerners to discover that their neighbors had always shared their misgivings about the old racism. And it allowed the retail giants to see that they weren’t going to lose a lot of money by not stocking the flag.

James Salter, 1925-2015

June 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Sport and a Pastime
has long been one of my favorite novels. The author, James Salter, died yesterday. 

The novel was published in 1967. I don’t remember when I first read it – maybe in the 1970s. It had me at hello. Here are the opening sentences

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, the roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps.

Unmistakably Paris. The narrator is in the station and then on a train leaving the station.

Soon we are rushing along the valley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died.

Salter paints with quick brushstrokes, somehow finding the perfect details that convey the entire scene and an idea – that the narrator, an American, can never know this secret but ordinary France.  The names of dogs that have died.

At first, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this book to others, mostly because of the sex. Even the Times obituary is circumspect.

Controversy surrounded “A Sport and a Pastime,” a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate’s affair with a young Frenchwoman. Their lovemaking is described at close range by a third party, a none too reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, “intensely transgressive.”

Any guesses as to what about the lovemaking was transgressive? OK. It was anal sex – in 1967 still a rarity for serious writers. Only Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) and Mailer in An American Dream (1965) come to mind, and they were using it to epater le bourgeois; these were exertions, deliberate attemps to be “transgressive.”  In A Sport and a Pastime, the anal sex is part of the love affair.

Strange that the Times is so prissy nearly three decades after they first decided the AIDS crises had made the phrase “anal sex” fit to print. I long ago abandoned my diffidence about recommending the book because of it.

The narrator presents more of a problem. His identity and his relation to the characters is ambiguous. We can trust him about what he sees out the window of the train. But how can he know what has gone on in the hotel rooms of the lovers (Philip Dean and Anne-Marie)? He makes no secret of his unreliability.

I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

But I confess, it’s mostly for the prose style that I reread this book.

Images of the towns. Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. . . . The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.

Snakeskin! I had looked at those roofs in Burgundy several times, but I had never really seen them.

Me and Earl and the Diffusion Curve

June 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a movie gain an audience?

Saturday night, I went to the 7:30 showing of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The movie had just opened, so I went early. I didn’t want the local teens to grab the all the good seats – you know, that thing where maybe four people from the group are in the theater but they’ve put coats, backpacks, and other place markers over two dozen seats for their friends, who eventually come in five minutes after the feature has started.

That didn’t happen. The theater (the AMC on Broadway at 68th St.) was two-thirds empty (one-third full if you’re an optimist), and there were no teenagers. Fox Searchlight, I thought, is going to have to do a lot of searching to find a big enough audience to cover the $6 million they paid for the film at Sundance. The box office for the first weekend was $196,000, which put it behind 19 other movies.
But don’t write off “Me and Earl” as a bad investment. Not yet. According to a story in Variety, Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” will be to the summer of 2015 what “Napoleon Dynamite” was to the summer of 2004. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Me and Earl” was a festival hit but with no established stars and a debut director (though Gomez-Rejon had done television – several “Glees” and “American Horror Storys”). “Napoleon” grossed only $210,000 its first week, but its popularity kept growing – slowly at first, then more rapidly as word spread – eventually becoming a cult classic. Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” follows a similar path.

The other important similarity between “Napoleon” and “Earl” is that both were released in the same week as a Very Big Movie – “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in 2004, “Jurassic World” last weekend. That too plays a part in how a film catches on (or doesn’t).

In a post three years ago (here) I graphed the growth in cumulative box office receipts for two movies – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Twilight.”  The shapes of the curves illustrated two different models of the diffusion of ideas.  In one (“Greek Wedding”), the influence came from within the audience of potential moviegoers, spreading by word of mouth. In the other (“Twilight”), impetus came from outside – highly publicized news of the film’s release hitting everyone at the same time.*

You can see these patterns again in the box office charts for the two movies from the summer of  2004 – “Harry Potter/Azkaban” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” (I had to use separate Y-axes in order to get David and Goliath on the same chart.)**

“Harry Potter” starts huge, but after the fifth week the increase in total box office tapers off quickly. “Napoleon Dynamite” starts slowly. But in its fifth or sixth week, its box office numbers are still growing, and they continue to increase for another two months before finally dissipating. The convex curve for “Harry Potter” is typical where the forces of influence are “exogenous.” The more S-shaped curve of “Napoleon Dynamite” usually indicates that an idea is spreading within the system.
But the Napoleon curve is not purely the work of the internal dynamics of word-of-mouth diffusion. The movie distributor plays an important part in its decisions about how to market the film - especially when and where to release the film. The same is true of “Harry Potter.” 

The Warner Bros. strategy for “Harry Potter” was to open big – in theaters all over the country. In some places, two or more of the screens at the multi-plex would be running the film. After three weeks, the movie began to disappear from theaters, going from 3,855 screens in week #3 to 605 screens in week #9.

“Napoleon Dynamite” opened in only a small number of theaters – six to be exact.  But that number increased steadily until by week #17, it was showing in more than 1,000 theaters. 

It’s hard to separate the exogenous forces of the movie business from the endogenous word-of-mouth – the biz from the buzz.  Were the distributor and theater owners responding to an increased interest in the movie generated from person to person? Or were they, through their strategic timing of advertising and distribution, helping to create the film’s popularity? We can’t know for sure, but probably both kinds of influence were happening. It might be clearer when the economic desires of the business side and the preferences of the audience don’t match up, for example, when a distributor tries to nudge a small film along, getting it into more theaters and spending more money on advertising, but nobody’s going to see it. This discrepancy would clearly show the influence of word-of-mouth; it’s just that the word would be, “don’t bother.”


* I was working from a description of these models in Gabriel Rossman’s Climbing the Charts, which had recently been published.

** All the box office information comes from BoxOfficeMojo.

Girl With a Disputed Ethnography

June 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Chronicle ran this photo to accompany its story about Alice Goffman.

I don’t know what the photographer, Narayan Mahon, had in mind; I don’t knowif he was using “Rembrandt lighting.” But the portrait suggests 17th-century Holland more than 21st-century Philadelphia. It is also much different from the way Alice Goffman comes across in person.

With a Quack Quack Here

June 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Heather MacDonald, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, tried to blame an increase in killings of cops this year on a “Ferguson effect.”  Protests over the police killing unarmed people cause politicians to criticize the police. The police, rather than risk sanctions, reduce their proactive efforts. As a result, the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” So crime and cop-killing increase.

In a post last week, I offered a simple count of cop killings to show that MacDonald’s assertions about them were quack criminology. I didn’t say anything about crime in general, but in yesterday’s Daily News (here), Frank Zimring, a distinguished criminologist, calls out MacDonald on those numbers as well.

The most recent official crime statistics indicate that so far in 2015, [New York City] has experienced significant declines from 2014's ultra-low levels in burglary, robbery and larceny. At the same time, total homicides for the first five months of the year at 135 are higher than in 2014 — but quite close to the pace of 2013 and around 30% lower than in 2010.

At their current rate, killings in New York City would end 2015 as either the third or fourth lowest year in the city’s modern history.

“Ferguson Effect”? Doesn’t look like it.

And if such an effect has indeed increased the New York homicide total, should it also get credit for the 223 fewer robberies so far in 2015 when compared to the previous year? How about the 974 fewer burglaries in five months?

The Zimring asks, “Why Mac Donald’s fearful haste?”

His answer is, roughly, that MacDonald and The Manhattan Institute where she is the Thomas W. Smith fellow just have a penchant for a sky-is-falling perception of crime. He could have added that the corollary to this view is a preference for policies promoting punishment and the police.*

* Years ago I posted (here) about MacDonald’s “lock ’em up” views on drugs.

A Time to Be Born

June 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Primates of Park Avenue is Wednesday Martin’s quasi-anthropological account of the young and the wealthy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The “wife bonus” got most of the pre-publication flap, but the item that struck me was about family planning.

Martin was further panicked to learn her child had been born in the wrong month; many women on the Upper East Side time their pregnancies and IVF treatments to school enrollment, so their child will begin school at the oldest age possible — a practice known as redshirting.

“You go to the Upper East Side, and everyone will be heavily pregnant in the same month, because the time to have a baby is October or November,” Martin says. “Those are the good birthdays.” [New York Post.]

And why not? We now know, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, that role birth month plays a large part in who winds up at the top in Canadian junior league hockey.* Couple that with the child-rearing strategy that Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” typical of middle- and upper-class parents. The agrarian metaphor is apt. For Martin’s East Side one-percenters, even before the cultivation of an actual child comes a careful decision about when to plant the seed. 

In this, they resemble the breeders of race horses. The official “birthday” of all thoroughbreds is January 1, so breeders time things so that for maximum development at that cutoff date.  That’s why American Pharoah and four of the other seven horses in the Belmont were foaled in April.** 

At private schools in Manhattan, where tuition fees are comparable to stud fees (K- 5 will run you upwards of $200K), a similar logic makes October and November “good birthdays. ” The cutoff date is September 1; children entering kindergarten must have turned five before that date. Those October children will have turned five eleven months before the cutoff. 

Do the Primates of Park Avenue really time their pregnancies? And does the strategy work? Are elite-school classes in May and June unpunctuated by cupcakes?  If anyone has data on the birthdays of kids in the lower schools of Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann, etc., please come forth.

In horse racing, early developmental advantages fade as the horses become older. But Gladwell argues that for humans – or at least, for Canadian junior league hockey players – the initial advantage expands thanks to the way the system is organized. It’s what Robert Merton called “The Matthew Effect.” The parents of Park Avenue seem to subscribe to this same idea – that the October advantage extends past kindergarten, past grade school and high school, into the Ivies and then to career success.

What puzzles me is my own reaction that there’s something not quite right with this birth-timing. I accept other aspects of family planning – controlling the spacing of siblings or timing a birth so as to minimize the inconvenience to the parents’ work lives (especially given the anti-family US policies on parental leave). The same goes for the other things parents do to cultivate their children and ensure their chances of a successful life – the culturally enriching experiences, the “good” schools, the tutors, the coaches and, if necessary, the therapists – assuming that these are in fact helpful. There’s really no reason I should find the “good birthday” strategy objectionable. But I do.

 * In first chapter of his best-seller Outliers, Gladwell shows that the ranks of the top Canadian junior league hockey teams (boys 16-19years old) are heavy with boys born in the first quarter of the year.  That’s because official age is determined by the calendar year.  The  born on January 1, 2008 and the boy born 12 months later on Dec. 31, 2008 are both seven-year olds.  But the January boy has a huge edge in physical development. He is more likely to be selected for better teams, better coaching, and better competition.

** Horses born in the early spring mature faster than do those born earlier. 
Here is a chart of the birth months of winners of the individual Triple Crown individual races since 1970 and the birth month of horses sold at the Keeneland Yearling sales. (To keep both variables on the same chart, I have divided the sales figure by 10. Data source here.)

If you are spending $60,000 to have your mare bred to Pioneer of the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) or $300,000 for Tapit, the sire of Frosted, who finished second in the Belmont, you want to make sure that your foal has the best chance to win these million-dollar purses.

Did Protests Lead to the Killing of More Cops?

June 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Since July of of last year, the media have publicized a handful of cases of police officers killing unarmed Black people. In response, people – mostly Black – have mounted protests not just about these killings and the exoneration of the killers but about police treatment in general.

Have these protests endangered police lives?  Heather MacDonald, the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, seems to think so. In the Wall Street Journal Friday (here), she wrote:

A handful of highly publicized deaths of unarmed black men, often following a resisted arrest—including Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month—have led to riots, violent protests and attacks on the police. Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.

The logic of those two sentences is that the protests caused the increase in murders of police. If that’s true, then most of the those murders should have come in the second half of 2014, following the protests over the killing of Eric Garner.

The Officers Down Memorial Page for 2014 (here) lists 59 homicides of police, eight more than MacDonald’s figure – 47 by gunfire, 10 by vehicular assault, 2 by assault. Conveniently, ODMP* lists these deaths by month.  Here’s the tally.

Not much difference, especially considering that the extra three days in the latter six months of the year.
MacDonald’s main point is not about danger to police officers. It’s about police and crime. She is arguing that officers’ perception of increased risk coupled with “this incessant drumbeat against the police” (the main drumbeaters being public officials) has led police to withdraw from proactive policing, and that this withdrawal has in turn allowed criminals free to commit crimes.

She may be right, though as she says, data for the latter half of 2014 is not yet available, and data for the first half of 2015 is at least a year away. But when that data is available, we can assume that she will treat it as scrupulously and honestly as she treated the 2104 data on the murder of police officers.
* I also used ODMP data in an earlier post on killings of police officers ( here

Data Is Like Spaghetti

June 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I used to say, “The data are.” Pretentious I know. But no more.  Now I’m a “the data is” kind of guy.

I’m not alone. Here’s the chart from Google n-grams, which also shows that we’ve become steadily more data-conscious.

For much of the twentieth century, most people who wrote about data preferred the word as a plural. Even as the references to data increased, the pluralists maintained their lead. Then in about 1985, the tide turned.

When we talk about “the data,” we are referring to a whole -- a large thing made up of lots of smaller similar things. The word data is plural only in the most technical sense – it’s plural in a foreign language. The trouble is not that the language is foreign or that nobody speaks it. The problem is that data is a plural of a word that in English has no real singular. Nobody talks about a datum. When we select a particular instance in our data, we call it a “data point.”

It’s like spaghetti, another plural word in a foreign language. Spaghetti refers to a lot of similar things all combined to create a whole thing, a dish. We speak of that ensemble as a singular thing. We don’t say, “The spaghetti are delicious.” If we were speaking Italian, then yes, we would follow Italian grammar and use the plural “Gli spaghetti sono deliziosi.” And in Latin we would use the plural conjugation for data. But we’re speaking English. 

With spaghetti, for a single instance analogous to a data point, we refer to “a strand of spaghetti.” I would bet that even in Italian cookbooks authors do not use the singular. They do not say, “to check for al dente, bite into uno spaghetto.”*

I have two Italian cookbooks on my shelf – gifts from people who thought my Italian is much better than it actually is – but I’m not going to try searching for something that probably is not there.