Billy Strayhorn - b. Nov. 29, 1915

November 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a small, gay, Black kid, raised and living in Homewood, a Black section of Pittsburgh, come to write, at age 19 in 1934
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces. . .*
and over the chord sequence D♭ / B7 / D♭?

Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. “Lush Life” is deservedly his most frequently recorded song. Lady Gaga and Linda Ronstadt have done it. Sinatra never got more than a few bars into it on a few takes at a 1958 recording session. On the tape you can hear someone suggest that they “put it aside for a minute.” “Put it aside for about a year,” says Sinatra. Even years later, when his accompanist suggest that Sinatra sing it saloon style, “just you and me and a piano,” Frank shook his head.

The lyrics and music have a sophistication that rivals even the best of Tin Pan Alley – Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. I sometimes play piano – not well, but enough to fool some people for a short while – and I would never try playing “Lush Life” with anyone else in the room.

Strayhorn’s best known tune is “Take the A Train,” often attributed to Duke Ellington – it was, after all, his theme song – and Duke may have had a hand in writing it.  The two worked together so closely that with many of the songs, it’s impossible to know who wrote what. “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” Duke wrote in Music is My Mistress.

Even among jazzers, Strayhorn’s presence faded along with the big band era. Then in the late 60s he was gradually rediscovered, and people started playing some of his lesser known tunes. Here is Joe Henderson playing “Isfahan” from his 1992 Strayhorn tribute album “Lush Life.” The bassist is Christian McBride.

Composers and arrangers remain largely unknown; it’s the musicians on stage that get the recognition. Band leaders even used to claim composer credit on tunes written by musicians in their band. (Cootie Williams is listed as one of the composers of “Round Midnight,” which, as everyone knows, was written by Thelonius Monk.) Duke was more generous. “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.”

* The lyric may be too sophisticated. Some singers have turned “distingué traces” into “distant gay traces.”

Striking Discharges

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.” (Chicago Tribune)

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. (MPR News)

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:

(Click on the image for a larger and possibly clearer view.)

The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

The Elsewhere Effect

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Less than 10% of the voters think that Congress is doing a good job. But their own Representative . . . not so bad. A third of us think that our own rep deserves re-election (Rasmussen). The percentage, while higher than our views of representatives in general, is still much lower than it used to be. Until recently, a clear majority of people approved of their own representative while disapproving of Congress in general. This “mine isn’t so bad” view applies to crime as well. People feel safer in their own neighborhoods than elsewhere, even when those other neighborhoods have less crime.

Race relations too are bad . . . elsewhere. In the last year, the percent of Americans saying that race relations in the country are “bad” doubled (roughly from 30% to 60%). That’s understandable given the media coverage of Ferguson and other conflicts centered on race. But people take a far more sanguine view of things in their own community.  Eighty percent rate local race relations as “good,” and that number has remained unchanged throughout this century. (See this post  from last summer.)

Not surprising then that the problem with marriage in the US turns out to be about other people’s marriages. A recent survey asked people about the direction of their own marriage and marriage in the US generally.

Only a handful of people (5%) see marriage generally as getting stronger. More than eight times that say that their own marriages have strengthened. The results for “weaker” marriage are just the reverse. Only 6% say that their own marriage has weakened, but 43% see marriage in the US as losing ground. 

Why the “elsewhere effect”? One suspect is the media bias towards trouble. Good news is no news.  News editors don’t give us many stories about good race relations, or about the 25-year drop in crime, or about the decrease in divorce.  Instead, we get crime and conflict and a variety of  other problems. Add to this the perpetual political campaign with opposition candidates tirelessly telling us what’s wrong.  Given this balance of information, we can easily picture the larger society as a world in decline, a perilous world so different from the one we walk through every day.

At first glance, people seeing their own relationships as good, others’ relationships as more strained seems like the opposite of the pluralistic ignorance on college campuses. There, students often believe that things are better elsewhere, or at least better for other students. They think that most other students are having more sex, partying more heartily, and generally having a better time than they are themselves. But whether we see others as having more fun or more problems, the cause of the discrepancy is the same – the information we have. We know our own lives first hand. We know about those generalized others mostly from the stories we hear. And the people – whether news editors or students on campus – select the stories that are interesting, not those that are typical.

Kanye, We Hardly Knew Ye

November 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On the new-books shelf of the library yesterday, I saw this.

The Cultural Impact of Kanye West already? You mean Kanye has already levitated from mere pop to high art? With new discussion questions?

I remembered what W. H. Auden said in an interview long ago – maybe in the late 60s or early 70s – when he was asked what he thought of Bob Dylan as a poet. Auden confessed his ignorance and explained, “One has so much to read.”

Alec Baldwin, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick (the audio is here), tries to get Remnick to diss the New York Times for its culture coverage. Says Baldwin “There’s things that they cover in pop culture, I go: They put that on the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times??”

Remnick disagrees. “I think that’s OK.” and adds, “It’s important for somebody my age [he’s 57] to remember that Kanye West is for his audience . . . what Bob Dylan was for his audience thirty years ago.” Remnick also identifies himself as “somebody who still goes to see The Bobster and others, and it still means everything to me.”

Like Auden, Remnick puts Dylan (and Kanye) in the bin labeled Pop. The difference is that Remnick has time for them while Auden attends to more serious things. But as time passes, Jack Ziegler New Yorker cartoon of a course at the New School devoted to “I Love Lucy.” 
 (Click to enlarge.)

Dylan and Lucy, starting from very different cultural places, both wind up in what Jenn Lena calls the “Traditionalist genre.”

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. . . .Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history. [from Banding Together ]

I thought it might be a bit early for Kanye to have entered this ultimate and elevated genre. But there was that book. True to academic protocol, nearly all the essay titles in it have a colon (only two of fourteen have had their colons removed), titles like “When Apollo and Dionysus Clash: A Nietzschean Perspective on the Work of Kanye West,” or “Confidently (Non)cognizant of Neoliberalism: Kanye West and the Interruption of Taylor Swift.” Ah yes, the Interruption. What book about Kanye could omit an analysis of that crucial historical moment, an analysis very much in keeping with “quest for the authentic history.”

It’s as though the scholars are saying to Kanye, “Imma let you finish your career, but first I’m gonna write this essay about your oeuvre to date. ”

One thing puzzles me: those “new discussion questions” promised on the cover. I wonder, do they elevate Kanye even more, inviting still more academic analyses? Or do they lower the Kanye Studies program from highbrow to middlebrow, like those discussion questions now tacked on at the end of novels aimed at the book-club market? Maybe Kanye’s next album will come with the study questions already embedded.

Men Are From Mars, Survey Respondents Are From Neptune

November 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Survey researchers have long been aware that people don’t always answer honestly. In face-to-face interviews especially, people may mask their true opinion with the socially desirable response. Anonymous questionnaires have the same problem, though perhaps to a lesser degree. But self-administered surveys, especially the online variety, have the additional problem of people who either don’t take it seriously or treat it with outright contempt. Worse, as Shane Frederick (Yale, management) discovered, the proportion of “the random and the perverse” varies from item to item.

On open-ended questions, when someone answers “asdf” or “your mama,” as they did on an online survey Frederick conducted, it’s pretty clear that they are making what my professor in my methods class called “the ‘fuck you’ response.”

But what about multiple-choice items.
Is 8+4 less than 3? YES / NO
11% Yes.
Maybe 11% of Americans online really can’t do the math.  Or maybe all 11% were blowing off the survey. But then what about this item?

Were you born on the planet Neptune? YES / NO
17% Yes
Now the ranks of the perverse have grown by at least six percentage points, probably more. Non-responders, the IRB, and now the random and the perverse – I tell ya, survey researchers don’t get no respect.

Big hat tip to Andrew Gelman. I took everything in this post from his blog (here), where commenters try seriously to deal with the problem created by these kinds of responses.

Wheelhouse Rock

November 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

FiveThirtyEight has an nGram tool that shows the frequency of words on Reddit. The first word I tried it out on was wheelhouse.

(Click on the image for a larger view. My apologies for the faint font, 
but that’s the way FiveThirtyEight does it.)

I chose wheelhouse because it seems that this word has broken out. Literally, a wheelhouse is the enclosed place on a ship that houses the wheel.

Sometime in the 1980s, baseball players started using it to mean the area where a batter swung with maximum power.

But on a recent podcast someone said of a screenwriter that a particular kind of story was “in his wheelhouse.” I assume that Hollywood is a bellwether for trendy words and that wheelhouse has crossed over from sports to other worlds.

The FiveThirtyEight tool doesn’t tell you what the context is. Maybe these references were all in sports Reddits. Or maybe they weren’t. So I went to Lexis-Nexis, which showed the same rapid increase in recent years.

The early wheelhouses were nearly all in articles about baseball.

When Mitchell . . .asked him why he swung at a 3-0 pitch, the trainer replied, "It was right in my wheelhouse, Mitch." Contra Costa Times (California) June 8, 2000

But by 2015, about 75% of those wheelhouses were in other sections of the newspaper  – the popular arts, politics, and “Living.”

“Art and artists of any persuasion and any medium, whether it's performing artists, visual artists or poets, have always been in my wheelhouse.” (NY Times Sept. 8, 2015)

“This is a plan that is simple; that's a major reduction. I think people are going to be very happy,” Trump said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York City. “This is my wheelhouse.” (USA Today September 29, 2015)

Cocktails Are in My Wheelhouse
 By The Scenestress
(Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 5, 2015)

How do fashions spread, especially fashions in things where money is irrelevant – things like words? My impression is that sports are a popular source. People in politics, the popular arts, and business have injected game plan, curveball, track record*, playing hardball, etc., into their speech, presumably because the identification with the world of sports makes a person seem more down-to-earth and genuine, and perhaps tougher and more competitive.

Maybe someone with better computer/statistical chops than mine will scrape the databases and trace the paths of diffusion.

And with apologies to The King:

Captain threw a party at the downtown pier.
The band was playin’ loud so everyone could hear.
Now folks who don’t know anything about a ship
Are talkin’ ’bout the wheelhouse ’cause it sounds so hip,
Let’s rock
Everybody let’s rock.
Everybody up and down the dock
Was dancin’ to the wheelhouse rock.

* Track record as used by everyone today (except horseplayers) really just means record. This is far different from its meaning in sport of kings, where it originated. For more details on the misuse of track record, see this post.

Fairway and the Perils of Growth

November 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“That’s private equity for you,” said Steve Jenkins. He was standing outside the uptown Fairway at 125th St. about to go to breakfast at a diner across the street. He no longer works at Fairway.

Steve was one of the early forces shaping Fairway back when it was just one store at 74th and Broadway. He hired on as their cheese guy. “What do you want that for?” he growled at me one day long ago when he saw me with a large wedge of inexpensive brie. “That’s the most boring cheese in the store.” He was often abrasive, rarely tactful. I tried to explain that it was for a party and most of the people wouldn’t care. He would have none of it. He cared. He cared deeply – about cheese, about food generally.

He helped Fairway expand from one store to two, then four. He still selected the cheeses. He wrote the irreverent text for their signs, including the huge electric marquee that drivers on the West Side Highway read. And then in 2007 Fairway got bought out by a private equity firm. The three original founders cashed out handsomely. Steve and others, including one of the original three partners, stayed on. Much of their their share of the deal was in Fairway stock, but with restrictions that prevented them from selling.

Fairway kept expanding – stores in more places around New York – and they aimed more at the median shopper. Gradually, the store lost its edge, its quirkiness. With great size comes great McDonaldization – predictability, calculability. “Like no other market,” says every Fairway sign and every Fairway plastic bag. But it became like lots of other markets, with “specials” and coupons. Coupons! Fairway never had coupons. Or specials.

The people who decided to introduce coupons and specials were probably MBAs who knew about business and management and maybe even research on the retail food business. They knew about costs and profits. Knowing about food was for the people below them, people whose decisions they could override.

“I gotta get permission from corporate if I want to use my cell phone,” said Peter Romano, the wonderful produce manager at 74th St. – another guy who’d been there almost from the start. He knew produce like Steve knew cheese. Peter too left Fairway a few months ago.
Maybe this is what happens when a relatively small business gets taken over by ambitious suits. Things are rationalized, bureaucratized. And bureaucracy carries an implicit message of basic mistrust. “If we trusted you, we wouldn’t make you get approval. We wouldn’t make you fill out these papers about what you’re doing; we’d just let you do it. These procedures are our way of telling you that we don’t trust you to do what you say you’re doing.”
The need for predictability, efficiency, and calculability leave little room for improvisation. The food business becomes less about food, more about business. It stops being fun. The trade-off should be that you get more money. But there too, Fairway’s new management disappointed. They expanded rapidly, putting new stores in questionable locations. In the first months after the private equity firm took Fairway public in 2013, the stock price was as high as $26 a share. Yesterday, it closed at $1.04. The shares that Steve Jenkins and others received as their part of the private equity buyout are practically worthless.

Steve Jenkins will be all right. He’s well known in food circles. He’s been on television with Rachel Ray, Jacques Pepin. Still, there he was yesterday morning outside the store whose cheeses and olive oils had been his dominion. “I’m sixty-five years old, and I’m looking for a job.”

Magic Objects

November 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries noted that primitive people believe in a peculiar power, mana, inherent in powerful persons and ghosts. In their “magical thinking,” primitives also believe that this power can be transmitted from the person to the inanimate objects they have touched or possessed. An object imbued with the mana of the king or chief becomes very valuable indeed. Someone else can acquire that mana by acquiring the object, though he himself must be person of some importance lest the mana of the object overwhelm him.

This belief about magical objects whose powers can be acquired is of course characteristic of primitive peoples. It is so alien to us in the modern world we find it hard to really grasp, understand, or sympathize with this mentality.

The Crime Drop – a Personal View

November 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

With all the talk about a “Ferguson Effect” and crime on the rise (both disputed by the Obama administration), I had a personal reminder of how far we’ve come since the bad old days when crime rates were much higher. I should start by saying that I live between Needle Park and “Death Wish.”

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

 In the 1971 film “The Panic in Needle Park,” Al Pacino is a junkie hanging out with other junkies in what is and was officially known as Verdi Square. 

In the 1974 film “Death Wish,” Charles Bronson lives in an apartment building at Riverside Dr. and 75th St. It is in that apartment that vicious criminals break in, beat his wife savagely (she soon dies) and rape his daughter (she becomes catatonic.). Bronson becomes a vigilante, scoring his first kill when a mugger attacks him in Riverside Park.*

In the 1980s, my car was broken into twice (I park on the street). The bad guys smashed the window and checked the glove compartment for anything valuable. Car radios were often taken but mine never was. Car theft was rampant. One evening I saw a man standing next to a spot where only a couple hours earlier he had parked his car. Now it was gone. Word was to avoid Riverside Drive. Cars parked there were more likely targets.

That was then.  The crime I was a victim of – breaking into a car and stealing stuff – is classified as “theft” or “larceny” for purposes of crime statistics.

(The data is for New York State – I couldn’t quickly find NYC data –  but since the City accounts for more than half the crime, this graph reflects the actual trend. If anything, the real drop in NYC was greater than what the state data shows.)

This week I was reminded of those days when I would see shattered glass on the street – evidence of car break-ins. Last weekend, my son borrowed the car, and when he returned, he found a parking spot right across from Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” apartment building (see the map above). I didn’t need the car, so it wasn’t till Friday that I went to move it and discovered that he had left the passenger-side window half open.

Fearing the worst, I quickly checked the glove compartment. Everything was there – maps, cell phone charger. Ditto the trunk – beach chairs, bike rack. I sniffed the car for signs that a homeless person might have camped there, but no. In five days, the only intruders were a few leaves that had blown in.

Things change, and sometimes for the better.

As for Needle Park, this is what it looks like today.

* The park scene is shot 15 blocks uptown from his apartment, mostly because of the photogenic stone stairway down to the park.

What’s Up Doc? (or What’s Uptalk?)

November 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s up with Matthew Yglesias and uptalk?

On The Weeds, the new podcast from Vox, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff talk politics and policy for an hour or more. The talk is often informed by research and data even to the point of wonkitude (anyone for Consumer Price Index vs. Chained Consumer Price Index?). But what struck me on listening for the first time was not the content. It was Yglesias’s uptalk or upspeak. Here he is discussing gerrymandering and the drawing of Congressional district lines.

Because what the Democratic incumbents had been doing?
they’d been doubling down on safety for themselves?
and the independent commission forced the Democratic incumbents?
to take on districts that were a little bit riskier?
I mean still D-leaning?
because it’s California?
But so they picked seats up.
When I read the transcript by itself – no audio – I hear it without the rising inflections mid-sentence.

Here’s another example just few moments a later.


I mean, I think the Canadian case is interesting because one subtle psychological thing they do?
is the districts have to have names?
rather than numbers?
and so that that encourages, I think, subtly but really an idea of community coherence?
because you get districts with names like Edmonton Centre.

I think that what they do there
with that naming?
with that sort of principle? right
that the district should represent a place,
and the place should be something you can give a name to?
because it should have some kind of tangible relationship?
I think that lines up very well with the way most people think it should be done?
Y’know I think it’s like authentic to the values?
of the American people?
I also think it’s a little bit dumb?
because it allows for a ton of disproportionality?
And actually Canadian elections?
have awful disproportionality?
in part because they have multiple parties?
running in these seats?
Where did Yglesias acquire this inflection? Possibly it’s generational, and younger ears hear nothing noteworthy in Yglesias’s speech. Yglesias is under 40. I am well over 40. But the other two podcasters, Klein and Kliff, are younger than Yglesias but are not uptalkers. Or is it regional? I had thought that uptalk had started in California in the 1970s. But Yglesias grew up in New York city in the 1980s and has remained on the East Coast.

What is the meaning of these rising intonations? They don’t suggest uncertainty, nor do they seem to be asking “are you with me on this?” Some linguists see them as ways of saying, “I’m not finished with this sentence, so don’t interrupt me.” That’s one reason uptalk is more prevalent among women – they want to forestall interruptions from men. 

I’m not complaining (uptalk – not that there’s anything wrong with that). The time for handwringing over uptalk as the end of civilization as we know it has come and gone. I’m just curious as to why Ezra Klein, the Californian, speaks with barely a trace of uptalk, and Matthew Yglesias, the New Yorker, saturates his speech with it.