Sic Transit Gloria

February 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 1970, the day after National Guard troops killed four unarmed protesters at Kent State University, students at Southern Illinois University went to the local McDonald’s and demanded that the flag be lowered to half staff.  The franchise owner complied.

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s got wind of this and told the franchise owner to raise the flag back up to full staff. When he conplied, the students threatened to burn the place down.

The whipsawed franchise owner phoned McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner asking what to do. If Turner’s response isn’t part of the canon of management courses, it ought to be:  “The next delivery truck that arrives, have him back in to the flag pole and knock it down.” [Source.]

Lands’ End now finds itself in a similar position but with no flagpole and no trucks.

You may have noticed that the most recent Lands’ End catalogue looks different from the other 273 they’ve sent you this year. Lots of people in a tableau rather than close ups of one model in merch. And palm trees. Palm trees? From Wisconsin? The paper too is less slick, with more of a matte finish. But what has landed Lands’ End in hot water is the four-page interview with Gloria Steinem wearing Lands’ End gear.

(The text in the upper right begins, “Introducing the Legend Series, our ode to individuals who have made a difference . . . .”)

Lands’ End is in trouble – profits and sales way down – and the new CEO wanted to change the look of the catalogue if not the clothes. But that was the beginning of more trouble. First, conservatives got word of it and started criticizing Lands’ End for celebrating a woman who not only spoke out in favor of legalized abortion but who had actually had an abortion and said so.

Lands’ End responded:  “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”

Besides apologizing, they also wiped the Gloria material from their website. (So far, they haven’t yet asked me to return my catalogue, but who knows?)

Then the pro-Gloria forces took to Facebook and Twitter.

“I don’t intend to teach my children that anyone should do business with a company that is ashamed to even talk about feminism,”

The Washington Post says that Lands’ End, in its attempt to retroactively duck the issue, is tacking away from the trend. Companies, says WaPo, have now become “unapologetic in their stance on social issues.” Big companies –Target, Gap, Visa, Cheerios, etc. – have supported the Supreme Court decision on gay marraige or criticized Trump’s denigration of Latinos. Sears and Wal-Mart came out against the Confederate flag.

The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even if it meant alienating some customers. Lands’ End, it appears, may have a different mindset.

Is it Lands’ End not being as fearless as those other companies, or is it the issue? After the Charleston Church Massacre of June 2015, retreating from the Confederate flag became the majority view even in the South.

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

The trend on gay marriage has also made acceptance a safe bet.

But on abortion, the public is still split. and the issue is still salient.

Lands’ End was caught between equally strong opinions. Their dilemma on Gloria reflects their dilemma on clothing and clientele. Lands’ End wants to attract younger shoppers, who lean towards the pro-choice side, but not lose their older customers, who lean the opposite direction.
Here at the SocioBlog, we’re proud to show our colors – a bright orange Lands’ End sweater.

Donald’s Delegate Condition

February 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today carried this front page graph showing just how completely Donald Trump was routing the competition for the Republican presidential nomination. (I have re-created the page with the text blanked out so as to make the graph easier to see.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

I’m not sure what to make of this. Trump certainly has by far the greatest number of the 125 delegates now committed. But the Republican convention will have nearly 2500 delegates. When you plot the current delegate count against the number needed to win, Trump’s current lead looks a bit less overwhelming.

Trump no longer looks like the obvious winner.  His 64-delegate lead over Cruz and Rubio doesn't look so insurmountable.

Maybe the Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina do reflect the sentiments of their counterparts in the other 46 states. The prediction markets now (I’m writing this just before this evening’s debate) have Trump as a heavy favorite, more than two to one.

Maybe the crowd is truly wise. Or maybe, now is the time to short Trump and buy Rubio, hope that Tuesday’s primaries reduce the gap, and take your profits.

Oh, Those Hypersensitive Students

February 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Liberals, as Jonathan Haidt has documented, argue on the basis of only two principles or “moral foundations”: Hurt and Fairness. Conservatives add other bases for their positions: Loyalty (vs. betrayal), Authority (vs. subversion), and Sanctity (vs. degradation). Also Liberty, which Haidt later added to the original five. (A summary of Haidt's moral foundations is here:

So conservatives have lots of ways to justify what they want. If hurt and unfairness are not in plain sight, conservatives can fight against betrayal or subversion. But liberals, absent real hurt or unfairness, must have recourse to finding micro-hurts and micro-unfairness from micro-aggressions.

This week’s example comes from Georgetown law school (source: Inside Higher Ed).  Justice Scalia was an undergrad at Georgetown and made several visits to the law school. Shortly after Scalia’s death, a law professor (Prof. G___ , to use a 19th century construction) sent out an e-mail to students and faculty eulogizing Scalia – his jurisprudence, his wit, his writing, and his refusal to trim his sails to the winds of political correctness. Scalia, said Prof. G____, stood steadfast in putting Constitutional principles ahead of the particular interests of classes of people, classes based on race, gender, or economic standing.

Some other professors objected to this e-mail, not for its content but for its effect on students.

Some of them are twenty-two-year-olds, less than six months into their legal education. Leaders of the Black Students Association, the Latino Law Students League, and two women’s groups reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor G____’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for those who disagree with Scalia.  How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

I think most people would doubt that students at a top law school would be “traumatized” by a professor stating his views about Scalia. Are these ambitious 20-somethings such delicate flowers that they must be protected from legal positions they disagree with lest they be “traumatized, hurt, shaken”? If so, maybe they should choose a different profession. Lawyering ain’t beanbag. And must a law professor, in the interest of fairness, pretend that all opinions are equally valid?

Conservatives will probably tell these students to stop their whining and sniveling and to man up (or attorney up). Conservatives could also argue on the basis of Liberty. People, even professors, should be free to expound their opinions; nobody should censor them.

There’s nothing new here, except . . .

It was the other way round. I reversed the actual facts. The Georgetown law professor who sent the e-mail, Gary Peller, came to criticize Scalia not to praise him. The faculty who then accused Peller of traumatizing the students are Scalia supporters. The hothouse flowers in need of protection are the student conservatives and libertarians.  (“Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students.”)

When the claims of injury and intimidation on the one side and the accusations of hypersensitivity on the other are bouncing back and forth like this, it’s hard to tell the pot from the kettle.

Saoirse’s Choice

February 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a course I taught long ago, I would give students the set-up of a movie – act one – and ask them to write a plot summary of the rest of the film. When they had finished, I would tell them how the actual film went. It unfolded to something completely different from what they had thought up. That’s because it was French.

The students were very bad at thinking like a French cineaste, but they did a top-notch job of filling in the predictable character types and plot elements of American movies.

I remembered this after I saw “Brooklyn.” It’s certainly a pleasant hour and fifty minutes. The film is set in the early 1950s, but it cleaves so closely to America’s immigrant-story cliches that it could be taking place any time.  The trailer summarizes the story.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) must decide between two countries, Old Ireland and New America, and between two men, one in Enniscorthy, one in Brooklyn. In Ireland she lives in a small town and works for a particularly nasty shopowner, a snoop who uses her knowledge of everyone’s secrets as weapons. Eilis comes to America, an open land of opportunity where she works hard at her job and takes classes to improve her abilities. Predictably (i.e., just like in the movies) she keeps moving up.

The man she meets on her return trip to Ireland is at the top of the town’s social ladder. The man she meets in America is a working-class Italian, a plumber, but he has plans to start his own construction company (to build what we know will become the new suburbs). Like Eilis, Tony too is on the path to success.

In a post nine years ago (here) I speculated that all American movies, even romantic comedies, are really about achieving success. “Brooklyn” is firmly in that tradition. The movie presents both men as ideal, someone any girl would want to marry, and Saoirse Ronan is able to convince us that the choice is agonizing. But while Eilis may feel torn between the man who has already inherited a life of comfort and the man who is getting there through honest work, we in the audience, schooled on scores of American movies, know immediately who is preferable.

“Brooklyn” lays out its cards in such a familiar arrangement that the movie’s real achievement is in making us believe that the sides in this choice are nearly equal. It does that mostly with the pull of family obligations.  Eilis’s mother needs care, and now that Eilis’s sister has died, Eilis is the only family she has left. But that also means that an aging mother is the only family that Eilis herself has, her only real human bond to Ireland. Even if we weren’t Americans rooting for America, we know what the right choice is, and “Brooklyn” does not disappoint. To its credit, the movie avoids the impossibly perfect solution, the “Hollywood ending,” which might have been for Eilis to bring her mother to America to live happily ever after.

On the podcast “Culture Gabfest,” Julia Turner comments that “Brooklyn” could almost be a silent movie. This is said in praise of Saoirse Ronan’s acting – her face tells so much. But it could be a silent movie also because the plot and characters are so familiar – the spiteful shopowner, the kindly priest, the Italian family – that the dialogue doesn’t add anything to our understanding of them.

That said, the film is very good for what it is. It looks terrific, the story is well told, and Saoirse Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination. But “Brooklyn” is the movie equivalent of comfort food – familiar, pleasant, and easy to digest.

Polish Joke

February 16, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I am not all familiar with Freeman beauty products, but I am somewhat familiar with the French language. So I wonder: how did this happen? (Note the English and French lines below “Goyave.”)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The translation gaffe was soon corrected (I assume that the Salt Scrub on the right is the later version*). But how could polishes ever become les polonais (Polish people)?

Google Translate had no problem with it, though it preferred softening the skin to smoothing out the wrinkles.

The linguists at Language Log haven’t checked in on this one, and until they do here’s my guess: Freeman is a privately held company. I imagine it as a family operation – a mom-and-pop beauty products company. Old Mr. Freeman, the founder, ponders the new product, and says, referring to his grandson, “Little Ryan is taking French – they start ’em in fourth grade nowadays – let’s give him a shot at this one.” So Ryan, a not-so-adept student in Beginning French, looks up polish and finds le polonais, pl. les polonais.

My keen-eyed colleague Lois Oppenheim points out that in the somewhat-corrected version the accent on protége [sic] is aigu when it should be grave.

Hat Tip: Polly-vous Français

Margin of Error – Mostly Error

February 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s the sort of social “science” I’d expect from Fox, not Vox. But today, Valentine’s Day, Vox (here) posted this map purporting to show the average amount people in each state spent on Valentine’s Day.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“What’s with North Dakota spending $108 on average, but South Dakota spending just $36?” asks Vox. The answer is almost surely: Error.

The sample size was 3,121. If they sampled each state in its proportion of the US population, the sample in the each Dakota would be about n = 80 n = 8. The source of the data, Finder, does not report any margins of error or standard deviations, so we can’t know. Possibly, a couple of guys in North Dakota who’d saved their oil-boom money and spent it on chocolates are responsible for that average. Idaho, Nevada, and Kansas – the only other states over the $100 mark – are also small-n. So are the states at the other other end, the supposedly low-spending states (SD, WY, VT, NH, ME, etc.). So we can’t trust these numbers.

The sample in the states with large populations (NY, CA, TX, etc.) might have been as high as 300-400, possibly enough to make legitimate comparisons, but the differences among them are small – less than $20.

My consultant on this matter, Dan Cassino (he does a lot of serious polling), confirmed my own suspicions. “The study is complete bullshit.”

UPDATE February 24, 2016: Andrew Gelman (here) downloaded the data did a far more thorough analysis, estimating the variation for each state. His graph of the states shows that even between the state with the highest mean and the state with the lowest, the uncertainty is too great to allow for any conclusions: “Soooo . . . we got nuthin’.”

Andrew explains why it’s worthwhile to do a serious analysis even on frivolous data like this Valentine-spending survey. He also corrects my order-of-magnitude overestimation of the North Dakota sample size. 

More Good News About Kids

February 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five weeks ago I asked

When’s the last time you read an op-ed or magazine article that began, “Kids today are just so much better than kids of a generation or two ago.” 
That post (here) had some data showing that in crime, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, and other categories, today’s youth were doing much better than their counterparts of earlier generations.
Now, the answer to that question (“When was the last time you read . . ?) is “Today.”

Today, Vox has an article called “Today’s Teens Are Better Than You, and We Can Prove It” (here). It has data on the variables I mentioned plus meth and other drugs, carrying guns to school, fighting, and other things most of us are glad to see less of. There’s even an interactive function where you can compare kids today against your own cohort – if you are under 45.

The article begins, “The kids are all right,” an obvious line that I had to try very hard to avoid in my post. But take a look at the data.

The article makes no attempt to pinpoint the causes of these changes, so feel free to attribute the good news to whatever factors you favor.

Fairway Farewell?

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Update: Three months ago, I blogged (here) about Fairway, a New York food market. Things had not been going well for Fairway since its buyout by a private equity firm, and especially since the IPO in 2013. “That’s private equity for you,” said one of their former managers.

Now Fairway is looking at bankruptcy. The New York Post reports that Fairway has lost over $300 million in the last five years. The Wall Street Journal  says, “Fairway—a high-end chain with 15 stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut—said that there is substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

Auteur, Schmauteur

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar.  With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity.  With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.

That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown (here) of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.

Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”

But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.

My students, I discovered last week,  harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about other hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.

Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”

That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films—when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don't think about the director's personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.

“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”

It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.

Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films have the similarity and predicatability of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or all Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.

(Big hat tip to Mark at West Coast Stat Views.)

What Are the Odds?

February 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’d just picked this book from off the shelf – the “New Books” shelf, though I could see it was a paperback so not entirely new.

The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles,
and Rare Events Happen Every Day
by David J. Hand

I read the intro chapter, put it down, intending to get back to it some time. A few days later, at the library for the performing arts at Lincoln Center I saw the posters from their latest show – an exhibit about the plays of Shakespeare. They’d asked a lot of people in the theater – musicians, writers, actors, set designers – to talk about their loves and their dislikes: which characters, which plays, which lines, which scenes.

Jane Alexander, often overlooked but one of our truly great actresses, had this to say about her line in “As You Like It” as Rosalind in drag.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Every night when Orlando had left the stage and I turned to Celia and swooned, “O coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love,” the four hundred years that separated Elizabethan England and me simply vanished.

It is indeed a time-transcendant line. But Shakespeare has many, many more, and alas, I know so few, so I moved on to see what other people had to say. There were perhaps a dozen on display. Several didn’t quote lines. Instead they’d note a scene, a character, or cherished production. Alan Cumming hated “Timon” but loved Miranda played by Felicity Jones to Helen Mirren’s Prospera (renamed).

Cumming’s not Alexander, and I’m sure  he’s never been a Rosalind, and yet of all the lines in all the plays in all of Shakespeare, what line did he choose? From “As You Like It,” “pretty little coz.”

I still can’t help but ask, what are the odds?

Cruz-Jews News

February 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Ted Cruz says “New York,” does he really mean “Jewish”?

In a Republican debate in Iowa, Maria Bartiromo asked Ted Cruz what he meant when he referred to Donald Trump’s “New York Values.” My response (the blog post is here) was the same as Toby’s on “The West Wing” when a conservative professional Christian balks at Josh’s “New York sense of humor”: he means Jewish.

Not everyone agreed, maintaining the we should take Cruz’s remarks at face value, and that any dog-whistle overtones about Jews were in the ears of the listeners. Now Cruz himself has pretty much cleared up the question of whether he was equating “New York” with all things Jewish.  He was responding to the accusation from Trump and others that he and his wife had borrowed money from Goldman Sachs, where Mrs. Cruz works – an arrangement that puts at least a small question mark on Cruz’s claims to being a stalwart battler against Wall Street.

Dana Milbank in the Washington Post reports:

Cruz, asserting that Trump had “upward of $480 million of loans from giant Wall Street banks,” said: “For him to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah.” Cruz, pausing for laughter after the phrase “New York term,” exaggerated the guttural “ch” to more laughter and applause.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word. It is “a New York term” only if you equate New York with Jewish. New York sense of humor, New York values, New York phrases.

So we can put to rest the debate about whether in the mind and speech of Sen. Cruz, New York is conflated with Jewish.  Thanks to the senator for settling the question.

Pittsburgh Hip

February 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A friend/colleague/co-commuter sent a link to this article.

I especially appreciated the gesture since the dude is a diehard fan of all things Seattle (we commiserated about playoff defeats). Although the article was at a Pittsburgh booster Website , the original source was ThrillList, which ranked Pittsburgh in “The next Portland: 8 Cities All the Cool Kids Are Moving To.” The list includes Missoula, Louisville, Boise, etc. ThrillList, after a shoutout to Pittsburgh’s “several expert-vetted breweries” and “superior cocktail bars,” had this to say about my home town.

There is a fake robot repair shop inside the airport, which is a totally, totally reasonable thing to have in an airport, and if you’re after artisan stuff, Handmade Arcade  – “Pittsburgh's first and largest independent craft fair”  – will have all of the trinkets and tchotchkes you definitely don’t need.

I would think that a healthy economy must be prerequisite for hipness. Not that prosperity is any guarantee. Back when Pittsburgh had steel, and the mills were glowing night and day, the city was economically healthy but hardly hip. Now the mills are malls, and the main employer (and owner of real estate) seems to be UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Yes, if your tastes don’t run to craft beer, you can still get Iron City – “a bottle of iron” (pronounced “ahrn”) is what you ask for – and you can wave your terrible towel for the Steelers. But absent tradition and trademarks, the local beer would be a bottle of Imaging, and Mike Tomlin would be coaching the Medics.*

Has Pittsburgh really improved? Brookings has a nifty interactive site that ranks the largest 100 cities on three dimensions
  • Growth (Jobs, GMP (gross metro product), total wages)
  • Prosperity (GMP per job, GMP per capita, average wages)
  • Inclusion (median wage, poverty relative to median wage, employment/population ratio)
Here’s how the former Steel City has changed in the last decade.

It comes off much better in the rankings than do Boise and Louisville.

The Brookings app and data are here. You can check out the other “hipster cities” – Salt Lake (who knew?), Asheville, the other Portland – or your own home town, hip or not.

* According to Wikipedia, Pittsburgh also has “established itself as a technology hub.” And here’s a personal note about that not-always-perfect transition. My father was in the steel business in the good years – the 40s and 50s. In the early 60s, a friend, an engineer at Westinghouse, was quitting the big company, taking a couple of other impatient engineers with him, and forming what we now call a tech start-up, an electronics company, Milletron. My father was persuaded to cash in his steel business and join. He would handle the non-tech business side of things.

The Regional Industrial Development Corporation had recently been formed by private interests who could see the handwriting on the steel-mill walls and wanted to push the local economy towards diversity and modernity. The RIDC provided some financing and helped them secure loans. The company struggled along. The contracts they got never quite paid all the bills, and they had other projects that required a little more time and a little more cash. After  three or four years, the RIDC finally pulled the plug. Milletron was no more. And my father, once well off, was more or less broke. “You lost a lot of money?” I asked him once, a few years later. “Yeah, he said, but the banks lost a lot more.”