Tomie de Paola, 1934 - 2020. The Art Lesson

March 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I heard Tomie da Paola l speak one summer at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod. 

“Who here knows how to draw?” he asked. A few people raised their hands — there’s no dearth of artists on the Cape in the summer — but most of us didn’t. “If you ask that question to a bunch of five-year olds, they all raise their hands,” he said.

His point was not, of course, that as we grow older we lose our ability to draw. What we lose is the ability to find joy in drawing.

That evening in the library, it was obvious from the man himself, even you didn’t know that he had drawn/written hundreds of books, that he never lost that joy.

Distance Norms – Feeling the Breach

March 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Public life has suddenly become an exercise in “breaching”*  — the breaking of norms.

What makes norms so powerful is that we usually don’t realize that they are there, constraining our behavior. A norm doesn’t become visible until someone breaks it.

In the lecture on norms, I always included Edward T. Hall’s observations about interpersonal distance. If we do not follow the norms, distance may be more important than the actual words we speak.
The flow and shift of distance between people as they interact with each other is part and parcel of the conversation process. The normal conversational distance between strangers illustrates how important are the dynamics of space interaction. If a person gets too close, the reaction is instantaneous and automatic – the other person backs up. And if he gets too close again, back we go again. I have observed an American backing up the entire length of a corridor while a foreigner whom he considers pushy tries to catch up with him.

It’s commonplace now, but in 1959, when Hall published The Silent Language, it was one of those facts that had been hiding in plain sight. But even now that we know, we usually remain unaware how these norms are an unseen and unheard theater director telling us actors to hit our marks. I’m not following rules, I think; I’m just acting naturally.

Lately, I’ve gotten a more visceral understanding of conversational distance.  It’s one thing to read about it and understand in an intellectual, cognitive way. Or even to have students in class stand up, face one another, and move closer and farther apart to see what feels comfortable and uncomfortable.  It’s quite another thing, and the understanding of the norm gets much more meaningful, when you run into people you know and have a brief conversation standing five or six feet away from them. You can hear each other, but it just feels, well, distant.

* Some instructors assign students to do a breaching exercise. I am skeptical of these assignments for reasons outlined here and here.

Sampling — the General Idea

March 17, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Need a current example for the unit on sampling, day one? Read on.

Today, NPR tweeted the results of a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll on perceptions of the coronavirus.
“This survey of 835 adults was conducted Friday and Saturday using live telephone callers via landline and cellphone. It has a margin of error of +/- 4.8 percentage points.”
It found that since last month, the percent of Americans who thought that the virus was a “real threat” had fallen from 66% to 56%, barely more than half. The decline was especially steep among Republicans – from 72% to 40%

Most of the Twitter comments critical of the NPR tweet were political, echoing Trump’s “media hoax” claims of last week. But one of them was methodological.  

(I wouldn't trust this poll.
Looking at the methods used it isn't like they
 asked the same 835 adults for the poll that 
they asked last month. Not terribly reliable.)

Yes, asking the question of the same sample would be ideal. But is it really necessary?

Apparently, the concept of “representative sample” is not intuitively obvious. My favorite illustration is the army general in the Pentagon who was presented with the results of a survey and informed that these were based on the responses of 1500 soldiers. He was incredulous. After all, there were 300,000 in uniform. How could this sociologist know what they were thinking and doing by asking not even one percent?

“How many should we survey?” asked the sociologist.

“You gotta ask ’em all.”

The conversation then proceeded something like this:

“General, do you ever go to the doctor for a physical?”

“Yep, every year.”

“And to find out your cholesterol levels and other things, does he take blood?”


“Well, how much of your blood does he take?”

“You know, just that little tube, maybe an ounce or two?”

“So, do you tell him that if he really wants to know the percent of cholesterol in your blood, he’s going to have to take more than that little tube; he’s going to have to take it all?”

I remembered this anecdote from a small book on sampling that some publisher sent decades ago. I can’t recall the author’s name, and I may have gotten some of the details wrong. Nor do I remember if he said what the general’s response was. My guess is that the general sort of got the idea of sampling but still suspected that there was something fishy about it.

The Scrolls, One More Time

March 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a distraction from COVID-19, the Museum of the Bible had an important announcement.

The museum said in part, “Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments." [USA Today.]

I know that I shouldn’t be citing Woody Allen these days. Plus, I used this same excerpt from his essay “The Scrolls” not so long ago. But with life so brazenly imitating art, I felt compelled.

Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing . . . .

The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.

Blaming the Coach, Ignoring the Context

March 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a Times op-ed today about kids and sports. “Your Kids’ Coach Is Probably Doing It Wrong,” by Jennifer Eitner (here).

Usually, these hand-wringing articles point their finger at parents. This time, it’s the coaches. Either way, this approach makes the mistake of focusing on individuals and ignoring the larger social context. For me, it was sort of a flashback to the early months of this blog, when I wrote about the same problem.

Seventy percent of kids drop out of youth sports by the time they are thirteen. And  according to Etnier, one of the most important reasons is the kind of coaching they get. “Coaches are doing it wrong.”

The problem of course is that “These inexperienced coaches often focus on winning rather than learning and development.”  A 1993 survey found that “a lack of fun, negative coach behaviors and an overemphasis on winning were among the top reasons children drop out of sports. [emphasis added]”

That may be true, but when a behavior is so widespread, maybe we should look for explanations outside of the individuals, in the structures —  the rules of the game —  that shape the situations that coaches and kids find themselves in. And if we are trying to change that behavior, if we want to keep kids from quitting sports, we’ll have more success by changing those external structures than by exhorting the individuals to think and act differently.

One of the great insights of sociology is that thinking and doing are not purely  individual matters. Thoughts — thoughts like the emphasis on winning — aren’t just inside people’s heads. They are also part of the situation. How that situation is structured makes a big difference in how the coaches and kids think and act. That structure, the one that Eitner is worried about, is organized sports. In unorganized sports — pick-up games at the playground — there are no coaches. Also no practices, no uniforms identifying permanent teams, no won-lost records or individual statistics, no traveling teams, no playoffs, no trophies. Given that structure, it’s hard to overemphasize winning since the final score of the game ceases to exist once the game is over.

Yes, coaches may stress winning above anything else, but it’s not because all these coaches are single-minded competition-freaks. It’s because the whole system pushes them to think that way. As I said thirteen years ago (here* and here), the way we organize something carries its own logic, and that logic often overwhelms our best personal intentions.

I’m reminded of a line from the British movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” based on the Jeanette Winterson novel. The protagonist, a young schoolgirl, has just done badly in some school competition (not sports), and a grown-up tries to console her: “Winning isn’t the important thing.”

“Then why is that what they give the prizes for?” asks the girl.

You may want the kids to have fun. You may tell them that the whole point of the game is to have fun.  But if you structure kids’ play as a formal competition, with teams and leagues and won-lost records, the message is clear: it’s all about winning. It’s as though parents had organized a military marching band for their musically inclined children, with uniforms and practices and every note written out, and then wondered why their kids weren’t jamming on the blues.


* Here is a long excerpt from that post. It’s a good example of how external contexts make some ideas unthinkable.

I happened to be in a park where a girls’ soccer match was just getting started. The girls looked to be about six or seven years old, incredibly cute, one team in shiny pink shirts, the other in blue. It was a scene you could easily imagine parents taking pictures of. But as it turned out, it wasn’t much of a match. The blue team had a couple of really good players, and the game was never close. The pink team would put the ball in play, but after a few seconds the blue team would get it, and one of the good players would take the ball downfield and kick a goal. 

After a few such scores, the girls in pink were becoming demoralized, and even the girls in blue didn’t seem very excited or happy. The coach of the blue team even benched one of the good players to try to even things up. It didn’t help. Mercifully, six-year-olds don’t play long matches, and the whole dismal thing was over in twenty minutes or so. 

What was wrong with this picture? For the purpose of making it easier for girls to play soccer, parents had organized a league with teams and uniforms and scheduled matches. But today, it wasn’t working very well. How might they have had a good match? 

In other circumstances, the solution would be so obvious that even six-year-olds could think of it: have one or two of the good Blue players switch sides with some of the weaker Pink players. But I doubt that this thought occurred to any of these intelligent and very well educated parents. 

Even if some of the soccer moms or dads had thought of it, what could they have done? The uniforms, the necessity of keeping won-lost records, and everything else based on the idea of permanent teams in an organized league make that solution all but impossible.

Pitchforks and Velvet Ropes

March 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“To: My Fellow Zillionaires.” So begins Nick Hannauer’s “memo” (a magazine article really)  “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats.” (His TED talk along similar lines is here.) 

Hannauer’s vision of angry peasants is a rustic and old-fashioned version of Nelson Schwartz’s more urban and up-to-date metaphor “the velvet rope economy.” (See the previous post.)

In this model, as the very rich pull away from the rest of the society economically and socially, those who are not wealthy will become increasingly resentful and moved to collective action. In politics, says Schwartz, the resentment rises on both sides of the political divide. “President Trump regularly inveighs against the elite,” and Bernie never fails to point his finger at “millionaires and billionaires.”

The only trouble with this is that the only elite Trump attacks is the mainstream media. His other targets and those denounced by his followers are not wealthy or elite. They are long-term government employees, immigrants, the undeserving poor, and generally anybody who disagrees with him. As for Sanders, if the Bernie bros and other youth were so angry, their turnout on Super Tuesday would not have been so disappointing.

The only systematic evidence Schwartz offers is a single study about the two-caste microcosmic society of the airplane.

When passengers boarded at the front of the aircraft and had to walk through the premium cabin to get to coach, the odds of an outburst in economy doubled. Nor was the anger limited to the back of the plane. On those flights where coach passengers traipsed their way through first class upon boarding, unruly behavior among elite passengers was nearly 12 times as likely.

That study understandably got much attention in the media when it was published, but as Andrew Gelman has pointed out, the study has serious methodological flaws. Worse, the authors would not make their data public so that others might re-analyze it. (See Gelman’s post and the comments here ).

Even at face value, these results don’t paint a picture of pitchforks. The passengers in economy got rowdy with one another or with the flight attendants, as did the high flyers. In fact, we Americans generally do not begrudge the very wealthy their huge fortunes. Nor do we often criticize what they do with all that money. If they want to gobble up sports franchises and get the best players that money can buy, more power to them. Boston fans of a while ago might have booed the Yankees, but they never booed Steinbrenner (“the Boss”). You wouldn’t go to the stadium and see a banner like this.

Dietmar Hopp, software billionare (SAP), owns the Hoffenheim team and has been spending carloads of euros to raise the standing of his team, much to the distaste of Bayern Munich fans. (The banner says in part “Hopp Is Still a Son of a Whore.”) It’s not just Bayern Munich. Hopp is generally despised. There were similar protests at Bayern matches in other cities. It gets complicated because the players on the pitch at this match then protested against the fans, spending the final 10 minutes of the match playing keepy-uppy at midfield. (I cannot figure out how to embed the video, but you can see it here.)

That’s Germany. In the US, wealth inequality is far greater and has been increasing more rapidly. But pitchfork sales remain flat.

The Rich Are Different from You and Me. But Are They a Caste?

March 4, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Online, the title of the Nelson Schwartz’s New York Times article (here) was “When It’s This Easy at the Top, It’s Harder for Everyone Else.” But in the print version of last Sunday’s Business section, it was “Is American on the Way to a Caste System?”

I remembered Bettridge’s law:
When the title of an article is a question,
a. the author thinks the answer is Yes, and

b. the better answer is probably No
  (Previous examples are here and here.)

Schwartz has been checking out the luxuries that money, a lot of money, can buy. He wrote a book called The Velvet Rope Economy.  But what troubles him is not just the expensive toys that the only the very rich can afford. That’s nothing new. But . . .

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.[emphasis added.]

Yes, the wealthy are getting farther and farther removed from the rest of us. We do not share the same space — economically and socially, even physically. They are in their skyboxes and private jets, or at the new private terminal ($4500 per year plus $3000 per flight) at LAX.

But are we “morphing into a caste system”? Caste systems have more than two castes; it’s not just the 1% or 0.1% and everybody else. Also, castes are rigid and hereditary. You remain a member of the caste you were born into for your entire life. So do your children. No doubt wealth in the US is hereditary and usually permanent, but not in the same way. The superwealthy do everything they can to make sure that they and their children remain at the top. But it is not guaranteed, and newcomers from the other side of the velvet rope regularly arrive.  As for the rest of us on the other side of the velvet rope, economic boundaries are fuzzy. Even sociologists cannot agree on the categories and criteria for social class.

Schwartz sees other consequences of inequality, like “shabbier services” for the non-wealthy. As the quote in the box shows, he conflates this with caste, but they are not the same and not necessarily connected. Are goods and services a zero-sum game, where the more the rich win, the more the rest of us lose? Or do we all wind up with better stuff — cell phones and 50" flatscreen TVs that only a few years earlier only the wealthy could afford? That’s an economic debate I’ll sidestep here.

As for the psychological and societal consequence Schwartz sees — anger, resentment, and the withering of social cohesion, I’ll leave that for another post.